The Quest for Nelumbo Lutea

Published on December 22, 2016

floating vegetation Rio Palizada
Miles to go through the floating vegetation of the headwaters of Rio Palizada.

The post-symposium expedition into the wilds of Campeche State in the southeastern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula sounded like a Gordon Lightfoot ballad or an Indiana Jones adventure, and for good reason. It had all the makings of a great story. A famous scientist from across the globe had unearthed three mysterious botanical specimens collected years before World War II. He needed help in his quest to confirm whether the near-mythical plants described still existed in the wild — far to the south in Mexico. The scientist called upon a society to which he belonged, little known to the rest of the world, of adventurers from all walks of life strongly united by a common fascination — the cultivation of two of the oldest and most venerated of all plants known to man — Nymphaea the Waterlily and Nelumbo the Lotus.

The American Yellow Lotus

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The particular species in question, Nelumbo lutea, the American yellow lotus, could not be more quest-worthy. An aquatic giant of great beauty and mystical properties, its huge, circular leaves can reach 2 feet in diameter as they stand proud as much as three feet above the water’s surface. Nothing sticks to the flat green platters; they can’t get wet and they don’t stay dirty, reason enough for Native Americans to revere the lotus as a sacred plant. Modern reverence of the “lotus leaf effect,” the extreme water repellence we name “hyperhydrophobicity,” has led to magic, impermeable coatings for cars and electronics (and water fountains – see here >>). Among the leaves, huge blossoms of clear yellow open for two days, then drop their banana-sized petals to leave behind the emblematic showerhead seed pod that defines them. Dried and dormant, the seeds remain viable for decades, even centuries, but can be sprouted in six days when needed.

Nelumbo Lutea flowering plant
Eureka! Nelumbo lutea in the Laguna del Viento, Palizada, Campeche

One of a small number of plants to fruit and flower simultaneously, the American lotus provided even more nutritionally than spiritually to Native Americans, much as its cousin the Asiatic lotus does today in China. Well-known across the North American continent, its many common names speak to its bounty: Pondnut, Duck Acorns, Rattle Nut, Yockernut, Alligator Buttons, Monacanut and Water Nut. A staple food of the Comanche, Dakota, Huron, Meskwaki, Ojibwa, Omaha, Potawatomi and many other peoples, the whole plant was eaten — and is delicious! The hard seeds, up to 19 percent protein, were eaten raw like nuts, added to thicken soups, roasted like chestnuts or dried and ground into flour to make bread. Their high oil content means they can be popped like corn as well. The sweet, starchy tubers were harvested in the fall and would keep all winter long to be boiled, roasted, dried and ground into flour, or just eaten raw. In the spring, young and newly unfurling leaves were eaten uncooked or boiled like spinach.

The yellow lotus is thought to have originated in the Mississippi Valley, but its great value as a nutritious, transportable, storable food source meant it would be carried and cultivated across the Americas, from Canada to the Caribbean and beyond. Some sources claim that native populations extend to the south from Mexico and Central America all the way to South America, while others believe those populations were imported ornamentals that escaped into the wild and naturalized. Only one method known could prove their provenance — DNA analysis of an isolated population and comparison to other known populations. And there was only one man in the world who had all the data needed for that comparison.

Daike Tian, a longstanding IWGS member and scientist who has dedicated his career to documenting the distribution of Nelumbo in the wild across the globe, had located evidence from the late 1930s reporting the existence of the yellow lotus in Mexico, far to the south of its nominal range. An honored guest and lecturer at past symposia, Daike couldn’t make it to Mexico for this one, but he was excited nonetheless that we would be going to the Yucatán Peninsula. We would be close to two of the three sites named in his research. He sent photocopies of pages from the Arnold Herbarium Collection of Harvard University indicating the general areas of two distinct populations along the lowlands of the Gulf Coast and challenged us to confirm the almost 80-year-old reports. We had our quest — but first, the reason we were there.

