Eating daylilies (Hemerocallis)

I’ve written a few times already about using daylilies but I thought it would be helpful to have one post to tie it all together.

Daylilies have been described as ‘the perfect perennial’, due to their brilliant colours and all round ease of growing. They tolerate both drought and frost and thrive in many different climate zones and soil conditions. They are vigorous perennials that last for many years in a garden and see off most weeds. As if all that wasn’t enough, they are really nice to eat too.

Daylily is not one species but a whole bag of them, all in the genus Hemerocallis. Plants for a Future list over 20 species and only one, H. forrestii, gets anything less than a four-star rating for edibility. Many daylilies that you might encounter do not fit strictly into any one species as they have been hybridised widely and many are listed only as Hemerocallis and their cultivar name.

I should add a few words of caution before I go any further. Daylilies are listed by some sources as poisonous to either humans or pets. Largely this seems to come from confusion with other plants with ‘lily’ in their common name, some of which are not a good idea to eat at all. Many of these plants also look superficially similar to the daylily so obviously you need to be certain that what you are eating is what you think it is (always a good idea in any case). There is a good article by Delishably on the some of the confusion that has arisen here.

All I can say personally is that I have experienced no ill effects from eating moderate amounts of the cooked flowers of Hemerocallis altissima, citrina, dumortieri, exaltata, fulva, lilioasphodelus, middendorfii and minor and a range of hybrids. Bear in mind that any individual can have an adverse reaction to even common food plants and any new food should be taken with some care. Each new species and hybrid is best treated as new rather than assuming that if you are fine with one Hemerocallis you are fine with them all. The only hazard for the genus listed on Plants for a Future is from a single source and states that large quantities of the leaves are said to be hallucinogenic, so you might want to avoid that (or you might want to try it – I don’t want to make any assumptions about my readers).

Daylily flowers are often recommended for salads, which is a bit of a mystery to me as I find them rather unpleasant raw but delicious cooked. The cooked flavour is rich, sweet and complex. The key to bringing out the best in them seems to be frying, which imparts a little bit of a caramelised taste. Perhaps the simplest method is to pan-fry them for about 5 minutes in olive oil. They might have been purposefully designed for stir-frying as their elongated shape is perfect for it. I cut up the largest H. fulva flowers for stir fries but all other kinds just go in whole. One useful property of the flowers is that they will thicken a soup or sauce and I sometimes use them like onion, chopped and lightly fried before adding any other ingredients. There’s a recipe for a miso soup using yellow day lilies (H. lilioasphodelus) here.

The flowers can be used at all stages of their development. Many people consider them to be at their best for frying as flower buds, just on the point of opening. I also enjoy the opened flowers this way and the open flowers of large-flowered species and cultivars are great for cooking as fritters or tempura. If left on the plant in dry weather the flowers will dry up and will then last indefinitely in storage. The bags of ‘golden needles’ or ‘lily flowers’ than you can find in Chinese supermarkets are dried daylilies. They seem to keep their ability to thicken a soup even when dried.

The young leaves of daylilies are edible (but see the cautions above) and I use them in a mixture with others as a pot herb or in leaf sauce. However, they are no better than many more productive plants and harvesting the leaves presumably leads to fewer flowers so I don’t make heavy use of them. They also quite quickly become tougher and more fibrous.

Another part that I don’t use for fear of weakening the plant is the roots, despite one source describing them as ‘quite possibly the best tubers I’ve ever eaten’. I’m sure, however, that if I lived in one of the parts of the world where daylilies really thrive and have become a foragable weed I would be digging them up with enthusiasm.

Growing daylilies is easy. They do best in a moist, fertile soil in sun or semi shade. There is apparently a daylily gall midge (Contarinia quinquenotata) which can lead to distorted flowers. Fortunately I have never seen it in my garden. Slugs are fond of the young growth. This isn’t a problem with established plants but new plants are worth protecting when first planted out.

