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117 Of Morning Haze and Lotus Flowers When the cicadas begin to wail their loudest and the sullen midsummer heat lingers well past midnight, American lotus flowers begin to peak in the shallow water of ponds scattered across the prairie. Today lotus is found mostly in structures that collect the runoff of seeps and springs so that cattle can drink throughout the year. But back when Osage women harvested the tubers of these eye-catching plants, the blooms covered the little oxbow lakes formed when rivers like the Verdigris or Caney changed course and the old channels became catchment basins. In time they formed marshes replete with the rounded, elevated leaves of the lotus plant, stout stems crowned with a pale yellow flower as big as a man’s palm and as beautiful as a fine etching. Along Pond Creek, a stream in the southern Flint Hills, you can find mini-lakes covered with waterfowl in winter. Later, when the late July heat and haze settle in, these shallow ponds become clogged with the airborne “lily pads” of lotus. True lily pads actually rest upon the water’s surface, while lotus leaves, rounded and a foot or more across, sit atop elevated stems. These large airborne leaves, accented by saucer -shaped flowers tinted to pale yellow perfection, add a touch of the exotic to any marshy basin. A lotus pond seems like Asian art come to life, and if dragonflies could recite the poetry they cleave with their 118 Of Morning Haze and Lotus Flowers wings, these little marshes would have their own haiku. Now and then a bullfrog may break in with booming percussion, but mostly it’s the drone of hormonally supercharged insects that praises the monotony of midsummer humidity and the lingering heat of lotus season. On a morning in late July, a lotus-covered marsh near Pond Creek comes alive with flying insects. At the moment, they seem drawn more to the sweet promise of flowering buttonbush than to the beauty of pale yellow lotus blooms. The white buttonbush flowers, each the size and shape of a golf ball,appeal strongly to butterflies,including the big showy species that are beginning to materialize as the season of green haze settles in. The best time to visit a lotus pond in late July is, due to the heat, as soon as there’s enough light to find your way through the vegetation. On this particular morning, record rains in May and June have propelled the grasses to waist-high heights. Unfortunately, ungrazed tallgrass can hide blackberry canes and the tiny hooked barbs of sensitive -briar within their dense blue-greenness. Even a short walk to the pond results in bare legs scratched and bleeding, but wading among the lotus blossoms relieves the discomfort with the cool ointment of dark brown marsh mud. Red-winged blackbirds clinging to lotus stems are wary of a creature that seems to draw comfort from such a common balm as marsh mud. But blackbird disapproval does little to deter a daydreamer, especially one lost in long-ago thoughts of Osage women young and old, all laughing and gossiping as they feel for lotus tubers with practiced toes. The Indians of the Midwest, the Osages, Omaha, Poncas, Kaws, Pawnee , and others who lived in the mix of woodland and prairie between the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers, shared a fondness for the lotus plant, both roots and seeds. Ethnobotanist Kelly Kindscher, in his book Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie, said that American lotus, Nelumbo lutea, was highly prized and that it was considered to be invested with mystic powers by the Omahas and other Missouri River tribes. Kindscher said the hard seeds were shelled and used with meat for making soup. The tubers, after being peeled, were cut up and cooked with meat or with hominy and contributed a delicious flavor unlike any other. Kindscher also pointed out that the popularity of the plant led to overharvesting , adding that it’s quite likely that the Indians propagated American lotus to the limits of its range here in the prairie bioregion. At nearly 20 percent, lotus provides a good source of protein. The 119 Of Morning Haze and Lotus Flowers seeds produce a healthy oil, and natural food websites insist that even the half-ripe seeds are tasty either raw or cooked and have a flavor similar to chestnuts. According to online recipes, the root is sweet and tasty when eaten raw, stir-fried...


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