The IWGS Symposium

 The 31st International Waterlily and Water Garden Society Symposium, the first held in Mexico, was hosted this year in Mérida, an extraordinary colonial city that is the capital of the State of Yucatán and twice Cultural Capital of the Americas, the only city to ever be honored more than once. The White City, so named for the limestone of which it is largely constructed, was chosen for its accessibility, its hospitality and its long and storied history. We would be able to travel through time, swimming in ancient ruins, touring colonial palaces, enjoying the vibrant present in a modern, cosmopolitan capital with beautiful weather — and waterlilies.

Founded on the site of a Mayan temple whose stones were used for the first cathedral built in the Americas, Mérida became the seat of power in the southeast of Mexico for four centuries. Its cultural ties have always been stronger to Europe than to the rest of Mexico, which is separated from the Yucatán Peninsula by more than just cultural boundaries. Vast, almost impenetrable swamps cut off the peninsula from the mainland so completely that they were only breached by modern highways and railroads in the 1960s. Near-total autonomy before the Mexican Revolution led the peninsula to fight for its own independent status as the Republic of Yucatán, alongside the Republic of Texas, in the 1830s and 1840s. Yucatán was only forced into Mexican statehood when Texas was accepted into the Union, removing the fledgling but effective Texan Navy from the fray and effectively ending the war for independence.

Yet even in statehood, the Free and Sovereign State of Yucatán, as it is properly known, stands proudly apart. The indigenous Maya, who still make up 60 percent of the modern population of Mérida, survived the Conquista better than many other indigenous groups. The resurgence of their cultural heritage in the 21st century provides a better glimpse than ever before into a past that stretches back thousands of years. New and better-funded museums and archeological sites offered a rare opportunity for symposium attendees to experience waterlilies and archeology simultaneously, in the ancient cenote of Dzibilchaltún, where they swam with the same lilies the Maya harvested for 60 centuries.

IWGS 2017
What do think this is again?

In the 19th century, the Green Gold of the Yucatán, henequen, the agave from which sisal rope is made, brought unbelievable wealth to the area, and Mérida was the place to show it off. The wealthiest henequeros moved from the haciendas where the rope was produced to magnificent pastel mansions designed by the costliest European architects, all along the nouveau boulevard of the nouveau riche, the Paseo Montejo. We drove past those beautifully preserved mansions on our way to tour a working Hacienda and henequen plantation. The hotel where we stayed lay steps away from the 16th century plazas and churches in the Centro, the heart of Colonial Mérida. We would experience thousands of years of history in four days, guided by native Meridians and under the aegis of the local botanical research center and gardens, The Center for Scientific Investigation of the Yucatán, or CICY.

Dr. German Carnevali is not only the director of the Herbarium at CICY, but he is also the foremost authority on the botany and distribution of the plants of the Yucatán. He knew that one of the sites that Daike had located near the resort area of Laguna Silvituc held lotus, but wasn’t sure whether they were native or introduced. He was much more intrigued by the second site deep in the central swamps of neighboring Campeche State. Few ventured that deep into the wetlands, and those who had returned gave reports of deadly wildlife and dangerous roads. The area was almost completely isolated, accessible only by water — possibly only by canoe. If a population were to be found there, near the headwaters of the Rio Palizada, it would almost certainly be native. He gave us all the information he had, including a mandate.

The Quest Begins

And so began the quest for the wild Nelumbo. There were eight of us from all over North America: Tish Folsom of Springdale Water Gardens from Virginia; Mike Swize of Nelson Water Gardens from Texas; Jim Purcell of Oregon Aquatics; David Curtright from Escondido, California; Robert Ramik and Laura Grant from Toronto; and I’m a Long Islander. We were blessed by the presence of my dear friend and now guide, native Yucateco Jose Ignacio “Nacho” Barroso. He and his wife Lidia had provided invaluable assistance and done all the groundwork for the symposium; now, Nacho volunteered his van and his time to help us find a single strand of lotus in a wetland the size of Rhode Island.

