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Daylilies: When the Centerpiece Leaps to the Plate

On the roster of edible flowers, daylilies are practically unknown as a food source in the United States. Although most collectors cringe at the thought of chomping coveted blooms, common daylilies have been everyday fare for centuries in other cultures. With little fanfare, naturalized daylilies have crept into fields and byways across America, 50,000 cultivars spawning a rainbow of color, form and size in some of the most lavish gardens in the country. But only recently has this exquisite blossom leaped from the centerpiece to the plate.

Characterized by long, dense fans of leaf blades shooting from the roots, daylilies (Hemerocallis) form a clump of greenery with emerging tall flower stalks called scapes. Flowers can be as common as the Stella D’Oro, whose orange flowers line municipal medians in Denver’s Greenwood Village, or as exotic as recent forms with long, twisted, ruffled petals and silver or gold-banded edges.

Each plant has the potential to produce scapes depending on the number of fans, and each scape produces a flower or two every day for a period of about a month. Scapes can have anywhere from six to 35 buds, but daylily flowers live for only one day.

To the collector, daylilies provide a range of lavish colors and sizes to rival any traditional flower garden. Rare specimens feature elaborate, dark-edged, ruffled, or multi-colored blossoms, which can cost up to several hundred dollars per plant. For the novice, more traditional varieties with orange or yellow five-petal blooms can be purchased at any garden center for about $10. Both common species and rare cultivars offer perfect blossoms, which are rarely affected by disease or insects.


Daylilies cross readily, so the number of varieties is unknown. Just a few years ago, horticulturists developed shorter plants with well-rounded flowers. Current trends are towards richer pinks, metallic-hued banding and long, narrow petals whose twists and turns create a complex, structural maze. "Daylilies are so easy to hybridize, I’ve seen people who, in the morning didn’t even know daylilies lasted only one day. But by the afternoon, were crossing their own cultivars," says Diane Byers, a member of the American Hemerocallis Society. "This is why daylilies are so exciting to newcomers. It doesn’t take much to become a backyard amateur."

A great way to start is to visit one of the local daylily demonstration gardens like the one maintained by Karen Schultz in Aurora, Colorado. Karen’s display of more than 4,000 labeled varieties is probably the most extensive in the Rocky Mountain region. (AHS display gardens have been established across the United States to educate visitors about modern daylilies. For a complete listing contact the AHS website below.)

Blossom hues are influenced by our climate. Colors shown in catalogs may not bloom true in varying conditions. Pastels fade in the shade; dark-colored varieties retain color. Viewing plants in a garden setting reveals the size of blossom and height of the plant, which can range from six inches to five feet. Watch for varieties that provide good branching and bud count, from six to 35 buds.


Choosing different plants that offer early, mid-season or late-season blooming extends the season. Specific types also provide longer growing cycles than traditional plants. "Bud builders" produce more buds on the same scape after the initial blooms are spent. "Pardon Me" a short, 18-inch plant with small, red blossoms re-blooms over a six-week period. "Re-bloomers," like the Stella D’Oro will send out new scapes after the initial scapes are spent.

Like most wild flowers, the naturalized species daylily (Hemerocallis Fulva) accepts a wide variety of natural conditions. Common daylilies can withstand clay and sandy soils, naturally available water and sun to part shade. These conditions are most tolerable in a naturalized habitat--which does not include Colorado. In our climate, even common daylilies will be more successful with a bit of care and planning, especially for their initial establishment.

Daylilies prefer friable, good-draining garden soil, at least six hours of sun, and regular watering. A pH of 6.5 is recommended. Clay and sandy soils should be amended with compost or other organic matter to retain moisture, or to permit better drainage and root growth. Diane likes to use a wheelbarrow full of manure or compost mixed with two cups of alfalfa meal and the organic plant food sold by the local rose society, to prepare the beds. She rarely fertilizes after initial planting although other growers might fertilize or top dress two or three times per year.

