Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gathering Water Lilies

Nemasket River, Middleborough, MA, photograph, early 20th century.
A young man on the Nemasket River gathers water lilies which fill the stem and stern of his canoe.

Other lilies grow in the river, too, that are like roses...
- Herodotus, The Histories

Common on local lakes and ponds, as well as the Nemasket River, water lilies have long been part of local history.  Native Americans employed the plant for medicinal purposes, and ate the flower buds, seeds, young leaves and roots (which were dried and ground into flour).  Later, the plant was increasingly regarded for its aesthetic value, and its profuse presence on a pond at Rock belonging to Ichabod F. Atwood late in the season in 1862 was deemed newsworthy enough to be documented in the pages of the Middleborough Gazette and Old Colony Advertiser on October 25th of that year.  At the time it was noted of the lilies that they were "in all stages of development, from the forming bud to the full-blown, perfect flower." 

Gathering Waterlilies, Jerome Thompson
(1814-86), oil on canvas, 1867.
During the Victorian era, gathering water lilies was a not uncommon sight, and the practice was documented by artists of the day including Middleborough native Jerome Thompson, Eastman Johnson and P. H. Emerson.  More prosaic use of the practice of lily gathering was put to use on advertising trade cards, some distributed locally.  Overly zealous collectors, however, threatened to strip local ponds and the river bare of he flower so much so that in July, 1908, signs were placed at Rock Pond on Smith Street forbidding the taking of lilies.  Interestingly, at one time, the water lily was proposed as the state flower of Massachusetts.  It however lost out to the Mayflower which was adopted in 1918.


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