Choosing a daylily is harder as they have almost become a victim of their own success. Many new varieties are becoming hard to recognise even as daylilies. The trend in breeding seems to be for ever more open flowers, with petals curved back hard – pretty much the opposite of what you want for cooking. Smaller flowers and delicate, divided petals are two more qualities prized by breeders but not by chefs. On the whole, this means that older, more traditional varieties are better for cooking. Varieties I use include Whichford, Burning Daylight, Franz Hals, Yellow Moonlight, Pink Damask and Cream Drop. You can also find double varieties of daylily which have the culinary advantage of being chunkier: H. fulva ‘Kwanso’ is one that I grow. Two common varieties that I have found rather disappointing in terms of size and yield are ‘Stella de Oro’ and ‘Corky’.

In countries where daylilies self-seed I expect there is a tendency to revert to type. If you are lucky enough to live in one of these countries and you find a particularly nice wild specimen I’d encourage you to take it into cultivation and pass it around. It’s a pity that no-one seems to be actively breeding daylilies for their culinary rather than their ornamental properties. I would certainly buy them.

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Eating nasturtiums

At this time of year, nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are making a splash everywhere, in flower beds, in hanging baskets, in the forest garden – and in the wok and saucepan. Many people will know nasturtiums for their brightly coloured, peppery tasting flowers, but there is a lot more to their culinary use than that.

All parts of the nasturtium – leaves, flowers and seeds – contain the aromatic oil that makes them taste similar to watercress, and all parts can be used in recipes that exploit this flavour. The flowers look spectacular in a salad or as a garnish and the leaves give an interesting twist to pesto. For me though, the biggest attraction is that all this colour and spice mask a less showy but equally useful side to nasturtium, as a very well flavoured green vegetable.

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If you cook nasturtium greens, you will be left in no doubt that the aromatic oils are being driven off, as the heady smell fills the kitchen. The surprise is what is left at the end: neither the cress flavour of the raw vegetable nor the bland taste that might be expected, but another taste entirely, distinctive and very pleasant. One way to enjoy this is as a pot herb or spinach. Fry a small onion and some garlic in a pan until soft, then throw in a good quantity of washed nasturtium leaves and a little extra water. Put the lid on and cook for a few minutes. You’ll smell the oil being driven off – once that is over the leaves are ready. The result not only has a nice flavour but also a good texture: soft and buttery. This is very nice as a side dish in its own right, or you could substitute nasturtium leaves for spinach in more complex dishes or mix them together with other leaves.

Another way to use nasturtium is to harvest the soft growing tips, nipping off about 10 centimetres of growth, and use them in a stir fry. I add them near the end: they don’t need a lot of cooking and the ideal is if they keep a little of their cress flavour but not too much.

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Nasturtiums are prolific seeders, and this gives another great product: the pickled green seeds. These are often described as caper substitutes, but to my taste they are on a par with capers. Used in similar ways but with a different taste, I’m happy to have both available. There are great preparation instructions on Garden Betty’s blog.

Nasturtiums like a well-drained soil, preferably in full sun. Growing guides tend to say that they do best in poor soil, but it is more accurate to say that they flower best in poor soil. They will grow quite happily in a rich soil, with lots of leaf growth. They are quite rampant and may smother plants that are too close, so give them a bit of space or plant them next to a taller plant that they can scramble up without inconveniencing too much. In my forest garden I have them planted next to some raspberries and also able to cascade over a low wall. The space next to them has wild garlic, which is well over before the nasturtiums really get going. Nasturtiums are annual but they produce lots of seed and often self seed; however, it’s still a good idea to save some seed over the winter so you can plant them where you want them. They can vary in vigour, flavour and size and the tips of some plants are a bit woody, so seed saving gives you a chance to propagate from your best plants.

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King’s spear (Asphodeline lutea)

I first came across king’s spear (Asphodeline lutea) at the Plants for a Future site down in Cornwall, where I was captivated by the beauty and sweet taste of the yellow flowers. It only remained to try to answer my usual question: yes, but will it grow in Aberdeen?

