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The flower of American lotus is fragrant, yellow-white, and can be as large as 10 inches across. Photo by Steve Fung.

Nelumbo lutea flower bud with leaf behind floating on water.

The leaves of American lotus often stand above the water and are round and very large.

By Joseph Mooney
This week’s plant is American lotus, Nelumbo lutea.
American lotus: once you’ve seen it—if you’re lucky enough to see it—you will never forget Nelumbo lutea. The University of Florida Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants calls it “grandiose,” but that word suggests a kind of pretension. This native beauty need not pretend to be anything—because it is a spectacular plant from root to seed.
American lotus is hardy in zones 4-10 and is found in eastern North America from Ontario west to Minnesota and south to Florida and Texas as well as Mexico and Central America. It’s the only lotus native to the United States and one of only two lotuses in the Nelumbo genus, the other being N. nucifera venerated by Buddhists and Hindus and native to warm-temperate and tropical Asia.
American lotus grows in lake edges, ponds, or streams with slow-moving water. Given the right conditions, N. lutea can even spread somewhat aggressively by rhizomes that grow in the mud.

An entire “field” of American lotus in bloom is an impressive sight. Photo by Lars Miller.

The dried seed pods of American lotus are frequently found in floral arrangements and for sale in florists and grocery stores. Photo by Melissa McMasters

In southern Michigan, American lotus blooms around mid- to late-August. Photo by Allen Gathman.

The still-green seed pod of American lotus. Photo by DCpages.com.

The plant’s first leaves look like lily pads and float on the surface of the water. These are followed by round, waxy leaves that may be 2-3 feet wide and peltate, or attached to the leaf stalk in the middle of the leaf.
The stunning flowers of American lotus get most of the attention. The 6-10-inch yellow-white fragrant blossoms stand several feet above the leaves, opening in the morning and closing in the evening for about three days.
The spent flowers give way to a distinctive cone-shaped seed pod that dries to a nutty brown. You might have seen these pods in the grocery store or florist without knowing what they were.
Much of the plant is edible—including the flowers, leaves, seeds, and tuberous roots—and was used as food by many Native American tribes.
Michigan Natural Features Inventory lists the American lotus’ state status as threatened and therefore legally protected. It has been observed in 10 Michigan counties, six in south and southeastern Michigan.
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