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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Yellow day lily soup

June has been an extraordinary month in Aberdeen. We have been living in an almost permanent gloom – overcast, foggy, drizzly, dreich and occasionally torrential. When the cloud base rises above the rooftops it counts as a good day. We read of drought on the west coast – whisky distilleries having to suspend production for lack of water – and grit our teeth. That’s not the deal: they get the scenery and we get the drier weather.

All this dampness is not without its consequences in the forest garden. Anything that needs sun to bring it on is looking bereft and the snails are having a field day. It’s also creating an unexpected glut of yellow day lily (Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus) flowers. Usually any unused flowers dry on the plant and can be gathered for later use.

Yellow day lily (in the dry)

In this Month of Gloom, however, nothing is drying whatsoever, so we’re having to use the day lilies as they are produced. The result is that we’re eating lots of miso soup: partly no doubt because it’s salty comfort food but mostly because it’s a great way to use the flowers. Here’s the recipe from last night’s soup, which in no way needs to be followed exactly. In general, day lily flowers will also add flavour, colour and thickness to any soup you like.

Ingredients

  • Oil for frying
  • 2 small onions, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic scape (immature flowering stem), finely chopped
  • 1 potato, chopped
  • 1 piece celeriac, chopped
  • 2 fresh shiitake mushrooms, chopped
  • 200g yellow day lily flowers, chopped
  • 1 litre stock
  • 1 handful dulse (seaweed)
  • 3 heads sweet cicely seeds
  • 3 courgette flowers
  • 2 very generous teaspoonfuls of miso

Fry the onion in a pan for a couple of minutes, then add the garlic and fry until soft. Throw in the potato, celeriac and mushrooms and fry a little more, stirring occasionally. Add the lily flowers and fry until wilted. The add the stock and dulse and simmer for about 10 minutes. Use whatever stock you may have left over from other dishes but it’s important not to use a salty stock or stock cube as there is more than enough salt in the miso. Water will do fine as a substitute. Near the end add the sweet cicely seeds and courgette flowers. Once the soup it is cooked, remove the pan from the heat. Put the miso in a cup and stir it to a liquid with some cold water, then stir the lot into the soup. Serve as soon as possible.

This recipe can also be made with larger day lily flowers (Hemerocallis fulva), in which case it is a good idea to chop them roughly before adding. They wilt but don’t disintegrate, which can make for very messy eating when they’re in a soup!

 

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.