More Than Just a Pretty Face
By Nancy Oster
Photography by Erin Feinblatt
Banana Berry Truffle, Holy Guacamole, Cherry Chapeau, Lemon Curry, Mango Martini and Pistachio Eyes are the names of just a few of the growing number of daylily hybrids available today.
Sound delicious enough to eat? Well, the Chinese have been eating daylilies for centuries. Dried daylily buds are a traditional ingredient in hot and sour soup and mu shu pork. Dried buds are sold in Asian markets labeled as lily buds, Golden Needles or gum jum.
In his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, naturalist Euell Gibbons recommended eating young green shoots in the early spring, the tasty buds and flowers in late spring and summer and the tuber-like swellings on the roots in the fall and winter.
I’d picked up a copy of Peter Gail’s book The Delightfully Delicious Daylily in the late ’90s but had only experimented with using the petals as a colorful ingredient in salads. So when a friend invited me to visit Penny and Phil Ben’s daylily farm in Arroyo Grande, I welcomed the opportunity to expand my experience beyond what we commonly think of as landscaping plants for offices and parking lots.
Daylily West in Arroyo Grande
My initial visit was during the Daylily West’s annual Bloomfest last June. We set out in the late morning, hoping to catch the flowers at their finest. Daylilies typically open with the sun and begin to wither at dusk. A cool coastal morning can delay the morning bloom, but the sun was shining as we drove towards Arroyo Grande.
Daylily West is about four miles off the freeway along a road of small rural ranches; it’s easy to miss if you don’t watch the mailbox numbers. As we pulled into the driveway Chloe, Lacy and Skip, the farm’s Australian Shepherds, took a break from gopher patrol to greet us and notify Penny and Phil that we had arrived.
Walking a rose-bordered path toward the house that Penny and Phil designed and built when they bought the 10-acre property 24 years ago, Phil explained that they just wanted enough space for Penny to care for and ride her three show horses. Growing daylilies wasn’t in the original plan.
It all started when Penny decided to plant a few vegetables. When Phil saw Penny’s 30+ tomato-laden plants, he suggested that perhaps she should find a way to sell some of her surplus vegetables. That’s how Penny ended up selling vegetables at three farmers markets in the early ’90s. Penny laughs. “How many tomatoes can one family eat?”
As we approached the daylily field, the sun-warmed petals were beginning to release their subtle fragrances. Penny clearly has an instinctively green thumb, which is supported by Phil’s horse manure composting skills. As a result, everything planted on their farm blooms in profusion.
The daylilies are no exception. Noting my surprise at the range of pinks, reds, oranges, yellows, purples and multi-colored combinations, Penny says, “There are a lot more choices than what you see in planters around businesses. There were about 30,000 registered daylilies when we started selling them in 1995. Now there are about 70,000.”
The Enduring Daylily
One of the reasons for daylily popularity is that they are extremely easy to grow, as Penny found out. “Someone gave me a couple of daylilies for the yard,” she says. “I never even planted them. I just left them on the ground behind the house—in clumps with the dirt on them. Within six months the roots had dug into the ground and they were blooming.”
The daylily’s hardiness is legendary. The ubiquitous orange daylily Hemerocallis fulva originated in Asia thousands of years ago. Daylilies arrived in Europe via the Chinese silk routes and were brought to America by early settlers. Clumps similar to the ones Penny was given were carried across the country on horseback and in wagons by westward-bound pioneers. Many of those planted around cabins escaped into the wild spaces and are sometimes referred to as ditch lilies because these “naturalized” daylilies will grow anywhere.“
The plants need about six hours of sun a day and they like warm soil,” Phil says, but they will grow in partial shade too. He gives them a feeding of steer manure in the winter and mulches them with compost, but they will grow in just about any soil, amended or not. They like water and do best with good drainage. The plants can be divided every few years and shared with friends.
Penny only sells varieties that she knows grow well in our area with evergreen leaves and an abundance of flowers. On my second visit I asked Penny about one of the plants I bought from her that probably needs more light. “That’s what shovels are for,” she tells me: “If you think it needs a better place, just move it.”
Penny and Phil sell their plants online at the Daylily West website and to mail-order and walk-in customers. The plants are dug up and processed just before shipment. Planting instructions are included…or you can just throw them on the ground behind the house.
Can You Really Eat Them?
Although most parts of the daylily are edible, some people may have an allergic reaction to them. If you are trying them for the first time, start with a nibble and wait an hour before trying more. Never eat landscape plants that might be sprayed with pesticides or plants growing near a busy roadway, and do not confuse daylilies with true lilies, or lilium, which are not edible. And while most people can eat daylilies, they may be toxic to pets, depending on the variety and the amount ingested.
The pea- to almond-sized swellings on the root ends can be eaten fresh like jicama or boiled, but the roots contain some toxins so it is recommended that they be eaten in moderation. Yield is very small per plant so it’s probably not worth digging up plants to harvest, especially the really expensive varieties.
