Native Freshwater Plants

Spatterdock - A Plant With Many Uses

Spatterdock, a useful native plant, is a rooted, floating-leaved plant with bright yellow flowers commonly seen in Washington lakes and ponds. Its scientific name is Nuphar polysepala, and it is also commonly called the yellow pond or cow lily. Spatterdock can sometimes be confused with the fragrant water lily (Nymphaea odorata), a similar looking exotic plant that has been introduced in many Washington lakes. However, if they are blooming they can be easily distinguished, for the fragrant water lily has showy white or sometimes pink many-petaled flowers.

In early spring the spatterdock's leaves are below the surface, light green in color, and look like lettuce growing on the lake bottom. But by late spring the broad, dark green, heart-shaped leaves float on the water's surface or often stand above the water as the summer progresses.

The floating leaves are connected by long stalks to large horizontal roots in the sediments. The roots can be up to six inches in diameter and many feet long! The roots look something like palm-tree trunks, with knobby scars where leaves have grown.

The bright yellow, ball-like flowers bloom from June to mid-August and also stand just above the water surface. They are composed of several broad fleshy yellow sepals, with many inconspicuous petals inside. In the center is a yellow flask-shaped seed pod. The flower emits a strong brandy-like odor which attracts pollinating insects. Spatterdock reproduces by seeds and spreads by growth of its large fleshy roots. It will also grow from fragments of roots if the plant is broken up.

Humans have put spatterdock to many uses. Historically many cultures ate the roots cooked fresh in stews or dried and ground into flour for baking. The seeds were gathered by Native Americans and either ground into flour or popped like popcorn. The leaves and roots also contain tannin which was put to use in dyeing and tanning. Medicinally, the leaves were used to stop bleeding, and roots were used in a poultice for cuts, swelling, and other ailments. The Quinault Tribe believed that some of the roots looked like men, and others like women, so they chose a root appropriate for the patient before using it as a pain remedy. Most recently spatterdock has been used as an aquarium and water garden plant.

Spatterdock is also a valuable plant for fish and wildlife habitat. Its large leaves provide shade, cover from predators, and a home for many tiny invertebrates which fish use for food. The seeds are eaten by ducks and other birds, and muskrat, beaver, and nutria will eat the roots. Deer have also been known to browse the flowers and leaves. When spatterdock is accompanied  by other native aquatic plants, it is very beneficial to wildlife habitat and an important part of a lake ecosystem.