Friday, August 17, 2012

Water-lilies

Claude Monet liked water-lilies, and painted them with a fierce passion. It isn't hard to understand why the French impressionist artist became smitten with these plants. Water-lilies embody many of the best traits of nature: the calming influence of quiet waters, large showy blossoms, often colorful, and big leaves of interesting architecture.

I've been looking at water-lilies a lot this summer, having spent much time wading about in wetlands where they grow. There are four and a half native species in Ohio, and the one above is by far the rarest. It is the state-endangered bullhead-lily, Nuphar lutea ssp. variegata. Bullhead-lily is a northerner, barely reaching as far south as Ohio. Small populations occur in the western Lake Erie marshes, including the fabled Magee Marsh. I made this image in northern Michigan, where it is the dominant water-lily.

This is our smallest water-lily, the water-shield, Brasenia schreberi. Its little oval leaves tend to form dense carpets in quiet ponds and lakes. The tiny maroon flowers are held several inches above the water, and are easily overlooked. I've seen the blossoms a number of times, but have never photographed them. Of all the plant specimens that I've made - probably 9,000 or so - water-shield was the hardest species to make a good specimen of. Its leaves are coated with a gelatinous slime on the undersides, and when pressed and dried it fuses with whatever substrate you are pressing the plant against.

This is perhaps our most common water-lily, spatterdock, Nuphar lutea ssp. advena. It and the endangered bullhead-lily were once considered separate species - perhaps they still should be - so I am giving them status as one and a half species. I apologize for the rather poor photo; this is one of those common things that I've apparently never gotten around to doing justice to with the camera.

I once saw a Purple Gallinule working its way through a bed of spatterdock, going from flower to flower and shredding each one as it sought pollinating insects. There is also a beautiful mosaic darner dragonfly, the spatterdock darner, Rhionaeschna mutata, that frequents spatterdock stands.

Arguably the most beautiful of these plants is the fragrant water-lily, Nymphaea odorata. It is conspicuous and easily recognized by the large white floating blossoms, and circular floating leaves that appear to have a pie-shaped chunk cut from them. This species can form large floating stands, and is very important in the aquatic ecology of the lakes and wetlands where it grows. The large leaves shade and cool the water, and provide shelter for fish and other aquatic organisms. Many insects visit the flowers for nectar, which in turn attracts predators higher on the food chain. The leaves are the classic "lilypads" and provide resting spots and hunting perches for amphibians and insects. In fact, one of our rarest damselflies, the lilypad forktail, Ischnura kellicotti, is tightly tied to beds of fragrant water-lily.

A gorgeous flower indeed, but it's certainly no lily! Dicotyledonous "water-lilies" are not even closely related to true lilies, which are monocots. Hence the hyphen, which denotes that "lily" is but a modifier and the plants are not lilies at all. Water-lilies are closely related to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), as can be seen by the numerous petals and stamens.

This is easily our most robust water-lily, the American lotus, Nelumbo lutea. Visitors to Lake Erie are sure to notice this plant, as it often forms massive colonies in the backwaters. The huge umbrellalike leaves are held aloft on sturdy pedicels which attach to the leaf in the center. Such a leaf-petiole arrangement is termed peltate. Excepting perhaps two species of our magnolias, lotus flowers are probably the largest wildflower in the state.

The fruiting heads are indeed curious in appearance, and resemble showerheads. The hefty seeds resemble acorns and each is nestled in its own chamber. These seeds are extreme seedbankers, and can probably lie dormant but viable in the mire for decades, perhaps centuries. Viable seeds of a closely related species, the sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, have been dug from the muck of wetlands and carbon-dated at over 1,000 years old.

American lotus populations have exploded in size along Lake Erie over the past 15-20 years. It may be that long dormant seeds were triggered to germinate by increasingly favorable water levels or other environmental factors. The lotus plants that we see growing in luxuriance today may be the spawn of seeds that were shed before you were born.

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3 comments:

Lori Sorth said...

Gorgeous plants! You write a wonderful, inspiring, Ohio-saluting blog. I really enjoy reading it. Thanks!

Brent C. Kryda said...

Nice first photograph up there! I was fooled until I took a second look, which was really what the impressionists were getting at in the first place. You should print and sell that shot!

Thanks for the bit on the lotuses, writing about them really goes a long way to promoting eco-tourism in NW Ohio and SE Michigan, the lakeshore of which is so often derided as a mosquito infested swamp devoid of any fun for boaters or beach goers. Swamps are lovely too!

Jim McCormac said...

Thank you both very much for your comments!