Photo by Wendy Wilson Billiot
The fragrant banana lily is discernible from another native water specimen, the cow lily, by its spiky petals and larger dimensions.
The summer months find many South Louisianans enjoying time on the water. For some, it’s heading to wide-open lakes for water sports and boating; for others, it might include the simple act of casting a cane pole in search of a nice pan fish or the more involved sport of bass fishing. Whatever the case, pay close attention to the flora along the banks, as you might see two types of yellow flowers that appear to be floating: a very fragrant yellow water lily or a smaller bright-yellow lily. The leaves on these two distinct native aquatics are very similar, so we must dig deeper to determine the difference between them.
The fragrant banana lily, also called the yellow water lily, bears the scientific name Nymphaea mexicana (Zucc.). According to the USDA Plants Database, this water lily is native to our state. However, Clair Brown states in Wildflowers of Louisiana and Adjoining States (LSU Press, 1972) that they are cultured. Regardless of which source is correct, these water lilies are abundant on freshwater lakes and ponds and provide a beautifully fragrant shoreline. The flowers are three to five inches across with numerous pointed petals and stamens. The dark green leaves, four to eight inches across, display a split on one side, (which helps differentiate this water lily from its cousin, the American Lotus).
The second yellow lily is a species of cow lily, also referred to as spatterdock, bearing the scientific name Nuphar advena (Ait.).This member of the water lily family is also a native to Louisiana, according to the USDA Plants Database. The only difference between the leaves of the cow lily and those of the banana lily is the larger size of the former. Also notable is the difference in size and shape of the flowers. The flowers of the cow lily only grow to about two inches in diameter and are rounder and more compact than the spiky petals of banana lilies.
Being of the same plant family, of course, we can expect some similarities. The flowers of both varieties sit atop stems, which, at times of high water, may appear to float. However, these plants are anchored to the bottom via their root and rhizome systems. As a bonus, these roots act as a host for bonnetworms, a favored food of the bream, and offer a substrate for spawning crappie and bream.
As perennials, both species of water lily regenerate from either the rhizomes or from seeds. These attractive aquatics are desirable in areas where wildlife and waterfowl abound; the leaves of both plants serve as food for deer while the seeds and roots provide food for ducks, nutria, and other rodents and waterfowl.
Wendy Wilson Billiot is owner/operator of Wetland Tours and Camp Dularge in Theriot, Louisiana. bayouwoman.com.