Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Can water-lilies provide a useful food?

In their efforts to follow a healthier lifestyle, many people I know are looking to the past to emulate more ‘natural’ ways of eating.  The ‘paleo diet’, for example, is based on foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate during the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, which stretch from more than two million years ago up to the introduction of farming. A follower of the paleo diet often focuses on eating meats, seafood, non-starchy vegetables and nuts.

White water-lily (image by Opuntia via WikimediaCommons)
But archaeological evidence indicates that hunter-gatherers ate a much wider variety of plants than that indicated by the paleo diet. For example, there is extensive archaeological evidence to indicate that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate starch-rich roots and tubers of various plants (Warren et al. 2014). Hunter-gatherers in Ireland also ate the seeds of plants that we would rarely consider to be food nowadays. A good example of this is the water-lily, a plant that is beautiful to look at, but also has many uses.

Seeds of Nymphaea alba L. (white water-lily) and Nuphar lutea (L.) Sm. (yellow water-lily) have been discovered at several excavations of hunter-gatherer (Mesolithic) settlements in Ireland (Warren et al. 2014). More than 2,000 waterlogged white water-lily seeds were found at Clowanstown, Co. Meath, while several thousand waterlogged yellow water-lily seeds were recorded from Lough Kinale, Co. Longford, in a hollow that may represent a processing or storage area. Although water-lilies naturally produce large numbers of seeds, the presence of water-lily seeds alongside other known foods in archaeological deposits, and the fact that they are sometimes found in a charred state, suggests human intervention. Charred examples include the white water-lily seeds found in a hearth pit at Mount Sandel, Co. Derry.

Yellow water-lily (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Citing the extensive consumption of yellow water-lily seeds by indigenous peoples of North America, Mears and Hillman (2007) have detailed the process of preparing water-lily seeds for consumption, which involves gathering capsules, fermenting in water (perhaps in a lakeside pit), followed by cleaning of the seeds, dehusking, winnowing, parching, grinding and then roasting. The process takes a minimum of two weeks, highlighting the extensive time involved in processing of these plants. I have not yet had the opportunity of trying out this process myself, but I do hope to do so in the coming months!

Water-lily seeds can also be used in other ways. The seeds can be fried in fat to make a kind of popcorn (Monk and Pals 1985), used as an insect repellent and in dyeing (Mac Coitir 2006), and the rhizomes may also be edible. Perhaps the next time you look at water-lilies, as well as appreciating their beauty, you will also consider the many uses water-lilies had for past societies, particularly as a food.

Mac Coitir N (2006) Irish wild plants: myths, legend and folklore. Collins Press, Cork 

Mears R, Hillman GC (2007) Wild food. Hodder and Stoughton, London

Monk MA, Pals JP (1985) Part 2: charred plant remains. In: Woodman PC, Excavations at Mount Sandel 1973-1977, pp. 79-81. HMSO, Belfast

Warren G, Davis S, McClatchie M, Sands S (2014) The potential role of humans in structuring the wooded landscapes of Mesolithic Ireland: a review of data and discussion of approaches. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 23(5):629-646