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Cracker Barrel: Consider the lilies

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It's that time of year again.

The water lilies are in bloom.

Walk to the edge of a pond or a slow-moving creek or the shallow bay of a larger lake, and the chances are good you'll be rewarded with the sight of dozens or maybe even hundreds of one of our state's most beautiful attractions, the white or fragrant water lily.

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A member of the family Nymphaeaceae, Nymphaea odorata is also one of our most familiar aquatic plants. Its large floating leaves have a distinctive slit that penetrates at least a third of their six- to eight-inch diameter, like a round green pizza missing a triangular slice. The underside of the leaves (better known as lily pads) is often red or purplish and riddled with veins.

The pads are attached to stalks at the center of each leaf just past the tip of the triangular slit, and the stalks in turn attach the leaves to submerged rhizomes, themselves rooted in the mud below the water. Flowers arise on separate stalks and have brilliant white petals, 25 or more per flower, with yellow centers. The flowers may float or stick above the water and each opens in the morning and closes in the afternoon.

As the species name odorata implies, white water lilies are very fragrant. They can spread from seeds or from rhizomes, and have become a favorite aquatic garden plant, though in some parts of the nation they are considered invasive. The nursery industry has hybridized them and produced many color variations.

Also know as "beaver root," the white water lily was utilized in many ways by Native Americans in the eastern United States. The roots were used medicinally as a poultice for sores and tumors, internally for many ailments including digestive problems, and rinse made for sores in the mouth. The leaves and flowers were also used as cooling compresses.

The rhizomes, like the rhizomes of cattail plants, were used as food and the young leaves and lower buds were eaten as a vegetable. Even the seeds were fried and eaten or ground into flour.

Wildlife, including beaver, muskrat, ducks, porcupine and deer also will eat the leaves, roots or seeds. The submerged portions of all aquatic plants also provide habitats for many micro- and macro- invertebrates, which in turn are eaten by fish and a variety of amphibians and reptiles. In addition to the beauty water lilies bring to the world, they also play a practical role in helping to feed and to shelter other creatures.

Lilies are sometimes confused with the yellow lotus, also known as "duck acorn" or "water nut." The lotus shares many of the characteristics of the water lily, though its leaves, which are grayish-green, often reach a width of two feet and protrude above the water like inverted umbrellas. The leaf of the lotus is also completely circular, not notched like the lily, and the flower houses acorn-like seeds in a spongy, flat-topped structure.

Because the lotus, like the lily, grows from the muddy or mucky lake bottom up through the water into the sunlight, it has been regarded for thousands of years as a symbol of spiritual growth toward purity and beauty. The lotus appears in several Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, and the lily (though not necessarily the water lily) plays a recurrent role in both Greek and Roman mythology. And Jesus, addressing the foolishness of laying up earthly treasure, famously spoke of the effortless way in which lilies neither toil nor spin yet outshine the glory of Solomon in their beauty.

As befits a plant of such elegance, water lilies are protected by law in Minnesota. Aquatic plants growing in public waters are regarded as the property of the state, and may not be destroyed or transplanted unless authorized by the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Since, in spite of their beauty, they can easily clog swimming beaches and make boat access to lakes difficult, there are exceptions to this general rule. To be on the safe side, it's best to check the regulations before picking or otherwise disturbing these lovely fellow riders of the earth.

Collections of Craig Nagel's columns are available at www.CraigNagelBooks.com.

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