Water lilies’ big role in our past diet

The pleasures of travelling our inland waterways are enhanced at this time of year by the blossoming of water lilies. 

There are two native species of water lily in this country, though some cultivated varieties have become naturalised, mostly in ponds and lakes in what are, or once were, big estates. The commonest wild species is the yellow water lily. The golf-ball sized flowers are held a few centimetres above the water surface on a stout stalk. The tennis-ball sized flowers of the white lily float on the surface and have a mass of yellow stamens in the centre. They are fragrant and spectacular.

I once thought that the two species had different preferences when it came to water acidity and that was why the white water lily was commoner on acidic soils in the west — I’ve even found it growing in pools in blanket bog. But I’ve since found many sites where the two species grow side by side and I no longer believe that PH is a significant factor. It seems that the yellow water lily is commoner because it’s less fussy. It will tolerate dissolved nutrients in the water (in other words, mild pollution) and grow in partial shade. It’s also a bit more flexible when it comes to the depth of water it will grow in. The white species really demands two metres between its floating pads and flowers and the mud in which its rhizomes over-winter.

I also learned, from a book called Wild Food by Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman, which inspired a BBC television series, that water lilies were once an important part of the human diet. The people of the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, are usually referred to as hunter-gatherers. But from the little we know about the Irish Mesolithic it would be much more accurate to call them fisher-gatherers. They always lived beside water, either on the coast or along inland waterways. After all, they were nomadic or semi-nomadic and the only feasible way to move around, before the first farmers started clearing the forest, was either by boat or walking the fore-shore.

The main part of the water lily they ate was the seeds, though the buds are also edible and the experts seem to disagree on the edibility of the rhizomes (which would, anyway, have been hard to harvest in two metres of water). The seeds are very nutritious but require complicated preparation, including partial fermentation. There are many records of them from archaeological sites in Ireland and across the northern hemisphere but the secrets of how they were gathered and prepared were recorded by a man called Frederick Coville, who observed the Klamath Indians of Oregon. They used dugout canoes for the harvesting and produced at least six different foods from the seeds of yellow water lilies that sustained them for much of the year. Our ancestors almost certainly did the same.


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