Surprise! There’s a vegetable growing in your flower bed: the daylily. Actually, the daylily is a flower, but the Chinese have eaten it as a vegetable for centuries, and even that old American kitchen standby, The Joy of Cooking, includes a recipe for batter-fried daylily blossoms.

A cousin of regular lilies, the daylily belongs to the genus Hemerocallis, a Greek word derived from hemera, meaning “day,” and kallos, meaning “beauty.” Unlike the blossoms of true lilies, which bloom for several days before wilting, daylily blossoms last only twenty-four hours. Each daylily stem produces several buds – generally between five and nine, but sometimes many more – and a plant can be in bloom for thirty to forty days.

Since hybridization of the wild daylily began just over a century ago, more than 35,000 cultivars have been developed, and over 12,000 are available commercially. The flower stalks of the plant usually grow to between one and four feet, although some have reached as high as eight feet. Blossoms come in every color except for true blue, and range from smaller than two inches to more than eight inches across, with petals that can appear to be spidery, flat, curled under, ruffled, double, or pinched.

You can eat every part of the daylily except for its roots. Beware the competition, however: Rabbits tend to nip off the new shoots as they emerge in the early spring, and deer are fond of the unopened blossoms. Scattering dried blood around the new shoots will keep most bunnies away, and spraying Bobbex on the buds will deter the deer – though it will likely affect the buds’ taste, as it contains fish oil.

Though they die back in the fall, daylilies are edible year-round. In spring, you can sauté or steam the newly emerging shoots, and later in the season harvest the buds and flowers, which are edible raw or cooked. In the fall and winter, dig for the tuberous root ends, where daylilies store water and nutrients for growth the following year. Obviously, don’t take them all if you want the plant to grow the next season, and take care to avoid the stringy roots themselves, as they’re poisonous. After peeling the tubers, you can slice them like water chestnuts and add them to stir-fries, or steam and mash them, or fry them up as fritters.

Though daylily buds may not compete with your daily vitamin drink, they do contain almost as much protein as spinach, more Vitamin A than string beans, and as much Vitamin C as orange juice. Their taste is a cross between asparagus and string beans, and the lighter-colored varieties may be sweeter than darker ones, as darker pigmentation may carry a little bitterness. The closer to the time of blooming you pick the buds, the better the flavor will be.

If your crop is bountiful, blanch and freeze both the buds and the shoots for use after the season ends. If you run out, Chinese food stores carry bags of dried daylily blossoms, sometimes called “golden needles,” which are a key ingredient in both moo-shu pork and hot-and-sour soup, and have
a mild, beef-broth flavor.

Planting and propagation

You don’t have to have a green thumb to succeed with daylilies. Rugged, hardy perennials, they multiply rapidly and flourish under a variety of conditions with little or no care. (They also help to control erosion when planted on hillsides, and can even act as a fire barrier.) They prefer a sunny location, with a little shade at the hottest time of day if possible, but they will tolerate a shadier site. They adapt to most soils but do best in well-drained dirt that is slightly acidic, moist, and high in organic matter.

Most Island nurseries carry daylilies in pots that can be put straight into the ground. Seaside Daylily Farm in West Tisbury carries daylilies exclusively – about 300 varieties, including a special group of flowers that were hybridized here on the Vineyard. Seaside, opened in 1993 and owned by Wendy Forest, is an environmentally friendly operation. Plants are grown organically, with solar panels powering the deer fence and the watering system. Instead of potting plants in plastic tubs that wind up in a landfill, the farm digs up plants on demand for customers and sells them wrapped in damp newsprint, with paper labels and planting instructions.

If the visual is as important to you as the edible, keep in mind that different daylily cultivars bloom at different times, from early June to early September. Limiting the number of varieties and planting them in small groups of two to four of each type will produce a more pleasing vista than a random scattering of too many varieties.

Planting daylilies in the late summer or early fall gives the root system a chance to establish itself before cold weather sets in. You can also plant in the spring, though if you want flowers that season, you should use reasonably well-established plants – those with at least three fans, each of which will grow a flower stalk, called a scape. Dig a hole about a foot deep and six inches wider than the spread of the root mass. Amend the removed soil with compost, and make a little central mound in the bottom of the hole. Make the mound high enough so that when you place the plant on it, spreading the roots evenly, the part of the plant where the roots and foliage meet (called the crown) is no more than an inch below the soil surface. If you plant it too deep, the foliage can turn brown and the plant may languish.

