Photo by Wendy Wilson Billiot
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 at jacksonville.com/entertainment/food-and-dining/recipe/graine-voler-stew.