I love a plant that is beautiful, provides several different tasty ingredients, and is easy to harvest in ways that allow the plant to replenish. Daylily is one of those plants.
Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) is originally native to Asia. It was brought over to North America as an ornamental and has naturalized along roadsides and other sunny or partially sunny areas. The orange, or tawny daylily is the most common one to find growing wild, and that’s lucky for foragers because it is also the tastiest.
Daylily is not related to the lilies that are common in florists’ shops. Although they have similar flowers, those lilies at the florist’s are Lilium species with lots of short, spiky leaves all the way up the flower stalks. Hemerocallis (daylily) flower stalks are leafless, and the main, strap-like leaves are up to two feet long and grow from the base of the plant.
Daylily Plants Provide Four Excellent Edible Parts
In early spring, harvest the shoots when they first emerge and are completely tender. That’s usually when they are less than eight inches tall. Slice the plants off just above the soil level (they will regenerate from the roots). Chop them up and use them in stir-fries or pasta.
Novice foragers sometimes think daylily shoots look like the similarly flat and linear leaves of iris. But look closer and you’ll see that daylily’s leaves face each other like hands about to applaud, whereas those of iris are lined up flat, like a fan. Daylily leaves are more of a yellow-green than the blue-green of iris. And when you dig up a daylily, instead of iris’s soil-surface, horizontal rhizomes, you’ll find ropy roots with attached tubers that look a lot like fingerling potatoes.
By the time the plants send up flower stalks, those tubers will have become depleted and mushy. Dig them up before that, from late autumn through early spring. Don’t bother to peel the tubers: just scrub and cook as you would potatoes, remembering that they won’t take quite as long to cook.
Digging up the tubers means you killed the plant, right? Fortunately, no. When you dig up a clump of daylily roots, snip off most but not all of the tubers. Replant the mass of tangled roots with the remaining tubers. They will regrow into new plants.
In late spring and early summer, daylily plants develop flower buds. Harvested while they are still green and firm, these can be steamed, boiled, or stir-fried. They also make great pickles.
Finally, in the full heat of summer daylily offers up its fourth edible part: the flowers. Each flower looks like it has six petals (technically they’re three petals and three tepals). The reason for the common name “daylily” is that each individual flower only blooms for one day. Once an individual daylily has enjoyed its day in the sun, its petals close and never reopen. Fresh, they are lovely in salads. Dried, try them in clear broth or miso soups.
Gentle caution: daylilies give a few people upset tummies. Sample small amounts at first and see if they agree with you before digging in for larger portions.
Always be 100% certain of your identification before eating any plant or mushroom.
Photos by Leda Meredith
Leda Meredith teaches foraging and food preservation skills internationally. She describes her ongoing food adventures at www.LedaMeredith.com.