It's May in the Seattle arboretum. Woodpeckers and flickers are finishing their nests in brittle trees. Mallard ducks are taking their newly hatched ducklings for their first swims. And water lilies are beginning to turn the open water into a maze of lanes.
The fragrant water lily, formally known as Nymphaea odorata, is found all over the arboretum's wetlands, as it is on virtually every lake in western Washington. The water lily isn't native here. Until the late 1800s, it was found only in the eastern half of North America. But as the area grew, new residents brought the ornamental plant with them.
The water lily is quite gorgeous during the few months when people are likely to be on or near the water. Throughout the summer, large, bright flowers — typically white, pink and yellow — spring up from the green pads.
But the water lilies also grow fast — and quite easily.
Washington's ecology department tells the story of Griffin Lake, located on the other side of the state. In the mid-1970s, as little as 10 percent of the lake was covered in green. Just 20 years later, the entire 110 acre surface was covered with water lilies.
In many areas that is cause for concern. The floating lily pads are firmly tethered with thick stalks to the muck under the water. On lakes throughout the country swimmers have become entangled and drowned.
The ability of the water lily to spread seems somewhat limited in the arboretum, though. The water lilies like calm water. The constant parade of waterfowl and canoes seems to help keep the water channels open.
And while not native, the water lily seems to have become a key part of the ecosystem in the arboretum's wetlands. Over the years I've rowed in the arboretum, I've watched the wildlife make great use of the lily pads. I've seen frogs rest on them. I've seen young ducklings crawl on them to feast on trapped food. I've even watched damselflies and dragonflies use them as a platform to find mates.
They vanish nearly as fast as they grow. After flowers fade in late summer, the green pads begin to disappear, too. Until next summer.