I had almost come to the conclusion that the answer was no and king’s spear was coming close to joining my failures list. It has grown quite happily for around five years, surviving temperatures of down to minus fifteen centigrade on one occasion, but there had never been any sign of those flowers. This year, however, perhaps sensing impending doom if it didn’t get its metaphorical finger out, it has flowered gloriously.

king's spear flower

King’s spear’s flowers are sweet and mild. They are borne on huge flower spikes, with the individual flowers lasting only for a very short while, which means that they lend themselves well to regular picking for salads. Their main drawback is that it also means that they don’t store well and they are best used the same day that they are picked (which is not usually difficult). New flowers are opened the next day so little is lost decoratively.

It has an unusual growth pattern, presumably linked to the climate in its native Turkey. It comes into growth in the autumn and grows happily through the winter. Cold weather slows it down but doesn’t seem to stop it. It then flowers in spring and summer (mine started in mid May and looks like it will make it through most of July), before going dormant for a period in late summer.

There are two other edible parts. The leaf bundles can be harvested during the growing season. The tougher ends of the leaves are trimmed off and they are boiled, rather like leeks. The flavour is mild and pleasant and they make a welcome winter vegetable. The roots are also listed as edible: apparently the ancient Greeks used to mash them together with oil and figs. I have tried them and all I can say is that (a) the ancient Greeks must have had more time on their hands than I do as they are very fiddly and (b) I can see why they used the oil and the figs – probably to disguise the flavour.

A. lutea growing in the Winter Gardens, Duthie Park, Aberdeen

A. lutea growing in the Winter Gardens, Duthie Park, Aberdeen

King’s spear is very easily propagated by dividing the roots and it is widely available since it is used as a decorative plant. For me it only remains to find out whether its flowering this year was down to the very mild winter and spring or if it is now going to be a regular feature.

Edible flowers

One of the most striking things about growing food with forest gardening is how many flowers end up on your plate. When you think about it though, the stranger thing is perhaps why this part of the plant has been neglected in our cookery for so long (apart from immature flowers like cauliflowers and artichokes). After all, plants are pretty keen on producing them and there is a massive industry dedicated to breeding and growing them for non-edible purposes.

Recently, the balance seems to have shifted and there is a bit of a fashion for eating flowers. There’s a good, comprehensive article on the subject here. However, a lot of this is driven by the search for novelty in fancy restaurants or is based on picking a few flowers off basically ornamental species to decorate a dish. There is a much shorter list of flowers that can really be considered as crops in themselves, either because they are so productive that they are worth growing as the main yield or because they are a by-product of a plant that is cropped for some other part. My short list is: day lilies, bellflowers, salsify, pot marigold, king’s spear, alliums, mallow, courgette, peas, runner bean, nasturtium, dandelion and (maybe) tiger lily and golden currant.

Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis)

Day lilies, salsify and bellflowers are the three most productive: best fried, steamed and in salads respectively. All three illustrate an important point about eating flowers: the more you pick, the more you have of them. For a plant, a flower is just a means to an end: getting pollinated and producing seeds. Once that has been achieved it rapidly switches its resources to the growing fruit or seed head and stops flowering, but if you frustrate its ambitions it will often keep on trying, sometimes for the rest of the year.

Pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) are not bulk producers like the last three, but a small patch will produce a lot of flowers over the course of a summer. It is the petals that are used: they add a subtle but interesting flavour and an entirely unsubtle, cheerful colour to practically any dish. Perhaps they are best regarded as a herb. They are equally good raw in a salad or cooked in almost anything and unlike most flowers they keep their colour no matter how much you cook them. On top of this they are famously good for the health of the garden, producing chemicals that kill or repel little parasitic worms called nematodes. This combination of qualities, plus their relative ease of growing, wins them a place in my garden.

