Foraging expert Steve Brill has shared his foraging wisdom at schools, museums, parks departments, environmental organizations, and with scout troops since 1982. He’s written three books and an app, stars in a DVD and maintains a website at Wild Man Steve Brill.
This Asian colonial perennial produces dense stands of large, showy, edible flowers and flower buds above a basal rosette of long, sword-shaped leaves that you can also eat when they first come up, plus tubers that are in season all year.
The long, narrow, linear, basal (bottom) leaves, which grow from 1 to 3 feet long and have parallel veins, flop over as they get longer. When the shoots first appear in early spring, the leaves grow mostly in the same plane and unite into a short, whitish, cylindrical to elliptoid base that grows 1 to 2 inches above ground level. Fleshy light brown rhizomes under 0.25 inches in diameter spread from the base into the ground, each ending in a small, oblong, light brown tuber, whitish inside, and about 0.75 inches long. The true roots emanate from the tubers.
Six to 15 large, showy, orange, short-stemmed, upward-facing, funnel-shaped flowers branch from a tall, slender, smooth, unbranched, leafless stem 3 to 4 feet tall. Three reflexed (bent) tepals (modified leaf-like sepals that stand in for true petals), and three nearly identical sepals, grow to about four inches long, with ruffled edges, plus a pale yellow line running along each tepal’s length. Six long, pollen-covered slender, cylindrical stamens surround a single longer but similar-looking pistil inside each flower.
During the flowering period, cylindrical, yellow-orange, lined flower buds, growing from 1.5 to 3 inches long just before they open, grow on the same short branches as the flowers, replenishing the flowers, which wither at the end of the same day that they open. Shriveled remnants of previous days flowers hang from some of the short branches.
Wild daylilies spread underground and don’t set seed.
The shoots are in season in early spring; the flowers, mainly in late spring and early summer, although a few bloom throughout the summer on cultivated varieties. The tubers are in season all year.
One of the easiest renewable edible plants to harvest in quantity, daylilies grow in cultivated habitats, gardens, roadsides, riverbanks, parks, open woodlands and meadows.
Most of the U.S. and southern Canada.
You can twist off and bag handfuls of the shoots under 8 inches tall (6 inch tall shoots are the best) with your hands, or cut them with a knife or shears. You can break off the flower buds and flowers with your fingers, and dig up the tubers with a shovel or trowel.
Chop and use the young shoots raw in salads or sandwiches, or steam, sauté or stir-fry them. Add them to soups, stews or casseroles. Virtually any cooking method works with them, and their tasty, string bean/onion flavor always shines through, no matter what other ingredients or spices accompany them. They cook in 10 to 15 minutes. Use shoots under 8 inches tall. Larger ones become coarse, unpleasant to eat, and hard to digest.
Cook the larger unopened flower buds in recipes that call for green beans. The flavor is similar, and they cook in about 15 minutes. You can also reconstitute the previous day’s wilted flowers in soups, or purée them and use them as a flavorful thickener.
The flowers are sweet and pungent. Don’t eat the green bases of the flowers, which are somewhat acrid. Add the flowers to salads that you’re going to eat the same day, before they do their Cinderella (or Mission Impossible) thing the same night. Italian and Chinese cooks dip the flowers in batter and deep-fry them. They’re also excellent in soups. They are sold dried as “golden needles” in Chinese grocery stores, for use in traditional hot-and-sour soups. You can stuff the fresh flowers with dried fruit, nuts or sweetened vegan cottage cheese with sweet herbs, close them with toothpicks, and serve these stuffed daylilies as a fancy dessert at parties.
You can also scrub and slice the smaller, firm tubers (the larger, older, flaccid ones are terrible), and sauté them in olive oil with garlic, salt, and pepper, or add to soups, stews or casseroles. They taste a little like nutty turnips. Some people love the tubers, but they are small and labor-intensive to clean, so I rarely prepare them.
No nutritional information about the shoots is available, but the flowers and flower buds provide beta carotene, vitamin C and iron, and the tubers provide protein and essential fatty acids.
An infusion made from the flowers has been used as a reputed treatment for post-traumatic stress disorders, to cause forgetfulness concerning the traumatic events. Chinese herbalists also use it as a painkiller, for fever, as a sedative and for childbirth. These uses need to be verified scientifically.
The rhizomes and tubers have shown antimicrobial and anti-parasitical activity. Some claim they may even slow the growth of cancer, although more research is needed to verify this.
Irises (Iris spp.) and daffodils (Narcissus spp.) have sword-shaped leaves when young, making them resemble daylily shoots. The flowers, which appear later on, differ greatly, and these plants don’t have rhizomes ending in tubers, so dig up daylilies to make sure you have the right plant before you eat the shoots.
About 1 out of 50 people can’t tolerate daylilies, especially the tubers and shoots, more so if they eat them raw. These people experience diarrhea, sometimes with vomiting. Take a bite or two the first time you try daylilies, and increase your portions by small increments in the following days. If you ever begin to feel queasy or nauseous, avoid this plant. (This caution doesn’t apply when my wife’s attending a foraging tour — she’d be the 1-out-of-50 people who tolerates this plant about as badly as she puts up with my jokes!)
Also, there are rare genetic variants, otherwise identical to normal daylilies, that will cause such digestive distress in anyone who eats them. I’ve led hundreds of tours since 1982 where we’ve collected and eaten daylilies and have never run into any of these varieties, so they must be extremely rare, but there’s reliable documentation that this has occurred. Again, try one or two bites the first time you eat daylilies in a new location, and avoid collecting from a stand if it makes you a little queasy.
Similar Plants and Confusing Factors
The tiger lily’s (Lilium tigruinum) edible flowers are spotted, not lined, and its stem bears leaves instead of being bare of leaves.
Cultivated daylilies come in different colors, sometimes with multiple sets of tepals, and those may even produce seeds. Although edible, they’re not as tasty as the wild orange varieties.