Lotus flower Mexico
Jim Purcell, patron saint of lotus everywhere?

First, the easy part. Of the two populations that hadn’t been seen since 1939, one was relatively accessible in the resort area around Lake Silvituc. We planned our route to pass areas where we might also find waterlilies and visited three “ojos de aqua” — literally, “eyes of water,” so named because the springs make clearings in the jungle where the cool, blue waters stare up at the sky. We found what we expected to find in the obvious spots, including Nymphaea ampla, the beautiful, white Mexican native, common in the springs, rivers and pools. We had one exciting surprise: a local passer-by warned us a roadside ditch was full of culebras, or snakes. He stayed to watch someone get bitten as Mike, Jim and David somehow identified the much less common waterlily Nymphaea jamesoniana. Unfortunately for the onlookers, no one died, which we celebrated almost as enthusiastically as we did the discovery of this beautiful, white flower.

Back in the van considerably pleased and badly in need of refreshment (and showers), we headed back on the road to Silvituc. We knew we were close and pulled into the parking lot of a pretty little hotel and restaurant. We had immediate cause to celebrate again — we had mistakenly stumbled onto a lakeside resort next to a cove filled with lotus! The lovely hostess Felicidad invited us in to see whatever we liked and was only slightly scandalized as Jim stripped and jumped right in, followed by Mike and David.

I have to admit we were slightly disappointed by how easily we found the first population of our elusive quarry. We expected to have to fight our way through crocodile-infested swamps filled with bat-sized mosquitoes and giant leeches that could drain you dry in a matter of minutes. The closest we had come to killer crocs was on the menu at the crocodile farm in Isla Arenas (and it was yummy, tasting like a cross between chicken and pork). We did not expect to stop for a beer and find lotus practically at the table. We headed back onto the well-maintained, two-lane highway to Escárcegas, the crossroads of Campeche State, where the real expedition would start — the scary, daring one that we were all excited about. We were not disappointed.

The Road (and Plot) Thickens

First, the drive. To get to the area of the second, much more elusive population, we had to drive six hours northwest on bad roads into the Campeche lowlands. Sugar cane replaced corn and was in turn replaced by rice as we headed up into the wetlands on the only road into the swamps. But though the topography was uninspiring, the quantity and variety of birds in the fields increased from sporadic to spectacular. Raptors and vultures, spoonbills and rails, herons and egrets and cranes — oh my! By the time we reached the end of the rice fields, our necks were sore from craning left and right as we passed multicolored flock of multiple species in flight. (Tish now wants to lead a birding expedition to the area; it would be amazing.) But we had other prey in mind.

The Expedition’s end, at the Center for Scientific Investigation of Yucatán (CICY).

The road that had followed the Rio Usumacinta along the Tabasco-Campeche border split off to follow the Rio Palizada, a tributary that led to the town of the same name, our only clue to the last potential population of Nelumbo. As the road narrowed to a single, bumpy lane past the ranchos and through the jungle along the river, it was beginning to look like a real expedition. Silvituc Lagoon had been too easy, not only for us to find, but also because there were so many thousands of people around the large and lovely lake that the chances were quite high that the lotus we found were introduced, rather than native. The same could not be said of Palizada. After literally hours of increasingly smaller roads, we found our way to the outskirts of the beautiful little frontier town, where the cemetery and the cannons overlooking the river had just been freshly painted for the upcoming Day of the Dead celebrations. Now we had to figure out where the Nelumbo might be. They certainly weren’t nearby the town; the river was in flood, boiling brown and angry up onto the steps the launches and canoes would use when the waters were lower and calmer. Lotus require still and shallower water than the swift Palizada. We needed to find even more remote backwaters.