Allium moly

Golden garlic (Allium moly)

The alliums or onions are a group with too many edible species to even list. They are often grown for their leaves or bulbs but the flowers are usually edible too and they are often available when the rest of the plant has either died down or become woody. Chives (A. schoenoprasum) are one that I use a lot. Like all alliums, its flowers are borne on little stems radiating from a central point. The trick to using it is to get your thumbnail into this central point and nip it out, causing an explosion of little pink florets. Chive flowers are mild enough for salads. Wild garlic (A. ursinum) can also be used but has a much stronger, more garlicky flavour. Golden garlic (A. moly) hardly looks like an allium at all, with relatively few flowers per head and those bright yellow. The flowers add a sweet oniony flavour to a salad and the leaves and bulbs can be used too. Round-headed leek (A. sphaerocephalon) has huge, showy balls of edible flowers.

Common mallow (Malva sylvestris)

Common mallow has the advantage that it will grow in the shade. It’s an all-round useful plant that I’ve already written about here.

Across in the annual garden, courgettes (or zucchini if you prefer) are already moderately well known, especially frittered. Sometimes the baby courgette is harvested along with the flower but if you’re careful you can break the flower off the end of the fruit before it wilts, allowing you to both have your courgette and eat it(s flower).

Courgette (Curcurbita pepo ovifera)

Other annual crops that have unexpectedly edible flowers are mangtout peas, sugar snap peas and runner beans. The runners in particular are delicious and mine always produce far more flowers than they are capable of ripening into pods, so a little thinning does no harm at all. Don’t be deceived by appearances though: sweet peas (Lathyrus odorata) are not edible.

Pea flowers (Pisum sativum)

Another annual famed for its edible flowers is the nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus – a bit confusingly, Nasturtium as a Latin name refers to water cress, not nasturtiums.) Every part of the nasturtium is edible, with a hot, cress/pepper flavour. In fact they are too strong for me – the only way I like to use them is to pickle the seeds and use them like capers – but if you like a cress flavour then this is the plant for you.

I don’t plant dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) in the forest garden but, as you’d expect, I have them anyway. In fact they’re a fairly low level weed in the forest garden, so in contrast to my zero-tolerance approach in the annual beds I’m fairly lax about pulling them out, happy to make occasional use of the spring leaves and flowers in the meantime. Dandelion flowers should be cooked, preferably in ways that either exploit their bitterness or minimise it with a starchy component. Fritters and bhajis are good, or you could try the spicy fried dandelion recipe I found on a rather good blog by Ciaran Burke in Ireland.

Finally, a couple I haven’t tried yet but have high hopes for. Golden currant (Ribes aureum) has very pretty flowers which are said to be edible. It is closely related to buffalo currant (Ribes odoratum), which grows well here, so I’ve ordered some and expect them to thrive. Then there is tiger lily (Lilium linifolium). I am already growing this for its edible bulbs but I found out recently that the flower is edible too, with some very enthusiastic reports online. On the other hand, Plants for a Future list the pollen as poisonous, which could make eating the flowers a delicate business. More research, as they say, is needed.

Eating hostas

One of my favourite seasonal treats from the forest garden is the hostas. No, no spelling mistake: hostas are really edible. In fact, they are a near perfect forest garden crop. Woodland is the natural habitat of many hosta species, so they like moist soil with plenty of organic matter and tolerate a considerable amount of shade. A friend tells me that they have a positive allelopathic relationship (i.e. they secrete chemicals that help each other) with apples, and since the research on it is published in Russian I’ll have to take her word for it. Hostas are no novelty nibble: they have the potential to be a major productive vegetable.

hosta clump

The best part of the hosta is the ‘hoston’, the rolled up leaf as it emerges in the spring, although many varieties are still pretty good even once they have unfurled. The best way of cooking them depends on the size of the hostons. Small ones are delicious if you fry them for a few minutes, then add a little light soy sauce and sesame oil. The slight bitterness of the hostons complements the saltiness of the soy sauce very well. Similarly, they go very well in stir fries. The chunkier hostons are better boiled briefly and used as a vegetable. In the picture below, the hostons on the right are bound for frying, those on the left are for boiling.

