Nymphaea odorata. Sweet scented Water lily.

Botanical name: 

Pl. 55. Nymphaea odorata. The common Water lily, of North America, very much resembles that of Europe in its external form, but differs remarkably in the fine fragrance of its flowers, those of the old continent being nearly destitute of odour. It belongs to a very beautiful tribe of aquatic plants, a great part of which are natives of the torrid zone. Those species which support the cold of our northern latitudes, are enabled to do so only by the depth of water, under which it is their habit to vegetate. Nature has provided a sort of spontaneous hotbed for these plants, by placing their roots at such a depth from the surface of the element in which they grow, that the frost, which would otherwise prove fatal, does not reach them at the coldest season.

The Nymphaea odorata, the finest of the northern species, grows abundantly in most parts of the United States, about the edges of rivers and ponds, where the water is more than a foot in depth. It is one of the largest of our native flowers, and though it has often been represented as inferior, in size, to the water lily of Europe, I am sure that this comparison can only have resulted from the inspection of cultivated specimens. The annexed drawing was made from a full grown and fully expanded specimen, and is actually smaller than the flower from which it was taken.

Every angler is familiar with the leaves and stems of this plant, which, with a few similar aquatics, forms floating beds about the edges of deep fresh waters, affording to the fish a favourite shelter from the light; and often rendering them more essential service, by entangling the hooks and lines of their pursuers.

The roots of this plant creep through the muddy bottoms of ponds to a great extent. They are very rough, knotted, blackish, and as large as a man's arm. The porous stalks, which proceed from these, are bouyed up by the quantity of air they contain, and continue to be elongated till they reach the surface of the water, which is often at the height of several feet. The upper side of the leaves has a highly repellent power for water, owing to its finely polished surface, from which the fluid rolls off as from a coating of oil. When the buds have attained to maturity, they emerge and expand their flowers. This takes place in the morning; and when the sun is bright, a bed of these flowers presents a truly magnificent spectacle. Owing to the concavity of the calyx and petals they continue to float during a great part of the day. They are seldom elevated from the surface, except when the stem is uncommonly large, or pushed upward by some displacement of the adjacent leaves. At night, or before, the flowers close, and either rest on the surface or sink beneath it till the subsequent day. When flowering is over, the germ sinks to the bottom and there ripens its fruit.

The genus Nymphaea is now separated from some other plants formerly attached to it by the following character. Calyx four or five leaved; petals many, inserted into the germ below the stamens; stigma radiated, sessile with a tubercle in the middle; berry many celled, many seeded. This species very nearly resembles the N. Alba of Europe, but appears distinct by the following marks. Leaves orbicular-cordate, entire, the lobes acuminate, and veins prominent beneath; calyx four-leaved, equal to the petals.

Linnaeus placed this genus in his Miscellaneae, and Jussieu with the Hydrocharides.

The stalks, both of the leaves and flowers, spring directly from the root. They vary in length from one foot to five or six, according to the depth of the water. The petioles are somewhat semicircular, the scapes round. Both are perforated throughout by long tubes or air-vessels which serve to float them. The leaves, which, swim on the surface, are nearly round with a cleft or sinus extending to the centre, at which the petiole is inserted in a peltate manner. The lobes on each side of this sinus are prolonged into an acute point. The upper surface is of a bright glossy green almost without veins; the lower surface is reddish and marked by a multitude of strong prominent veins diverging from the centre. The calyx has four lanceolate leaves, green without and white within. Petals numerous, lanceolate, of a delicate whiteness, with sometimes a tinge of lake on the outside. Stamens numerous, yellow, in several rows; the filaments dilated, especially the outer ones, so as to resemble petals; the anthers in two longitudinal cells growing to the filaments and opening inwardly. The stigma has from twelve to twenty four rays, very much resembling abortive anthers, at first incurved, afterwards spreading. At the centre is a solid hemispherical protuberance, usually called a nectary, but which appears to me more like the true stigma.

The roots of this plant are among the strongest astringents, and we have scarcely any native vegetable which affords more decided evidence of this property. When fresh, if chewed in the mouth, they are extremely styptic and bitter. Their decoction instantly strikes a jet black colour with sulphate of iron, and yields a dense, white precipitate to a solution of gelatin. With alcohol it deposites a slight flocculent substance resembling faecula. Tannin and gallic acid in large quantities are to be considered its most characteristic ingredients.

The flowers have a delicious odour, hardly surpassed by any perfume which the summer produces. This fragrance is perfect only when the flowers are fresh, and, as they droop, becomes contaminated with the common smell of aquatic plants. It is peculiar in its character, and resembles that of no other plant with which I am acquainted. I have several times attempted to separate this perfume by distillation both with water and spirit, but have never succeeded in preserving it in the faintest degree. It is much more fugacious than the perfume of roses, and seems to be destroyed by the application of heat. Possibly the employment of a large quantity of flowers at a time might yield a better product. The stamens appear more odorous than the petals, or at least preserve their odour longer in drying.

The roots of the water lily are kept by most of our apothecaries, and are much used by the common people in the composition of poultices. They are, no doubt, often injudiciously applied to suppurating tumours, since their astringency must be rather discutient, than promotive of suppuration. They are occasionally used by physicians in cases where astringent applications are called for, and answer a purpose somewhat analogous to that of lead poultices and alum curds. The roots, which, when fresh, are large and fleshy; in drying, lose a great part of their weight and size, becoming spongy and friable.

The Nymphaea alba of Europe, which appears perfectly similar in its qualities to the American plant, was celebrated by the ancients, [Note C] as an antaphrodisiac, and as a remedy in dysentery and some other morbid discharges. To the latter purpose its astringency might, in some instances, make it well suited. The roots and seeds of the Nymphaea lotus were used by the ancient Egyptians as bread.

[Note C.Nymphaea in paludibus stagnantibúsque aquis nascitur: folia vero habet Aegyptiae fabae similia, at minora oblongioraque, plura ab una eademque radice prodeuntia: quorum alia super aquam quodammodo extant, alia in ea ipsa demerguntur: fiorem album, lilio similem, in quo medium croceúm est. At cum defloruerit, calyculus rotundus, figura malo aut papaveris capiti similis, idemque niger, extuberat: in quo semen nigrum, latum, densum, atque gustanti lentum glutinosumve recluditur. Caulis est laevis, minime crassus, niger, Aegyptiae fabae cauli similis: radix nigra, scabra, clavae similis, quae autumno secatur. Ea sicca, cum vino pota, coeliacis ac dysentericis auxiliatur, lienemque consumit. Stomachi quoque ac vesicae doloribus sedandis ipsa radix imponitur, et alphos ex aqua emendat: alopeciis etiamnum cum pice imposita medetur. Eadèm contra veneris insomnia bibitur, siquidem illa in totúm adimit: quin et aliquot diebus continenter epota, genitale ita infirmât, ut arrigi minime possit. Idem porro seminis quoque poti effectus est. Caeterum à nymphis nymphaeae nomen sibi vendicasse creditur, quoniam loca amet aquosa. Plurima autem inuenitur in Helide, Anygro amne, et in Boeotiae Aliarto.
Dioscorides interp. Sarraceni, iii 148.]

Botanical References.

Nymphaea odorata, Willd. Sp. pl. ii. 1153.
Bot. Mag. 819.
Bot. Repository, 297.
Pursh, ii. 368
Nymphsea alba, Michaux, i. 311.
Walter, Carol. 155.
Castalia pudica, Salisbury, Annals of Bot. ii. 71.

Medical Reference.

Cutler, Amer. Transactions, i. 456.

American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.