Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
A Complete Wild Food Guide
Season: Late Summer to Early Winter Harvest or Store Bought
Urban, Rural or Both: Rural mainly, occasionally ponds, marshes, waterway edges within cities
Lotus (known also as Sacred Lotus) Root (Nelumbo nucifera) is a wild food (now often cultivated) that can be found picked for you in Oriental Grocery stores. The root grows in the mud under water in a pond. It is the root of the famous Lotus Flower. It is a very exotic and beautiful looking plant. It has naturalized in the Eastern side of the USA, and can be found in ponds and Lakes where the depth of water is right. If you find it in season, you can get it fresh and whole. Most of the time, you will find it in the cooler, sliced and packaged. If you get it fresh and whole, it should be a tan to slightly pinkish, light in color, with few brown blemishes. The darker the color, the older it is. Just wash and slice and cut off any dark spots - you don't have to peel it, but if it is covered with darker spots, you can peel it with a Potato peeler.
The flavor is mild and nutty. Due to the round shape with a pattern of holes in each slice, it adds a unique look to the food. It is known as a strengthening food in the east, and is well respected. You can do much with it, but the most common is in a stir-fry. It is one of the few foods that stays crunchy when cooked, and adds a nice texture to otherwise soft food. You can munch on it raw, it has a crisp, fresh apple texture with a pleasant dryness to it. It is really good fried into what in Japan are known as Renkon chips. You cook and eat just like potato French Fries. Slice thin, soak for a couple of minutes in water with some vinegar (3 parts water to 1 part vinegar), dry off, put in oil and cook until golden brown and serve. These are very good, and once you get used to them, eating the potato version is a bit of a let down. My personal favorite is cooked in toasted Sesame Seed oil, but many find the taste too strong. Other good oils are Grape seed and Coconut oil. You can skip the soaking in water and vinegar step, but they turn much darker if you don't do it.
Growing this plant in your home garden:
This is one plant I really want to grow, but I've never had the right conditions to do it. If you do (pond, or shallow lake with muddy bottom), you can try to find seeds. If you see one growing, and see a mature seed head, and you can get at it, give it a try. The other way is to find an Asian food market that has the fresh, unpackaged tubers. If they are healthy, you can plant it in the muck at the bottom of the pond and it should take - they are very hardy creatures. I don't know what the northern limit is for them, but if I had to guess from where I've seen them and not seen them - anywhere in the Carolinian zone should work. So, I think down to zone 6.
- Plant Size: Aquatic plant with the tuber growing in the mud under the water and the flower and leaves floating on the water or above the water surface. Can grow 1.50 meters (5 feet) or more from the mud to water surface, and spread horizontally up to 3 meters.
- Duration: Perennial - and what a Perennial - an individual plant it is said can live over 1000 years!
- Leaf Shape: Peltate (stem comes from center of leaf). Leaf is more or less round.
- Leaf Size: Up to 60 cm (2 feet) in diameter
- Leaf Margin: Entire (smooth edged), sometimes wavy, sometimes not wavy.
- Flowers: Up to 20 cm (8 inches) in diameter. Exceptionally beautiful flowers with distinct watering can spout looking center (seed head). Petals can be pink, light pink, pink and white, yellow, blue, blue and purple.
- Fruit: Seed pod that looks like the spout from a watering can.
- Habitat: Ponds and Lakes
- Recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Recipe search on the web for Renkon Chips here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures of the plant on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
- The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.
Lotus root fresh and whole.
Lotus root cross section.
Package of sliced Lotus root purchased at local Asian food store.
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