The young spring shoots can be eaten like green onions. However, even though the daylily is related to the onion, the flavor isn’t as interesting as onions or spring garlic.
Daylily flowers taste like butter lettuce. Some are sweeter than others so taste before using. You can sprinkle the petals in a salad, stuff and sauté the flowers like squash blossoms, or use the flower as a container for spreads, guacamole or sour cream. Be sure to remove the pistil and stamens before using.
I’ve saved the best for last… the buds. Choose buds that are just about to open. I sautéed a handful of buds in a mixture of olive oil and butter, then seasoned them with salt and pepper. Absolutely delicious! Phil told me that an Asian market contacted him about 10 years ago wanting to buy 2,000 kilos of daylily buds shipped fresh daily. That’s how popular the buds are in Asian cuisine.
Asian markets sell the dried buds as a vegetable ingredient and a thickening agent (you can use newly wilted flowers to thicken soups but check inside for bees before you pick the flowers). Have you eaten lily buds without knowing it? Chinese restaurants in the U.S. hesitate to use daylily buds in their dishes because a few customers might experience gastric distress or have an unexpected allergic reaction to them.If you have a really productive plant, you can pickle both the fresh buds and the newly formed seed capsules.
Garnish and Decoration
Even if you decide not to risk serving daylilies, the flowers can still be used to garnish plates and platters. Penny says, “When our grandkids come to dinner during the bloom season, they’ll run to the kitchen to get pie pans and go down to the field to pick flowers. They mound them in these pans and we put them on the table for the centerpiece.”
But remember the flowers wilt quickly. You can refrigerate a newly opened flower in a plastic container with a small square of wet paper towel if you want to keep it fresh-looking for an extra day.
Penny also uses the long-stemmed flower clusters (called scapes) in flower arrangements, often with purple statice. She says, “If you put them in direct sunlight, unopened buds will bloom as the older flowers wilt.”
A Field of Pretty Faces
Penny and Phil don’t grow their daylilies for food, they grow them for their beauty, variety and endurance.
It only takes a few minutes of walking among the rows to become seduced by these cheerful flirty flowers. It comes as no surprise the Victorian language of flowers identified the daylily as a symbol of coquetry or flirtatious behavior. But beneath this mesmerizing floral beauty that fades quickly are tenacious roots that run deep and a long history intricately intertwined with our own. A survivor plant, the daylily definitely deserves a second look.
Nancy Oster has eaten all parts of the daylily, even the tubers. She would like to thank local organic gardeners Nina Gelman-Gans and Hetty Surtleff for thinning their plants so that she could sample the tubers and early spring shoots. She is anticipating serving colorful salads and flower-garnished fruit plates this summer.
Sautéed Daylily Buds
- 1 1⁄2 cups daylily buds
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small shallot, thinly sliced
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Wash and dry daylily buds. Heat butter and olive in skillet and sauté shallot until lightly caramelized. Add daylily buds and sauté until softened. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Recipe adapted from Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion R. Becker (Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1953)
- 2 cups daylily buds or young pods (3–5 days old)
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 1⁄2 cups water
- 1 1⁄4 cup vinegar
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced
- 1 small green chili, seeded and minced (optional)
Prepare a clean, hot, sterilized pint jar. Gather and wash 2 cups of buds and pods. Dissolve salt in 1 cup water. Soak the fruits in this mixture for 24 hours. Drain and pack them in a jar.Simmer vinegar, ½ cup water, garlic and chili for 5 minutes. Pour this mixture over the pods. Seal the jar and refrigerate. Let pickles marinate for four weeks before eating.
Ways to Use Daylily Flowers
Roll two petals together and use a sharp knife to cut thin slices. Scatter on top of any dish that needs a little color.
Add petals to a green salad.
Serve individual petals with a dollop of your favorite spreadable dip or soft cheese at the base of each leaf.
Remove the pistil and stamens from the center of the flower and pipe or spoon into the center horseradish to serve with prime rib, individual portions of sweetened cream cheese to serve with scones or nut bread, guacamole to serve with tortilla chips, flavored butter for each bread plate or tartar sauce alongside a serving of fish.
Add a fresh flower to the top of a bowl of pumpkin soup just before serving or arrange flowers on top of a frosted cake.
Use the stuffing from your favorite stuffed squash blossom recipe; sauté in olive oil. This would work best with flowers picked at the end of the day when they are more supple.
Dip in tempura batter and deep fry to as a colorful addition to tempura.
Biscuits or scones
Chop a couple of daylilies and add to the dry ingredients before you add the wet ingredients when making biscuitsor scones.
2420 Green Place
Arroyo Grande, CA 93420
American Hemerocallis Society
The Delightful Delicious Daylily
by Peter Gail (Gooseneck Acres Press, 1995)