Common Name: Prairie lotus
Scientific Name: Acmispon americanus
This small plant has had its scientific name changed at least three times in the past 20 years or so. Past names incude Lotus purshianus, Lotus americanus, and Lotus unifoliatus. Fortunately, Shakespeare had it right when he wrote in one of his plays “A rose by any other name is still a rose.” The name Lotus was the Greek name given to this group of plants, which is not related to the Japanese Lotus flower in any way. About 10 years ago this species along with other North American native lotus species were separated from Old World species into Acmispon. I could find no reference to the meaning behind the new name.
Regardless of name, this plant is an annual that is a member of the pea family. It is found throughout most of North America from SW Canada to Mexico, to the Atlantic, and is one of the most common of the native Acmispon species. They are often found in patches in wet spring soil, and sometimes form dense tangled masses about a foot high. The stems are often simple with no branches, but can also be found looking bush-like with many branches. The plant in the photo is about six inches tall, with both seed pods and flowers.
The plant’s leaves are alternate on the stem, and on a single plant may be simple or compound into 2 or 3 leaflets, which is an unusual feature. The stems and leaves are rather hairy, with fine spreading hairs. The pea-like flowers are white, sometimes with the broad banner petal having thin red stripes. The seed pods are flat, elliptic in outline, and have 4 to 8 seeds.
Two Indian tribes are known to use the plant in cooking. One tribe used matted plants on which to cook juniper cakes to improve the taste of the cakes. Another tribe pounded acorns along with the leaves of the plant so the plants would absorb some of the oil from the acorns.
Where to find: This plant seems to pop up some years and disappear other years depending on weather conditions. I have seen it in thick tangles near natural ponds in late spring in the Blue Mountains.