Plant roots an inch below the surface of the soil. They require heavy initial watering and should be kept moist until the new growth appears within a couple of weeks. During this time, original leaves will die back. Although daylilies prefer a regular watering schedule, established plants will survive several weeks without supplemental watering. Even in our current drought conditions, the leaves will die back and the plants may not bloom well, but most will remain dormant until the following year. The heavier the root system, the longer they will survive.

Daylilies can be planted anytime the ground is not frozen. Karen plants from the first of May to mid-September except in hot, dry conditions. Fall planting usually takes advantage of natural water available from winter snows, but the current drought conditions along the Front Range will require supplemental watering when the ground is not frozen or covered with snow.

Plant in spring, when the weather is still cool. In either case, mulch will hold moisture, especially for new plants that don’t have the dense foliage to provide a natural cover. The popular, "Red Volunteer," a 3-foot plant with deep-red flowers, is a reasonably priced variety well suited to the Front Range and available at local nurseries.

Choose plants with at least two fans of leaves for faster blooming. Daylilies can take up to three years to become established. When plants become compacted, generally five to seven years, they should be split into double or triple fans, and replanted. Compacted plants result in fewer blooms.


A favorite of naturalist Euell Gibbons, daylilies are one wild food that might be gathered in the eastern United States where vast stands of naturalized plants line country roads. In full bloom, the large, orange blossoms easily distinguish themselves from irises and other toxic plants. Picking some for home use wouldn’t decimate the population. In Colorado, daylilies grow easily, but they have to be planted and nurtured. It is unlikely any of us would ever be able to collect the full cup of dried day lily buds called for in Gibbon’s recipe from his famous book, "Stalking the Wild Asparagus."

While collecting enough daylily blossoms for some recipes might present a monumental chore along the Front Range, dried daylilies are sold packaged in Asian markets. These "Golden Needles" are prized for use as a thickener and flavoring for soups and stews. The dried blossoms are soaked in warm to boiling water for 20 to 60 minutes before the tough ends are chopped off and discarded. The fragile remainder is tied with a single knot in the middle so it doesn’t fall apart when stirred into a simmering pot of soup during the last few minutes of cooking.

Some people prefer the flavor of the dried flowers to the fresh, but fresh appeals more to Western gardeners who would need a large number of plants to get any substantial harvest. Even one fresh flower makes a stunning presentation.

Fresh flowers and buds have a sweet flavor with no bitter aftertaste like many edible flowers. Pleasant but non-nondescript, the flavor of daylilies has been compared to a range of mild-flavored vegetables from lettuce to zucchini. Daylilies complement a wide variety of hot and cold savory foods, including soups and stews, but fresh buds and petals are usually reserved as a special topping or garnish for dishes of contrasting color, where their beauty stands out.

Fresh buds, petals and whole flowers can be eaten cooked or raw. Buds are tossed into stir-fries or sautéed alone and placed on top of a particular food. Fresh petals are strewn over green and other salads. Whole blossoms are used to adorn cakes, or stuffed with special ingredients and placed on serving platters or individual plates.

Few flowers rival the daylily for broad appeal. Gourmets, naturalists, professional botanists, novices and master gardeners, all seem to have found a niche in the species and cultivars of the Hemerocallis.



A note on recipes: all flowers should be pesticide-free with stamens removed. Stamens hold the pollen of a flower and may encourage allergies.

Daylily Petal Salad

  • 6 cups lettuce, washed, spun dry and torn into bite-sized pieces

  • 2 Tb cold-pressed olive oil

  • 2 tsp fresh, lemon juice

  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  • 1/4 cup purple basil leaves

  • Petals from four to eight blossoms

Place the lettuce into a serving bowl. Drizzle the oil evenly over the lettuce. Toss well. Drizzle the lemon juice over the lettuce and sprinkle with salt. Toss again. Add the basil, but toss with only the top layer of the lettuce, so the beautiful purple leaves show through the greens. Grind a bit of pepper over the top. Garnish with daylily petals--placed randomly, or in a circle around the outside, or decoratively in the center of the bowl.

