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Notes From The Garden: Daylilies Are an Excellent Choice for the Garden and Plate

  • Frans Hals daylily<br/>Photograph -- Henry Homeyer

    Frans Hals daylily
    Photograph -- Henry Homeyer

  • Jean Swann daylily<br/>Photograph — Henry Homeyer

    Jean Swann daylily
    Photograph — Henry Homeyer

  • Frans Hals daylily<br/>Photograph -- Henry Homeyer
  • Jean Swann daylily<br/>Photograph — Henry Homeyer

What one kind of flower would you bring with you if you were being sentenced to life on a deserted island? Would you pick peonies for their big, bold blossoms and tantalizing smell? Or perhaps primroses for their bountiful blossoms and willingness to spread?

A better choice might actually be daylilies. They’ll grow just about anywhere, are generally untroubled by pests and diseases — and you can eat them! This is daylily season, and a good time to buy some more for your garden.

Let’s start with the common orange daylily (Hemerocallis fulva). Most gardens have some. You’ll also see it by the side of the road as if gardeners — having too many, but unwilling to compost them — have heaved them out the windows of their cars. These sturdy perennials will grow anywhere, and will even bloom in the shade. They were introduced from Asia in the late 1800s and were admired as exotic at the time, I’m sure. But now they are too common for most gardeners’ taste. And they do spread by root, which can be bothersome.

In the Chinese market in Montreal, daylily tubers are for sale for cooking. I’ve tried cleaning and cooking the roots of my own orange daylilies, but have decided that it’s too much work to get them clean enough to eat. They were tasty enough, but fry up almost anything with garlic and onions, and it will be yummy.

The flowers are edible and surprisingly delicious. Make a big green salad and add daylily petals for color. Don’t use the stamens and pistils (the little stuff inside the blossoms) as they’re not tasty. Chop or tear the petals. And toss in a few buds, which taste a bit like asparagus or green beans.

For a nice vegetable dish, sauté chopped onions, shallots or garlic in olive oil or butter. Add a little chopped tarragon and black pepper. When the onions are almost cooked, drop in buds from those common orange daylilies you have been meaning to manage, but haven’t. Select buds an inch to an inch and a half long. They will start to open when they are cooked — in just a minute or two.

For dessert you can take a wine glass and place in it a fully open, brightly-colored daylily blossom. Put in a scoop of sherbet in the blossom and garnish with a few fresh berries and a mint leaf if you have one. Yum! Daylilies are great cutflowers. Because each blossom only lasts a day — hence the name — most people don’t use them in flower arrangements. But I cut scapes (leafless stems) that are just starting to bloom and have numerous fat, unopened buds. The buds will open one at a time for up to a week, depending on number of buds. This works most reliably if the arrangement gets some sunshine each day.

I recently visited Cider Hill Gardens in Windsor to admire their collection of daylilies. They have daylilies in a wide range of colors, from nearly white (Ice Carnival) to deep reds that border on black. They have daylilies that are pink, creamy yellow or light orange, lilac, lavender, bluish and red. Some come in one color, but most are bi-colored, with a throat or eye of a second color. Each flower has both petals and sepals, and in some, like Frans Hals, the petals and sepals can be different colors — a look I like.

Flower shape varies as much as the colors. There is the standard trumpet. Then there are those with ruffled edges (Here She Comes is a good one). And the so-called “spiders,” whose petals are narrow and spaced apart a little — like the legs of a spider. Kindly Light is a nice yellow one. Doubles, such as Jean Swann have their centers filled in with lots of extra petals. And some are worth buying for their great names like Blueberry Breakfast or Bodacious.

Then there are the re-blooming daylilies, like Stella de Oro, a gold-colored daylily that is very popular because it blooms off and on all summer. I’ve seen pictures of a re-bloomer called Purple de Oro that I simply must have. So many kinds, so little garden space! What do daylilies want in life? Sunshine, dark rich soil, and adequate moisture. But they will settle for less — even a lot less — and bloom almost anywhere. Yes, slugs will sometimes nibble on the leaves, but they are not a magnet for bugs the way some roses are.

Over time clumps of daylilies get bigger, and you can divide them to start new clumps. Simply slice through a big clump with a spade to make two or four new plants, pry them apart and re-plant. I’ve been known to take out a chunk shaped like a piece of pie with a serrated knife — and the mother plant never even seemed to notice I’d done so. So run to your neighborhood plant center and have a look — you’ll likely come home with something wonderful.

Henry Homeyer is the author of four gardening books, and a children’s fantasy-adventure, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet . Contact Henry through his Web site, www.Gardening-Guy.com.