Nelumbo lutea (Wild.) Pers.

American Lotus

 Nelumbonaceae [Steyermark: Nymphaceae]

Remains of Nelumbo lutea seldom appear in the archaeological record. Although the seed is the most frequently identified part of the plant in the eastern United States, they are rarely recovered whole; usually the seed is split in half or is in much smaller fragments. Small fragments cannot be identified unless the fragment either has the seed tip or a good portion of the hollow canal as seen in Figure 1.



       The entire seed is distinguishable by its roundness and the cap or tip on the distal end as shown in Figure 1. Carbonized lotus exteriors are usually smooth but can also exhibit some shallow longitudinal grooves. Lotus seeds range between 8-10 mm in length and 6-10 mm in diameter. The inside of the lotus seed has a hollow canal running longitudinally. Curved lines can be seen on the profile of the seed coat.

       Although both the seeds and the tubers have been documented as food for historic Native American groups, tubers have not been identified from any prehistoric Illinois Valley sites or American Bottom sites (Asch and Asch 1985; Parker 1989). Carbonized tubers have been reported from only two Mississippian sites located in the lower Kalamazoo River in southwest Michigan (Parker 1989).

Archaeological Distribution

       American lotus was cultivated in the waters of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and carried northward and eastward (Hall and Penfound 1944). American lotus seeds might be recovered in flotation samples from eastern North American sites that were close to ponds and other shallow water resources (Parker 1989:457). In the American Bottom, lotus has been identified from the Sponemann site, the Florence Street site, the Julian site, the Go-Kart site, the Range site, the George Reeves site, and the Holding site. Lotus has been recovered from Early Woodland, Middle Woodland, Late Woodland, Emergent Mississippian, and Mississippian contexts.

The Modern Plant and Its Distribution

       American lotus is abundant in the central states but is scarce in the middle Atlantic and eastern states. Shown in Figure 2, lotus is an aquatic herb with fibrous roots, elongated tubers, floating and erect leaves, creamy flowers, and large inflorescences that contain fruit (Hall and Penfound  1944:745). Lotus flowers bloom in June and July. Some lotus leaves can stand up to four feet above the existing water, while others float on the water. Flowers are a creamy color with an average diameter of nine inches. The lotus seeds are located in the cavities of the flower heads and are brown in color. The seed exterior or pericarp is composed of a wavy outer covering, a thick middle layer, and a thinner inner layer. The seed itself has two thin coats.

       Lotus is most commonly found in cut-over tupelo gum swamps or ponds where the water ranges from one to six feet in depth. Hall and Penfound (1944), however, report on a colony that has been observed in water up to eight feet deep with severe wave action.


       Little has been written on Nelumbo lutea, and relatively few archaeological remains of them have been identified. American lotus can be more commonly found in ponds at botanical gardens.



Asch, D. L., and N. B. Asch.

    1985   Archaeobotany. In Smiling Dan: Structure and Function at a Middle Woodland Settlement in             the Lower Illinois Valley, edited by B. D. Stafford and M. B. Sant, pp. 327-401. Center for
            American Archaeology Research Series Vol. 2. Kampsville, Illinois.

Hall, F. T., and W. T. Penfound.

    1944   The Biology of the American Lotus, Nelumbo lutea (Willd.). American Midland Naturalist

Parker, K. E.

    1989   Archaeobotanical Assemblage. In The Holding Site: A Hopewell Community in the
            American Bottom (11-Ms-118), edited by A. C. Fortier, T. O. Maher, J. A. Williams, M. C.
            Meinkoth, K. E. Parker, and L. S Kelly, pp. 429-463. American Bottom Archaeology FAI-
            270 Reports, vol. 19. Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

Steyermark, J.A.

    1963   Flora of Missouri. Iowa State University Press, Ames.

Written by:  Kenneth J. Keller