Graine a Voler – American Lotus

American-Lotus-scape

Skim across the surface of the warm, fecund waters of the shallow marshes of South Louisiana in midsummer and behold the gift of a floating field of the largest flowering plant in the state. The wind whips the giant leaves, some as broad as two feet across, making them appear to take wing. Their pale yellow flowers balance atop spindly stems that look like they might break at any moment. In the center of the flower, bright yellow seed pods jut out like shower heads. These aquatic plants are so utterly attractive, the eye hardly knows which part to take in first.  I’m talking about the American Lotus, or what the native people and Cajuns call “graine à voler” (grahn-ah-vo-lay).

Often, the dark green floating leaves of the American Lotus are mistakenly called lily pads.  While they are related to water lilies, the leaves of the lotus do not have a slit like those of the common lily pad. The uniquely waxy surface of the lotus leaf allows rainwater to run over the leaf, settling in the center like a natural bird bath or watering hole.  Some fishermen claim that these clear reservoirs of rainwater provide sweet, thirst-quenching water during dog-days-of-summer fishing trips.

Almost the entire plant is edible, making it easy to understand why this aquatic was once a staple food for Native Americans from Florida to the Carolinas. The giant, mature leaves were used to wrap around foods for baking, while the young, unfurled leaves were chopped and cooked like spinach. When peeled, the long, slender stems can also be chopped and eaten. The sweet-tasting roots, or rhizomes, which may grow as large as your forearm, are also tasty. The young roots can be eaten raw or chopped and eaten like salad, while the older roots can be sliced and stir-fried or baked, tasting somewhat like a sweet potato when prepared this way. The roots can also be dried and ground into flour, a staple use of the plant by Native Americans. Even the stamens and flowers were used, the former dried and used to make a fragrant tea, the latter dried for use in cooking.   

It is a shame that these gorgeous flowers only bloom for two days, after which the petals fall off, signaling the maturation of the seed pod indicated by a progression of colors from yellow to bright green to brown. Before it gets to that point, however, these pods perform an amazing act of procreation. The long stems bend over the water, as though allowing the mature seed pods to take a drink, but instead of drinking, the pods offer the small, black seeds tucked inside their pockets to the water, an annual sacrifice to assure that their lotus offspring continue year after year. The dark brown, dried-out pods eventually retract, ejecting their seeds into the water where they fall to the bottom and germinate over time. This act of ejecting the seeds warrants the French name “graine à voler,” literally “seeds that fly.”

Lest you think you’ve never seen a lotus pod, think again. My guess is that you have seen the seed pods, without even realizing it, as ornamental additions to flower bouquets designed by your local florist. And florists aren’t the only locals placing a demand on the useful plants. Residents across South Louisiana freshwater marshes anxiously await August and September, when they can collect the ripe seed pods. The pods are easily harvested by taking hold of one, bending it over, and snapping it off the stem. These folks aren’t looking to enhance any flower arrangements, however; they are gathering the pods in order to harvest the seeds contained within.

Some eat the seeds raw, saying they resemble the flavor of peanuts; the seeds have thus earned the nickname “Cajun peanuts.” Most folks prefer them boiled in seasoned, salted water. To eat, first remove the outer shell after boiling. There is even a recipe for cooking them into a hearty stew served over rice. With about twenty seeds to a pod and as many as eight thousand long-stem flowers per acre—and unlike many aspects of South Louisiana culture—this plant isn’t likely to be endangered any time soon.

If you haven’t taken a boat ride through any of Louisiana’s freshwater marshes, graced with acres and acres of these beautiful, edible, and decorative aquatic plants, then what are you waiting for? There’s no better time than the months of August and September to try eating some of those flying seeds. And a word to the wise: those dark brown pods in your flower arrangement are way too bitter to eat. Just admire them while you boil up a pot of your own Cajun peanuts!

A recipe for graine à voler stew can be found here: jacksonville.com/entertainment/food-and-dining/recipe/graine-voler-stew.

(This article originally appeared in Country Roads Magazine and is re-posted here by agreement.)

It’s very hot and humid,
as is normal for July, 
Yet we continually complain
totally in vain!!!

Stay cool, my friends!

BW

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Comments

Graine a Voler – American Lotus — 14 Comments

  1. So this, o’ course, begs the question: how many ways have ye had the family eat these? A remarkable plant – nature providing another perfect edible & medicine. It’s said the leaves make a good poultice when pounded into a pulp that may relieve arthritic pain – and the leaves and flowers mixed together may have anti-bacterial properties. The water repellent nature o’ the leaves is actually being studied using nanotechnology to try and replicate it’s properties for things like watercraft coatings! The roots make a tasty paste when crushed and mixed with a sweetener – the same as it’s Chinese cousin where it is very popular in sweet snacks!
    Just don’t try this in Connecticut – it’s considered such an invasive species there, it’s seeds are illegal!

    • Thanks for sharing more interesting facts about this versatile aquatic (but you do realize this was a “paid” piece for a magazine limited to 800 words!) I had to pick and choose what to highlight about this amazing plant!!!

    • Part of my goal was to dispel the myth that these are non-native nuisances like the water hyacinth, and to clear up any confusion. Of course, in their natural habitat, they may be a nuisance to some folks when they are thick and that person wants to fly through in an outboard. Sorry about their luck!! But they are so pretty and versatile, that I just don’t see the need to spray them and eradicate them like other aquatic nuisances!

  2. A very interesting article! I did not know you could eat the seeds. After reading the article I wondered about the medicinal qualities of the plant – so thank you Capt. Swallow for your information! The pictures are lovely. I love the one of the water pooling on the leaves.

    • I knew you would like that. As I replied to the good captain, this piece was limited to 800 words, and that’s hard to do when there’s just so much to say about such a useful plant!!

  3. someone a couple years ago was looking for a plant by that name for a treateaur to use in treating cancer. Hmm. with all the cancer today, maybe we should all start eating them. I think she used the seeds. my friend that inquired passed away so I can’t get anymore info. thanks for all your posts. love them.

    • I can always access some of these, Mrs. Brunella, if you hear of a need again. It’s a 30 minute boat ride for me, but I don’t mind doing that!!

  4. Do they sell parts of the plant? I wouldn’t mind using it especially if it helps different health issues.
    If it would help keep mom from falling, I would happily drive all the way down and back to harvest a car load! Just got home from 8 hours at ER with her again.

    • Sorry to hear about your mom. No, sorry Cammy, they do not. I feel for you having to watch out after her when she continues to be so active. I know in my mind I can jump a ditch, but my body says, “Are you CRAZY?” and if I don’t listen to the body, I end up hurting myself. As the kids say, it sucks getting old! I did, however, receive an unexpected gift when I went to renew my fishing and hunting licenses this year . . . only $5 because I reached that magic age, I guess! Some perks of getting older . . . bittersweet, though. Hang in there, my friend, hang in there. BW

  5. Such a wonderful post. It’s only been in the past year or two that I realized what those dried pods were. Some I’ve seen still have the seeds — they’re such cool little (big) plants. They are found at the Wildlife Refuge in Anahuac. I saw them there for the first time, and did indeed think they were water lilies. There are some delightful photos of the purple gallinule walking across them.

    I can’t imagine seeing so many, though. Only a half hour from you? Hmmmmm…. Maybe if I’m a really good girl, and get my work done, I could find someone to take me to see them!

    • Hmmmmm . . . . I bet you could! But it has to be the right time of year or you only see the pads (leaves). July, August, September, and then that’s it!

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