Beautiful and edible, weedlike in their tenacity, bearing handsome foliage and available in a wide range of warm colors — what’s not to like about daylilies? (Other than embracing a snob’s disdain for the common.) Furthermore, as the Bible reminds us, lilies don’t spin, a very positive recommendation to gardeners prone to vertigo or drunkeness. (For sticklers, daylilies are members of Hemerocallis, while, as the redoubtable Peter Loewer instructs us in his historic tour de force Jefferson’s Garden, biblical lilies were almost certainly Lilium chalcedonicum. Neither, however, do Hemerocallis spin.)
The brick-orange-and-yellow variety is the most common and durable, imported to these climes from Siberia in pioneer times and still, today, frequently marking the location of long-vanished homesteads. A double-flowered version is nearly as common. From that starting point, plant breeders have managed to create a cascade of variations on the theme.
Alternating red-and-yellow petals, yellow-throated rose, peach tones from pale blush to shameless harlot, and yellows from lemon to canary — all find expression in these short-lived blooms.
Cultivation could hardly be simpler, and the plants can be lifted and divided any time through the season, though you’ll want to water transplants frequently in dry weather. Bare tubers can be planted in fall or spring, and once started, they will gradually spread to fill whatever space is permitted them. Daylilies are tolerant of poor soil, as evidenced by their roadside success, but they love moist, rich locations and are also shade-tolerant –though the quantity of blooms increases dramatically in full sun.
The buds, blooms and tubers are quite tasty. Buds are best sauteed in butter or added to a stir-fry, while the petals make an attractive garnish or addition to a salad. Some folks deep-fry batter-dipped flowers, but the delicate flavor is easily overwhelmed by cooking oil and dough. Buds collected in some locations may be pleasantly peppery, a variation that is probably dependent on soil constituents. Springtime tubers are crisp and white and make an excellent addition to salads; they remain palatable until they soften later in the season. (Older tubers are best added to stews.)
Bulbs of the Canada and Turk’s-cap lily are also edible when cooked, as are young leaves of the trout- and corn-lily, but none of these grow in such abundance that any flower lover would stoop to consume them — except in the direst of straits.
Fussy eaters take note: Unlike other edible garden flowers, notably snapdragons and squash blossoms, lily blossoms are unlikely to harbor insects. (A little protein never hurt anyone, but some diners are put off by wiggles amid the spring mix.)
A few years’ experience with daylilies is bound to tempt any gardener into the deeper mysteries of Lilium, with its grander, more durable blooms and heady fragrances. However, as with many another exotic delight, you will pay a price in both dollars and tears for such indulgence. Worth it, surely, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.