How far to space plants from one another is a judgment call. Some say to plant them no less than two feet apart, measuring from the center of one plant cluster to the center of another, but Wendy Forest says that it really depends. If you want a daylily bed that fills in nicely in a few years, giving an appearance of fullness, she recommends placing plants eighteen inches apart. But “two feet is a better long-term plan,” she says. Daylilies multiply very quickly – nearly doubling in number of fans each year – and eventually, they may become crowded and need to be divided, which is something of a nuisance. Of the eighteen-inch plan, she says, that time will likely arrive in five or six years, whereas when plants are spaced two feet apart, it might be ten years or more.

Newly planted daylilies need water at least once a week for the first month or so, but regular rainfall will usually do the trick. Fertilizer in the spring helps daylilies multiply faster and grow more blossoms, but roadside daylilies growing wild seem to do fine without it. Mulch is not essential, though it helps keep the weeds at bay and the soil moist.

The best way to expand your daylily garden is to divide existing plants, since plants grown from the seeds of hybrids will likely look different from their parents.

You’ll know your daylilies have gotten to the point at which they’d benefit from being divided when they start dying out in the centers of clusters, taking on a doughnut shape of growth. At this point, you should dig up the entire cluster and slice it into pieces with a spade, plant saw, or sharp, heavy knife. Be sure to slice straight down so the fans stay connected to their roots, and leave at least three fans in each new slice. Replant each section as you would a new plant. This is a good opportunity to revive the soil with compost, and to make sure the crowns are at the proper height – they can sink over time.

Word of caution

Occasionally, people report upset stomachs after eating daylilies, and some have reported irritated throats from eating the buds raw. Peter Gail, author of The Delightful Delicious Daylily (Goosefoot Acres Press, 1995; on sale at Seaside Daylily Farm) suggests starting slow. Eat just a couple of shoots or buds to start, and build up from there. See how your body responds to the new food and decide whether to start blanching and freezing buds for the winter. And don’t eat wild daylilies growing by the road, as they may have absorbed toxins from automobile emissions.

Don’t let these cautions scare you off, though: Peter Gail claims that someone named Chi Han wrote about eating daylilies in An Introduction to the Day Lily as early as 304 AD. There’s strength in numbers: millions of Chinese over seven centuries can’t be wrong.

Seaside Daylily Farm is located on Great Plains Road in West Tisbury. Call 508-693-3276 or go to for more information.

Daylily recipes

Asian-style daylily buds

Serves 2 as a side dish

• 2 cups daylily buds
• 2 teaspoons peanut oil
• 1 teaspoon sesame oil
• 1/3 cup unsalted peanuts
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 2 teaspoons ginger, freshly grated
• 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
• 1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon dry sherry
• cooked rice for serving (optional)

1. Steam daylily buds for 10 to 15 minutes, until tender.

2. In a wok or heavy skillet, heat the two oils over high heat. When hot, add the peanuts and sauté until browned, then remove and set aside.

3. Turn heat to medium. Add garlic and ginger and cook about 2 minutes. Add rice vinegar, tamari, and sherry. Stir, then add daylily buds and stir to coat with sauce. Top with peanuts. Serve over rice if desired.

Daylily fritters

Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish

• 1 egg
• 1 cup soy or regular milk
• 1 cup flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• pinch of pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg if making a sweet dish, 1/2 teaspoon cumin if making a savory dish
• canola oil: enough to make a few inches deep in a saucepan
• 3 dozen daylily flowers or buds

1. In a medium bowl, mix egg, milk, flour, salt, pepper, and nutmeg or cumin to make a thick batter.

2. Heat oil in a saucepan to about 375 degrees. Dip each bud or flower in the batter and drop it into the oil, cooking as many as fit easily in the pan. When browned and crispy, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat until all are cooked.

3. For a savory dish, sprinkle with salt and serve with hot sauce or salsa on the side. For a sweet dish, serve sprinkled with powdered sugar, or
with jam or honey on the side.