Almost everybody is familiar with Nuphar polysepala, which goes by many common names, including yellow pond lily, great yellow cow lily, spatterdock, Indian pond lily, western cow-lily, and wakas. (ETA- I just realized as I was profiling Nymphaea odorata that these plants in the order Nymphaeales are neither dicots or monocots, having traits of both, and apparently diverged from other Angiosperms before dicots or monocots evolved). The broad leaves and large yellow flowers grace at least some part of most low elevation lakes, as well as many in the mountains. While there are not a plethora of animals that feed on it, it is valuable cover for a tremendous number of arthropods, amphibians, and small fish. For some reason I was surprised to find out it was a native plant, I guess because most places I routinely see it are choked with invasive non-natives. But it certainly adds an element of beauty wherever one sees it.
I once fell out of an aluminum rowboat when fishing on Lacamas Lake in Clark County, Washington. I had gotten my fly caught in a lily pad, and leaned too far over the edge of the boat trying to unhook it. After a couple seconds of flailing I realized that, with a little balance, I could stand on the rhizomes of the pond lilies and keep my face out of the water (although I had one in the boat I was not wearing a life jacket). The boat didn’t capsize, but it had taken on dozens of gallons of water when my bulk pushed the gunnel into the water, and it threatened to sink completely when I tried to clamber back in. So I decided to push it to shore. But as soon as I cleared the lilies I was in water over my head, and as a poor swimmer in waterlogged jeans I wasn’t making much headway. So I got myself and the boat back into the lily pads, and carefully trod those roots until I had navigated the large arc back to shore.
This was an important plant to the indigenous cultures of the PNW. The rootstocks (rhizomes) were boiled or roasted, and even eaten raw, as a vegetable, and were also sliced and dried for future use. The seeds could be roasted (they are said to taste like popcorn), and were dried and ground to make bread and porridge. The roots were also used medicinally to treat heart, lung, and blood ailments, as an analgesic, and as a contraceptive, and the leaves found their way into a variety of poultices. It has the odd propensity to respire alcohol instead of carbon dioxide when the mud in which it grows loses oxygen. For a more complete list see the Native American Ethnobotany Database website.
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Description-Perennial aquatic, with the rhizome bearing the flowers and leaves; leaves mostly floating, sometimes suspended when water levels drop, leaves dark green, heart-shaped, 4-16” long and 2/3 as wide; flowers yellow, with 6-9 large, showy sepals, the outer ones leathery and greenish, inner ones taller and yellow; 10-20 short, thich petals about the same height as the abundant reddish purple stamens.
Similar species–Nuphra variegata has fewer sepals and they are red near the base, smaller flowers, and is only found in se BC and n Idaho in our region; Nymphaea sp. have smaller leaves that lay flat on the water, and white to pink or purple flowers.
Habitat-Shallow ponds, lakes, sloughs, slow moving streams and rivers, up to 5,000’ elevation.
Range– Native to western North America; region wide in appropriate habitat in the PNW, but absent from the hottest, most arid areas.
Reproductive timing-Blooms May through August
Eaten by–Elophila obliteralis moths use it as a larval host; subsurface stems are bored by larvae of aquatic leaf beetles in the genus Donacia, and adults feed on the leaves; waterfowl eat the seeds;
Etymology of names–Nuphar is from the Greek word for ‘water lily’. The specific epithet polysepala is from the Latin words for ‘many leaved’, and refers to the many petal like sepals of the flower.