by Leda Meredith
I love a plant that has multiple edible parts in different seasons, is easy to harvest in a way that absolutely allows the plant to replenish, and provides eye candy, too. Daylily is one of those plants. And two of its best parts, the shoots and tubers, are in season right now (and only for a few more weeks).
Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) is originally native to Asia. It was brought over 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 Tiger Lilies, Easter Lilies, etc. that are common in florists’ shops, and many people find the similarity in names confusing. Although they have similar flowers, those Lilium species have short spiky leaves that are no more than a few inches long and there are lots of them all the way up the flower stalk. Hemerocallis (daylily) flower stalks are leafless, or at most have one or two sparse, short leaves.
Although there are entire clubs devoted to the hundreds of cultivated daylilies, not all gardeners are convinced. In fact, many curse this “ornamental” because once you plant it, it’s hard to eradicate. More than that, It needs thinning out every few years if it is to continue to deliver its best flower show.
That fact explains this tip for where and how to collect daylily: ask your friends who are gardeners if they are growing any (most community gardens in Brooklyn are). Offer to help them thin their daylily patch, and explain that you will do so in a way that not only enables the plant to survive, but encourages a greater abundance of blooms in future years.
Do this now, because timing matters. In a few weeks, it will be too late for the tubers and shoots (which are what you were thinking about when you offered to help your gardening friends and had dinner in mind).
Novice foragers sometimes think daylily shoots look a little like the linear leaves of iris. 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 lateral rhizomes near the surface of the soil you find ropy roots with tubers that look something like fingerling potatoes.
Use the tubers now, before the leaves are much taller than 8 inches. By the time the leaves are long and floppy, the plants start to send up flower stalks, and the tubers become depleted little sacks. You want them before their starches have been used up by the plant to produce those mature leaves and flower stalks.
Don’t bother to peel the tubers: just scrub and cook as you would potatoes, remembering that they don’t take quite as long to cook.
Okay, so you just dug up a daylily plant to harvest the tubers. That means you killed it, 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 regenerate into new plants.
Harvest the shoots to use while the leaves are still tender, which happens to be when the tubers are also good to collect. Look for them to be under 8-inches tall for the tastiest vegetable.
Gentle caution: daylilies don’t agree with everyone, giving some people upset tummies. Try a small amount of the tubers or shoots, cooked, to see if they agree with you before you dig in for larger portions. I’m really grateful that I can eat them in quantity because they are prolific and tasty vegetables.
When shorts and T-shirt weather arrives, daylily offers up its third edible part: the flowers. These are sold, dried, in Chinatown where they are called “golden fingers.” The Chinatown version is the whole flower, dried, including the center stamens and pistil. I don’t love the texture of these when they are rehydrated. But I do love the “tepals”, free of other flower parts, fresh or dried.
The six “tepals” of daylilies all look like petals, but actually the outer three are sepals. Collect all six to eat.
You aren’t depriving anyone of the beauty of the flowers if you collect them in the late afternoon. The reason for the common name “daylily” is that each individual flower only blooms for one day. Once a daylily has enjoyed its day in the sun, its petals close and never reopen.
Daylily dies back to the ground before winter, then reappears in late winter and very early spring, i.e. now.
Cut the shoots off just a bit above the soil level. Wash them well. Chop and add to stir fries with other veggies and greens. Another way I like to cook chopped daylily shoots is to toss them into the pasta water during the last 5 minutes the pasta cooks. Drain along with the pasta. Sautee a few mushrooms in extra-virgin olive oil with minced field garlic bulbs (or cultivated garlic) and toss with the daylily pasta. Top with grated cheese and minced field garlic leaves or chives.
Trim off any roots attached to the tubers. Scrub clean, but don’t bother to peel them. Cook in any way that you would potatoes, but keep in mind that their cooking time can be shorter.
Use the tender, colorful fresh “tepals” in salads. Or dry them to reconstitute later in soups and dips. Their flavor is very mild and their color is lovely, especially if carefully dried so that they do not brown at all (at room temperature away from direct light, or in a dehydrator on the lowest setting).
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her many upcoming classes and events can be found on her blog at www.ledameredith.com