Common day-lily: Much more than just a pretty face
Day-lilies are in full bloom and it is difficult to drive for more than a couple miles in any direction in Pennsylvania without seeing their bright orange blossoms. This sun-loving wildflower brightens up the roadsides during late-June and July and it can be a good natural food.
It is hard to miss day-lilies for their large orange flowers bloom atop a 3- to 5-foot-tall stem. True lilies have leaves on their stems but day-lilies do not. All of the day-lily’s long, slender sword-like leaves grow in a thick mass at the plant’s base.
From a distance, their orange flowers are about the same color as a deer’s summer coat. Clumps of roadside day-lilies have caused me to touch my brakes more than once.
Day-lily flowers measure 3 to 4 inches in diameter and face straight up unless their stems droop. At a glance, it appears that they have six spotless petals, but a closer inspection reveals that they have three petals and three orange sepals. Yes, it still looks like six petals, but botanically-speaking, there are three petals and immediately under them there are three sepals.
These flowers get their name because each flower blooms for only a day, although multiple flower buds on each stem allows each plant to bloom for three to four weeks. The blooming generally lasts through most of July. The day-lilies on my Centre County, Pennsylvania property started blooming June 25 last year, but some years they start earlier. They begin blooming earlier in counties to my south.
A native of eastern and central Asia, unopened day-lily flower buds are sought after for many Asian recipes. The flowers are collected, dried and sold in Chinese markets coast to coast. Thousands of pounds of day-lily flowers — and that’s a lot of dried flowers — are sold in New York City alone each year.
According to author Rhonda Parkinson, day-lily buds have been used in China as both a food and medicine for more than 2,000 years. Although I have never eaten an Asian dish using day-lilies, I did lightly cook a handful of the buds in June just to try them.
“Dried lily buds are yellow-gold in color, with a musky or earthy taste. Two dishes featuring lily buds are Muxi Pork, a stir-fried dish, and Hot and Sour Soup,” Parkinson wrote.
On the website Out to Lunch, Carolyn Phillips wrote, “Day-lilies in China are sort of like carnations in the States in that they are the traditional symbol of mothers. But in addition to being pretty garden flowers, they have a long history as a treasured ingredient in northern, eastern, and Buddhist kitchens.”
In addition to Asian recipes, dried or fresh, the blossoms or their buds can also be added to omelets, casseroles, stir-fried meals and soups. Fresh-picked orange blossoms cut into strips also add color and flavor to garden salads. The buds can be eaten raw in salads or they can be boiled for a few minutes like green beans. Better yet, they can be steamed. The tubers (swellings on the plant’s roots) of day-lilies can also be eaten cooked or raw during any season.
Day-lilies are delicious, but natural foods authors A.D. and Helen Livingston suggest they be eaten in moderation because they have a mild laxative effect on some people. I did not have an “issue” with the dozen buds that I ate.
Every county in Pennsylvania has day-lilies. You will have no trouble locating them in Pennsylvania or in the surrounding states. Southern Canada south to Virginia is the North American range of the day-lily. The plant rarely, if ever, produces seeds and spreads asexually through its tubers. It is possible that the lilies we see all over Pennsylvania and, in fact, all over North America could have originated from a single plant. Most likely, the early settlers brought them here and they have spread from many different localities.
Because they form a thick mass of leaves and roots, day-lilies are also a good choice to prevent soil erosion — but this is not a native species. If you attempt to transplant a clump, you will find that the plants are “well attached,” but the roots are usually not very deep.
Day-lilies are tough plants that out-compete most other species. They are also disease-free and have no major insect pests. These qualities make the common day-lily or one of the other 500 or so named ornamental varieties of day-lilies popular choices for gardening. Many colors of day lilies are available commercially, but typically only the tall orange ones grow wild. If you plant the wild-type orange day-lilies, it is easy to predict that you will be enjoying the beauty of the flowers for a long time to come. Some other varieties are more difficult to propagate.
If you introduce day-lilies to your property, given the proper habitat, they quickly multiply. Be aware — a foot-square clump becomes a yard-square clump in no time. Although they are beautiful, you might be happier, and it would be better ecologically, if you planted a native species.