Cilantro-pesto-stuffed Stella D’Oro Blossoms with Grilled Chicken Cilantro Pesto

  • 1 clove garlic, peeled

  • 2 cups cilantro, chopped with stems into 3-inch bunches

  • 1 tsp fresh lime juice

  • 1 healthy dash of jalapeno Tabasco sauce

  • 1/4 cup pine nuts

  • 1/3 cup cold-pressed olive oil

Fit a food processor with the metal cutting blade. Start the processor and drop the garlic through the feed tube. Open the processor and add the cilantro, wiping the cilantro along the sides and bottom of the bowl to lift the garlic from the bottom of the bowl. Process for 5 seconds. Add the nuts and process for 5 seconds. Add the lime juice and Tabasco. Start the processor and pour in the oil, somewhat slowly, through the feed tube. Scrape the contents into a zip lock bag and use within a couple of days, or freeze.


  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves--rinsed and patted dry with paper towels
  • 1/3 cup cold-pressed olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • juice from half a lemon
  • 4 Tb cilantro pesto
  • 4-12 Stella d'Oro or other daylily blossoms, rinsed, with pistols and stamens removed

Ahead of time (1/2 an hour to a day ahead): Combine the garlic and oil in a large ziplock bag. Flatten the chicken using a rolling pin or meat hammer. Add the chicken to the bag, coating it with the oil. Squeeze out the air and refrigerate.

One-half hour before grilling, add the lemon juice, mixing it in well. Start the coals. When the coals are ready, grill the chicken on both sides until done. Please note: flattened breasts cook quickly. To check for doneness, press on the flesh with your finger. If it is mushy, it is not done. If it yields and then springs back, it is done. If it is hard, it is over done.

While the chicken cooks, stuff each of four daylilies with a tablespoonful of pesto. Serve the chicken on individual plates with grilled vegetables, polenta, or other side dishes. Garnish each plate with one filled day lily and additional day lilies or petals if you have them.

Helpful websites:

The Mile High Daylily Society: www.mhdaylily.org

The National American Hemerocallis Society: www.daylilies.org


AHS Display Gardens:

Karen Schultz, Aurora, CO. (303) 366-9689. E-mail: catladysgarden@earthlink.net, Open Garden Tour, July 12, 2003.

Dixie Sipe, Wheatridge, CO. (303) 424-3504. E-mail: sipleedix@attbi.com.

Local commercial grower:

Mountain View Gardens. Call (303) 755-1108 for the address and times. Sabine Baur, is the owner; it's also a display garden, accredited by the AHS and can be found on their website.

Local chapter of AHS: Mile High Daylily Society. Contact Dixie Sipe (303) 424-3504, www.mhdaylily.org.

National AHS: American Hemerocallis Society. www.daylilies.org. AHS lists information about daylilies and a calendar of special events, including the AHS convention to be held in Denver from July 11-13, 2003.

Oakes Daylilies, Box 268, Corryton, TN 37721, 1-800-532-9545.

Gilbert H. Wild & Son, LLC, 3044 State Hwy 37, Sarcoxie, MO 64862. www.gilberthwild.com.

Denver Rose Society: Denver Botanic Gardens at www.botanicgardens.org. Source for organic soil amendments.


"Stalking the Wild Asparagus," by Euell Gibbons. David McKay Co., Inc., New York. 1962.

"The Delightful, Delicious Daylily," by Peter Gail. Goosefoot Acres Press, Cleveland, OH 1989.

Photos from top to bottom: first two by Niki Hayden, third, fourth, fifth and sixth courtesy of Karen Schultz: "Memas, Cherry Pie" by John Shooter, "Linda Agin" by Tom Wilson, "Topguns Double Wonder" by Bob Scott, "Emeralds and Gold" by Tom Wilson, all remaining photos by Niki Hayden.

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