hostons

Hostons are best cropped by gripping them firmly near the base and snapping ones off the edge of the clump. If you can snap them off right at the base they will hold together as a whole instead of falling apart into individual leaves. The short leaf scales around the base are bitterer than the larger leaves so they are worth removing. It is much easier to harvest the hostons if the crown of the plant is a little above ground level when it is planted. It is possible to harvest the whole first flush of leaves of an established plant without killing it: ornamental hosta growers will sometimes ‘mow’ their plants to get a second flush of fresh, attractive leaves.

Later on, the open leaves can be used as a general pot herb or substituted for spinach in recipes like ‘hostakopita’. The flowers and flower buds are also edible: the Montreal Botanical Garden lists all species as edible and Hosta fortunei as the tastiest.

It seems to be an open question whether every single species of hosta is edible and therefore whether it is a good idea to try any unidentified hosta that you may happen across. The species I have eaten regularly myself are H. sieboldiana, montana and longipes. Martin Crawford lists H. crispula, longipes, montana, plantaginea, sieboldii, sieboldiana, undulata and ventricosa. Plants for a Future add H. clausa, clavata, longissima, nigrescens, rectifolia and tardiva and list no known hazards for the genus as a whole. This covers all the common ornamental species except H minor, which probably isn’t worth it anyway, and H fortunei, which must be edible since the most popular variety of it, ‘Sagae’ originally arose in hostas being grown for food in Sagae City in Japan. On the basis of that I’m happy to try any hosta myself, but if you’re going to do that, remember to try only a small piece first and test for a skin reaction by rubbing a piece on your skin before putting anything in your mouth.

Picture by ‘dcarch’ on the Seed Savers’ Forum

For more on eating hostas, there is a discussion and some astonishingly beautiful pictures of hosta dishes on the Seed Savers’ Forum. There was also a very useful article in Permaculture Magazine No. 58. It isn’t online unfortunately, but you can buy the back issue if you are really keen. A fellow wordpress blogger has also been writing about eating hostas here.

In Japan, hostas are prized as sansai or ‘mountain vegetables’, a class of plants that are usually gathered wild from the mountain and are considered to be particularly strong in vitality. There’s a great blog post about sansai at http://shizuokagourmet.com/sansai/.

Peach-leaved bellflower/ salad bluebell

Campanula persicifolia

Yay! My favourite salad flower started producing today. It’s peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), but since that’s a bit of a mouthful we usually call it salad bluebell. (Campanulas are called bluebells in Scotland. The plant that they call bluebell in England is pretty poisonous. This is why Latin names are so good!) It has a mild taste and the flowers are large and produced in abundance between now and the first frost. This means that it can be used as a bulk salad ingredient, so from this time of year our salads generally turn blue.

The whole Campanula genus is edible and further south I’m told that C versicolor tastes nicest, but persicifolia is thoroughly hardy and thrives in Aberdeen, which is what I look for in a plant.

Photo from Wikipedia Commons, with thanks to Pixeltoo.

Yellow day lily

Yellow day lily

Yellow day lily

The yellow day lilies (Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus) are in full bloom at the moment. The day lilies (Hemerocallis) are a very useful group. Some have edible tubers but the flowers are the stars. They go well (and pretty spectacularly) in salads, but I like the taste best in stir fries or soups. The Chinese use them to thicken soups and stews: you can see big bags of ‘lily flowers’ in Chinese supermarkets (but beware, some true lilies are poisonous – the perils of common names). They keep this property when dried, which they do pretty well themselves on the plant. Once dry they keep forever.

They yellow day lilies are always the first into flower with me: if you grow a range of species and varieties you can have fresh flowers for two or three months.