Nacho started asking around, trudging through the six degrees of separation that we knew must lie between us and our goal. First, we found a policeman who didn’t know about the yellow flower, but did know the white ones. He sent us to a gas station attendant who knew of a cowboy who knew of the big leaves that can’t be wet. The cowboy, Claudio Ezquibel, happened to be filling up and agreed to help. He would take us to the road his uncle, Cruz Ezquibel, lived on. We followed the cowboy through the unexpectedly lovely frontier town, over a tiny bridge to a track that disappeared into the forest. He pointed down the tiny dirt road and told us to go as far as we could, and then ask for his uncle. We thanked him and watched him drive back toward Palizada, which had somehow become civilization in contrast to the heart of darkness before us. Improbably, after another 35 minutes down the trail, dead-ending at the river, and a trek back on foot to the only house in sight, we had found Don Cruz Ezquibel. Yes, he knew of the flower. It grew in the Lagoon of the Wind, many miles into the Wetlands, accessible only by boat. But it was late — almost dusk — and we would want to start early the next morning. We surely wouldn’t risk the aguadas at night, would we?

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We weighed the risks against a tight time schedule. We were 12 hours from Mérida assuming all went perfectly well, but it was late Sunday and there were planes to catch Tuesday morning. We took a quick vote and assured him we were game. He sent his daughter back down the trail on a bicycle to find his son, who would take us all in the open launch that they used to move the horse to pasture on the other side of the river. We agreed and waited for his son to arrive. He was far more than dubious, but obeyed his “jefe” (literally, chief) and took us around back to the launch pulled up on the river bank. We quickly helped Cruz Jr. mount the outboard, quietly moved the tick-infested saddle to the shore, climbed aboard the open launch and away we went.

Into the Heart of Darkness

For the first half-hour of the trip we ran full tilt upriver on the Rio Palizada until we got to a seemingly impenetrable green wall of huge Pontederia, cattails and reeds hiding a tiny concrete cottage. Cruz spun the boat into an eddy in front of the house and called out to the owner for permission to use the only access through the wetlands to the first hidden lake, the Laguna del Pajaro. With passage granted, he steered the boat along the towering reeds to a tiny break in the greenery. The way through to the Lagoon of the Bird was almost invisible until we were upon it, a narrow slot 4 feet across laboriously cut through the reeds, barely wide enough for the launch to pass. The water was clear and about 8 feet deep in the cramped channel, set with nets the fishermen use to catch mojarra, the native cichlid that makes up the greater part of the local catch.

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After another half-hour of motoring through the floating vegetation that surrounded the launch, stopping every five minutes to clear the prop of the salvinia and roots that fouled it frequently, the passage opened up into a walled-in lagoon a thousand feet across, with millions of waterlily seedlings on the bottom easily visible through crystalline water. Cruz announced that we had arrived at the place of the white lilies, mentioning with some relief that we would be able to get back before dark and before running out of gas.

Wait — Waterlilies?

No, we needed to see the yellow flowers with the leaves that don’t get wet. His face fell, almost as deep as the waters around us, but he had promised his father. He would try, he said, as he lifted the near-empty gas can, but it was near dark now, we had to hurry. He threw us around and headed to the opposite wall of the lagoon, this time using all the momentum of the boat to get us deep into the leafy canyon of floating vegetation. It almost wasn’t enough. After a run of 15 minutes interrupted only by his lifting the propeller to clear the fouling weeds, the passage ended abruptly.

cenote mexico
The world famous cenote of Costco.

Three huge rafts had broken off from the mass of vegetation and had sailed deep into the passage propelled by the wind catching their towering stalks. We could see around them to the end of the passage, only another 20 feet away. Cruz told us to brace ourselves and rammed the rafts full throttle. The first mass moved all of 2 feet into the second, and we stopped dead. He tried again — nothing. We were faced with the encroaching dark in a boat facing the wrong way in a passage we couldn’t turn around in, with little gas and no hope of getting back without swimming back through the swamps of Palizada with God-only-knows lurking under the rafts in 8 feet of water. It was a real expedition at last.

