Take a drive down any road right now and you’ll see them. Daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva) are everywhere. Those wild orange ones spread into the ditches and are quite adept at holding the soil and curbing erosion. It’s a shame they only bloom for a few weeks and each individual bloom only lasts one day.
It’s no mystery why they are so plentiful. Daylilies can thrive in extremely wet to quite dry conditions. While they prefer sunny locations they are quite tolerant to long periods of shade. They are also very cold hardy and found in almost every state.
Daylilies can be invasive largely because they produce a thick network of tuberous roots much like small sweet potatoes. They form such a dense mat of subterranean tissue that no other plants can compete. As with many invasive species, daylilies are not native and originally came from Asia. They are an important medicinal herb in many Asian cultures.
Countless commercial varieties are planted as ornamentals. Some are tall like the wild ones and some are much shorter. All have six equal petals more properly called tepals. Flowers curve to face upwards. Leaves are distinctly folded and fan out opposite to each other.
In the past 30 years plant breeders have developed several continuous blooming cultivars. Colors range from cream to pink and even burgundy, but yellow and orange are most common. All need to be divided regularly so they don’t take over an area. You’ll have plenty to give to your friends.
What can we do if we don’t need all the extra plants? We can eat them. Daylily foliage is edible when young. Flowers can be eaten both raw and cooked. Flower buds make a great addition to any stir-fried dish. Both flowers and flower buds contain mucilage and can be added to soups to thicken the broth.
The tuberous roots look like miniature sweet potatoes and are also edible both raw and cooked. When raw they are crunchy like jicama, water chestnuts or turnip. When cooked they have the texture of sweet potatoes but are more bland. This means they add bulk without imparting a strong flavor that might clash with other ingredients. I don’t consider them a stand-alone dish. When stir-fried I think they are better if boiled first.
Daylily roots and flowers are rich in protein and vitamins A and C. Cooking usually denatures most vitamins, so uptake is better if you eat them raw. The problem is that raw daylilies, particularly the leaves, can make some people nauseous or cause diarrhea when eaten in large quantities. Cooking reduces these problems, but I still suggest consuming small quantities until you know how they agree with you. Too many give me gas.
When eating daylily leaves choose only young specimens. Once foliage matures it becomes bitter and many of the digestive problems are associated with the bitterness.
The nice thing about daylilies is threefold. First, unless you absolutely love eating them you’ll never put a dent in their population. Second, parts of the plant can be eaten all year. Finally, daylilies are distinctive and almost impossible to confuse with something else.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.