Whether you love them or hate them, daylilies can be found almost everywhere during the summertime. In some states, they grow native; in others, people plant them as landscaping for a splash of color. However, did you know that many parts of the plant are not only edible, but are actually quite delicious? Master forager Hank Shaw is a cookbook author and writes about food at his blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. Host Francis Lam talks with Shaw about how to harvest and cook daylilies. Get more information on the topic by reading Shaw's original blog post, "Dining on Daylilies."
Please note that, as with any wild foods, if you pick daylilies please be sure you’re harvesting the correct plants. Ingesting the wrong plant can be harmful, or even deadly. Check online for photos and characteristic marks, or consult an expert. Shaw also told us that a small percentage of people may get a little stomach upset from day ilies – nothing harmful, but you might want to start slow just in case.
Francis Lam: Before we suggest anyone go out and dig up some daylilies, we want to remind everyone to consult a guidebook or an expert – or good photos, at least. Hank, do you have any tips on how to know when we're looking at the right thing in the wild?
Hank Shaw: Absolutely. Daylilies are daylilies; lilies are lilies. You need to know the difference because there's a number of true lilies that will kill you dead. You don't want to mess with that level of toxicity.
First off, chances are your daylilies are always going to be orange. They grow on roadsides, ditches, unloved areas. If you see a bright orange lily-looking flower in those spots, you're on the right track. When you get to the plant, what you want to see is that a daylily is a clump. A daylily doesn't have a bulb. A daylily has lots of little roots and tubers on them, which we'll get into. A true lily is a bulb plant; there is a bulb underground, and out of that bulb comes a single stalk. On that stalk are all the flowers. The flowers are in a spray that's timed. In another words, the earliest buds of a true lily are on the bottom, and they flower as they go up.
Another thing to know is that with a true lily, their flowers last several days and even weeks. A daylily will only last a day – thus its name. The flowers on a daylily will wither within a day. The other thing about a daylily is that it will be a big clump. The leaves will be flat and they will have a number of what are called scapes - like garlic scapes - that will have the flowers on them. It will have multiple flower stalks, where a lily will only have one. What you need to check is that there could be 15 bulbs of true lilies all sitting next to each other. So, if you look, and it's one flower stalk all the way to the ground with a separation between the two, you're probably looking at lilies.
FL: And do not eat lilies.
HS: Do. Not. Eat. Lilies.
The actual Latin name for daylily is Hemerocallis fulva, and Hemerocallis is naturalized in something like 42 states. It’s considered a noxious weed in most of them, because it is super invasive. You'll find it in ditches or old fields that aren't kept up, old homesteads. The farther west you go, the harsher it is for these plants to survive all by themselves, but you do find them very often as a planting. Here in California, it's not native. You won't find it growing wild anywhere, but you'll see it in almost every parking lot. It's like the parking lot flower. But they need more water than we normally give our plants here in California. If you grew them as a plant where it's arid and dry, you're going to find that they're need more water than, say, lavender or rosemary would.
FL: Now that we have a daylily in hand – and we know it's a daylily and not a true lily – what do we eat? What do you love about it?
HS: This is the thing that's weird about this plant. Especially if you live where it's a weed, you're like “I want to kill it, it's horrible, get rid of it.” But it's almost a supermarket in a plant; almost all of it is edible. You can do different things with it. Like the flower. If you're familiar with Chinese cooking – which is where they're native, by the way; daylilies are native to the part of Asia that China now occupies – it is used a lot in hot and sour soup. If you’re looking at a Chinese market, you’ll find them called golden needles. You know what a filé gumbo is? The powdered sassafras?
FL: Yeah, that you would thicken gumbo with traditionally.
HS: Exactly. These flowers do the same thing for an Asian soup – or any soup really. If you use these dried or fresh flowers, there's something in them that will thicken a soup. They have some flavor to them. And they're pretty; that's really what you use the open flower for, as a pretty, edible garnish. They're sort of green bean-y in taste.
What you really want is the unopened pods. If you walk up to a daylily, you're going to find any number of them. Like I said, the flowers only flower for one day, so there's going to be a whole bunch of them waiting in the wings. You pick them off, and they look like a tiny yellow zucchini. It's usually about as big as your middle finger. They don't need anything more than a bit of butter or olive oil and salt. You stir-fry them or sauté them super quick – maybe two minutes. They have a crunch like a green bean; the interior tastes like a squash blossom with a little bit of radish thrown in. They're really good.
That’s my favorite thing of the daylilies, unless you hit them in the springtime, or are thinning your patch. Before, we were talking about how it's not a bulb. It's a series of roots that has tubers on it, just like a potato; pull this up and you'll notice it has what looks like little potatoes. They're only about the size of a digit on your thumb, so they're really small. You'll see two different kinds: older ones and younger ones. The older ones are yellow, and they look like a tiny little fingerling potato. Then there will be new ones, which are white. And that's the prize! The white ones look a bit like a jicama. They typically are only white in the spring, and they are one of the most amazing things I've ever put in my mouth.
FL: How do you cook them? What do they taste like?
HS: You almost don't. You clean them because they came out of the dirt. You sauté them for one minute. They taste a little bit like a cross between a jicama and a raw potato, but very sweet. It's got an almost carrot-like sweetness. They're an amazing surprise from a plant that is almost universally hated. It's kind of like nature's revenge, like it’s saying, “Ha ha! You hate me, but you should be paying attention to me.”
FL: So, to recap: you can eat the flower; you want to eat the unopened buds with some butter and just quickly sautéed; and you really want to eat the fresh tubers at the bottom.
FL: Alright, I'm going to go raid my neighbor's yard now.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.