There was only one thing to do. We quickly moved to the front of the boat before despair set in, and, bracing against the gunnels, grabbed huge handfuls of vegetation and hauled back on the floating rafts of reeds with all our might. At first, nothing moved, but then, ever so slowly, the prow of the boat started to slide between the first raft and the walls of the passage. There wasn’t enough room to go between, but with that tiny spark of progress and sheer desperation powering our efforts, we pulled the launch up over the reeds and slowly inched forward toward the open water. When Cruz saw what we were doing, he abandoned the back of the boat, grabbed an oar and started poling us forward against the bottom. With a last concerted effort, we literally skated the entire 20-foot launch over the last of the reeds and popped out into the vast open water of Laguna El Viento, the Lagoon of the Wind. Miles of it were covered with Salvinia, waterlilies and — lotus!

Race Against the Clock

There was literally no time to waste. The sun was setting, and we had to find what we were looking for before it grew too dark to see. Dr. Carnevali had asked for specimens for the testing labs at CICY, but if we couldn’t see them, we couldn’t collect them. We spotted leaves across an adjacent cove and headed there, part poling, part motoring through the thick weeds. We saw leaves but no seed pods. When we explained what we were searching for, Cruz explained that the pods were eagerly sought after by many birds, and they were long gone by now. We were crushed. We had only enough light to hit one more spot before dark, and we would be going home blind, but Mike pointed one out from the bow and the halting engine made a last effort.

Nothing. We had failed — the light was almost gone, and we were miles from the van and a full day from Mérida. We headed back along the same path, where the reeds had already been pulled down and out of the way by the boat, and the passing was easiest.

And then we saw them. First, a single pod where there was none before, and then another along the path we had made through the lotus stalks. We had disturbed the sunken pods, and as we made our way through in the opposite direction, a few had popped to the surface — and they held seeds! We had found what we needed for the genetic analysis by CICY! Now, the race for home.

We found the first break in the reeds by following the path we had made in the lagoon. Cruz warned us to get down, gunned the outboard and flew over the reeds just to the left of the floating masses that had blocked the way. We made it far enough in that we could quickly pull and pole our way into the channel, and we were off, leaning in as far as possible to avoid the sharp sawgrass and occasional thorns. We got to the second opening across the Laguna del Pajaro by sheer luck — and Tish’s flashlight, with which Nacho, poised like a carven figurehead over the prow, lit the way back. We were on our way home. We figured it was just a matter of following the narrow passage through to the river — until the engine started sputtering. The gas! Cruz backed the engine down to a few hundred rpm, enough to keep moving, and asked us to look for the nets of the fisherman.

“Do you see them? Are we there yet?” I looked up to see the brightest Milky Way of my life, so distinct and clear I told myself I could see faint tinges of blue and brown along its length, traversing the sky from horizon to apogee.

“Do you see them?” Yes! The nets! We were at the river! The trip downstream with the engine sputtering was utterly relaxing. We weren’t going to have to swim for it; even if we didn’t make the shore, we would drift to Palizada inside an hour with the swollen current. We had made it.

We weren’t the only ones celebrating our return. The entire Ezquibel family, including relatives who had heard we were in town and tracked us to Don Cruz’s home, awaited the return of the launch and its intrepid captain, who had taken eight very strange strangers to the Laguna El Viento and back in the dark — and lived! The quest was triumphant, the stuff of legend, of song. We could hear the mariachi already

Future Adventures Await

The International Waterlily and Water Garden Society is real, and so are the adventures. Have you ever dreamed of sailing up the Amazon, had an audience with the King of Siam, or been feasted as honored guests in China? Well, what are you waiting for? In addition to yearly Symposia that really are the stuff of legend, membership confers access to the IWGS Journal, the very best information about waterlilies, lotus and water gardening in general, and some of the coolest people you’ve never heard of from every continent except Antarctica (yes, we’re working on it). Join today; you won’t regret it.

And if you represent a company with ties to the water garden industry, this is the way to get to the people that make the decisions across the country and around the world. Sponsor a trip, a symposium or an expedition! Or, just advertise in the journal or on the website. Talk about a targeted audience!

>> Contact me, or President Susan Davis at for further details.

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