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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lily Pads

Air Date: Week of

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Commentator Sy Montgomery describes the hidden and complicated world that exists on and beneath a lily pad.


CURWOOD: Take a look at the knee-deep shallows of your local pond. Cast your eye past the blue spiked flowers of pickerel weed, the white blossomed arrow heads and the standing armies of cattails. Now you can see lily pads forming an ecosystem as unique as a beach forest or an alpine meadow. Our commentator Sy Montgomery has been studying them lately and says the lily pad is more than a plant, it's a place.

MONTGOMERY: If there was one place on Earth where you can believe that time stands still, it's on a pond blanketed with water lilies in summer. The blossoms themselves seem to promise peace. The first position in hatha yoga is named for the lotus. Lily pads invite repose. Many animals know this. Look closely at the still life resting on the pads and you'll see the black, thumb-shaped heads of painted and spotted turtles and yellow-eyed bull frogs. The lily's leaves provide landing pads for dragonflies and their kin, the damselflies, as well as for beetles and bees.

Turn the lily pad over and it may surprise you. The flip side of the rich green leathery pad of the sweetwater lily is often crimson, and hairy. And here you may find snails, flatworms, and, if you're lucky, you might spot furry-looking moss animals who live in colonies, like corals. Every strand of what looks like their fur is really a tentacle-wreathed head, whirling in the water.

And glued beneath the lily pad's strange underside you'll notice lots of eggs. Whose are they? Tiny, oval white eggs, glued separately to the leaf, belong to the whirligig beetle, the flattened oval insects who circle round and round on the surface of still waters. Little white eggs, arranged in curving rows around a small hole, belong to the long-horned beetle. You'll often see the adults, handsome, metallic green or bronze, walking along the top of lily pads, touching the surface carefully with arched antennae.

In late summer, the female long-horned beetle bites a quarter inch hole through the pad and lays her eggs on the underside. Her offspring, when they hatch, will use the lily stem as an airhose, stuffing their heads inside it to tap the plant's supply in order to breathe. The flood of bubbles you see breaking the surface in these calm pools is often the exhalation of a baby long-horned beetle. It's no wonder, really, that so many creatures are born among the water lilies. In Hindu mythology this plant symbolizes the opening to the womb of the universe: a place at once ever changing and timeless. The fragrance of the new blooms lingers long and heavy, as we wish summer itself might.

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery lives in Hancock, New Hampshire. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.




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