When bright orange daylily blossoms start to open along country roads in summer it’s a beautiful and welcome sight. It always seems to me like a midpoint between the hurry-up planting of crops in spring, and the harvest-rich enjoyment of summer and fall, along with the planting of cool-weather crops.
The time of those roadside flowers has now passed, but there are still daylilies in my flower garden. The various species, with modern cultivars in various colors, span the season, from late spring to the end of September. Those I’ve collected, grown by Bloomingfields Farm in Connecticut, give me four months of these gorgeous, minimal-care treasures.
I’ve found that daylilies are more than just pretty, and have become one of my favorite edible flowers. Each one is a wide-open trumpet composed of six petals — three large ones alternating with three smaller — which opens for just one day, then dies and is replaced by others in a sequentially blooming cluster. (The botanical name for daylily is the Greek Hemerocallis, which means “beautiful for a day.”) Years ago a friend served me a salad that he’d strewn with whole petals, and I was amazed by their gentle crunch and sweetness.
Before you do the same, you must understand the difference between daylilies and true lilies, which are only distantly related. The trumpet-shaped flowers of daylilies (genus Hemerocallis) and lilies (Lilium) are somewhat alike, but where lilies grow from bulbs, daylilies grow from finger-like rhizomes.
Lilies have small, narrow leaves all along the stem, but daylilies have a big clump of long grass-like leaves at the base of the plant. Lilies are toxic to humans, daylilies are not, and most of their parts — rhizomes, young shoots and flowers — have long been consumed as food.
That said, it’s best to introduce yourself to them gradually, as would be true for any new plant, just in case you have a sensitivity to them.
So which parts to eat? I’ve found the young shoots to be a good addition to a stir-fry. Some people eat the tubers, though, come to think of it, nobody I know. Mostly I stick with the flowers.
In addition to topping a salad, you might find other creative uses for them. For instance, you could snip off the long stamens to make space for a spoonful of cream-cheesy or goat cheesy dip, then poke nasturtiums, calendulas and other edible flowers into it, thereby making a little edible bouquet. Some might find it a bit intimidating to eat, but it would be a beautiful garnish.
Recently I got to wondering about daylily flower fritters, made the way I make squash blossom fritters, for which I stuff the flowers with cheese, swish them in batter and fry them in oil. They are wonderful. But those huge, yellow squash trumpets are soft, pliable and easy to pinch shut before swishing. Daylily trumpets are stiffer and harder to close.
So I made fritters from the buds. I picked the biggest, fattest ones I cold find — ones that would have opened the following day — and made a slit in them with a small, sharp knife. I left in the stamens and pistil, neatly bundled inside, and I inserted matchstick-like pieces of sharp Cheddar.
They were delicious — crispy, with the sweetness intact. As I was gorging on them with my husband, I confessed that he probably wouldn’t get to eat them again, because they were tiny and tedious to make.
He picked up a whole flower and put a dab of butter on the tip of each petal. Then he pinched the tips together, gluing the flower shut.
So the next day I stuffed some flowers with a mixture of ricotta cheese, rosemary and a little nutmeg. The butter seal made it possible to douse them in the batter and fry them to a golden crisp. Superb!
I fooled around with the idea a bit, comparing ricotta with Cheddar as a filling. Cheddar was nicely assertive and oozed less. I tried an eggy batter, then my normal, thin slurry of whole wheat flour and water. The eggy batter absorbed too much oil and didn’t crisp up as well as the thin slurry.
Next year, when the wild daylilies start to bloom, try harvesting them and bringing some to your table. I’d avoid any growing alongside the road, where they’ve been exposed to vehicular fumes, road de-icer, herbicides and Lord knows what. Better to pick from a field where they have naturalized, or, better yet, from your own organic, unsprayed garden.