Daylily is the common name of the species of the genus Hemerocallis. Hemerocallis comes from the Greek words hemera, meaning “day” and kalos, translating to “beautiful.” The flowers of most species open at sunrise and wither at sunset, often replaced by another on the same stem the next day. Some species are night-blooming.
Once considered part of the Lily family, daylily is more botanically correct placed into the Hemerocallidaceae family because they grow from tuberous, fleshy roots rather than bulbs. They are not true lilies, though they are related and have lily-like trumpet flowers. They are also known as “Eve’s thread,” “orange day lily,” and “tawny orange lily.”
The first written record of daylilies is from about 2697 B.C. when Emperor Huan Ti arranged for a Materia Medica to be written conveying herbal wisdom. Daylilies were being used for food and considered beneficial to the lungs, mind, and for strengthening willpower. Wild plants were transplanted to the garden for home use. Cultivation in the west began after a French botanist wrote of them in 1575, and were then brought to America by early settlers, who cherished it as food, and it’s ease of transport across the ocean. Legend indicates that it was brought to North America by sea captains, who presented the flowers to their wives after traveling the Orient. In the 20th century, cross-pollination began in North Carolina and an explosion of hybrids have ensued ever since.
Depending on the species, young shoots can be harvested from late winter and for much of the spring. The sprouting leaves that appear in the spring have a sweet, pleasant flavor and can be used as an excellent vegetable; though older shoots quickly become tough and fibrous. In spring, cut the 3- to 5-inch outer leaves from their grassy clump, taking care not to damage flowering stalks. Asians have long used the leaves as a painkiller, so consume only small amounts. The hearts of the shoots are especially delicious.
Small buds less than two inches long taste the best. Larger buds are more bitter. Pale yellow and orange varieties are often the most delectable parts of the plant and can be eaten at all stages of their growth, raw or cooked in salads or prepared with other vegetables. They are often included in dishes such as hot and sour soup and Buddha’s Delight. If consumed in excess, the green buds may become irritating to the throat.
Summer blossoms open upwards and are colorful, crisp, thick and juicy with a delicate sweetness at their nectar-filled bases. When fresh, they are also at their most nutritious state, containing reasonable quantities of protein (mainly from pollen), beta-carotene and iron. Petals can be pulled apart or blended to make a chiffonade. Taste the flowers before collecting because some species have a bitter, acidic, or even metallic flavor. Use daylily flowers as a garnish, in salads, and soups. In Asia, the flowers are usually harvested as they begin to wither, then dried and used as a flavoring and thickener in soups, often referred to as “golden needles.”
At almost any time of growth the thick, fleshy, tuber- like roots can be harvested. Young tubers are the best, though the central portion of older roots can also be used. They are crisp, with a nutty flavor and can be eaten raw, on the spot, added to salads, soups, stews, or in place of potatoes. Tubers are best when eaten in late fall or winter after storing nutrients from summer growth. Dig the plant up carefully, divide the sausage-shaped roots, select a number of firm, white ones for your table, and replant, or share the remainder. Some daylilies show elongated widenings along the roots, made by the plant mostly for water storage and an indication of good health. Roots will be just an occasional bonus crop when you are dividing plants. Digging them up will decrease the number of plants that grow. The small white tubers attached to the roots are crisp like water chestnuts, and can be used raw or served with a dip.
Daylily leaves, flowers and tubers are listed in virtually every book as edible. However, some people have allergic reactions to unusual compounds in plants. It’s important to be cautious. The first time you sample any part of a daylily, taste only a small piece and have a friend with you. Wait at least an hour before trying more, and then take small amounts, tasting before swallowing. If it tastes bitter, too spicy, weird or unpalatable, don’t swallow it. Spit it out. Although all parts of the plant are edible, some reports warn that consumption of large quantities of young shoots can be hallucinogenic and should be avoided. Do not confuse daylily with the similar looking yet toxic narcissus, iris or daffodil.
All parts of the plant are considered edible during most months of the year. Of course, only use organically grown flowers and those collected at least fifty feet from a busy road.
Daylilies brighten gardens and borders and even thrive in mass plantings on steep slopes. Colors often range from shades of yellow, orange and red, but after years of hybridizing, are available in almost every color of the rainbow, even bicolor with contrasting eyes or stripes. Some hybrids blossom for two or three days and longer, and may even re-bloom.
The broad spreading root system of daylilies forms weavings that hold soil in place. They are hardy herbaceous perennials, tough and trouble free. They grow in almost any kind of dirt, sun or half shade, though not fond of wet spots (Who is?) or high dry places and establish themselves as quickly in the garden as they do in the wild. Daylilies make a good weed-excluding ground cover, succeeding even under and around trees and shrubs.
Plant daylilies with space to multiply and the crown no more than 1 inch below the soil in a damp, slightly acid, rich loam with good drainage area. An occasional top-dressing of organic compost or natural fertilizer encourages abundant flowering. They will produce fewer flowers in the shade. Since the plants die down for the winter, dead leaves should be left on the ground to give cover.
Originally from Eurasia, their large showy flowers have made them popular worldwide. Daylilies are not commonly used in formal flower arranging yet make good cut flowers as new flowers continue to open on cut stems over several days. According to the language of flowers, Daylilies symbolize coquetry, mothering and are associated with the twentieth wedding anniversary. Celebrate summer sensuously with day lilies as a delicacy!
Day Lily Delight
4 cups chopped day lily buds and/or flowers
1/4 teaspoon chopped thyme
1/4 teaspoon Celtic salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
Mix together and serve.
Editor’s note: Dayliles and members of the plant genus Lilium can be toxic to cats. Be careful planting outside if you have feline companions. Read here for more information.