This week’s plant for Wild Edible Wednesday is Hemerocallis fulva, more commonly known as the Orange Daylily. So named because the flowers bloom and die in a day, it’s probably a familiar plant to most of us. I think almost everyone had a grandmother who grew them in her garden, and even if not, you’ve certainly seen them on summer roadsides. They bring back happy memories for me of speeding down unkempt backroads in early summer with the windows rolled down…. They spread down the roadside ditches all over the north end of Cherokee County.
Orange daylily is not a true lily, and that’s an important distinction we’ll talk about in a moment. Daylilies are in their own family, and all look somewhat similar. This species is native to a wide swath of temperate Asia from the Caucasus to Japan. However, it has spread throughout the globe everywhere Europeans have been, thriving as a naturalized plant in the temperate regions of the Americas and Africa. Fairly unobtrusive in most areas, it has shown itself to be invasive in more sensitive ecosystems. In the Eastern Woodlands, they’re almost always found on roadsides. They don’t like full sun or full shade, so the dappled sunlight found on the sides of rural highways is perfect. However, they can sometimes be sourced on woods edges alongside pastures and fields, and around abandoned homestead sites.
Daylilies are a long-lived herbaceous perennial plant that grows from a tuberous root. Their leaves are lanceolate and grow straight from the ground to become 20”-30” long. Flower stems can be up to 60” tall, capped with this plant’s most distinctive feature – its blooms. Daylily flowers are 2”-5” across and almost always have six petals. They range in color from a pale yellow to deep red depending on soil conditions and other factors, but are most often a nice, mellow orange. They are as beautiful as they are recognizable. However, the orange daylily does have a few toxic mimics. Before it blooms, its lance-shaped leaves growing straight from the ground can be mistaken for various species of wild irises like the dwarf bearded iris (I. verna), all of which are poisonous. However, irises generally emerge and bloom earlier, and also have deeper green leaves with purplish-red leaf margins and bases. Daylilies are later to sprout, and are always a bright yellow-green with no other colors. They can also be mistaken for true lilies (Lilium) due to their flowers. However, the growth habit of these two plants couldn’t be more different. True lilies have a tall stem with leaves branching off it and flowers at the top, daylilies grow straight from the ground and present their blooms on separate flowering stems. As with any other wild plant, if you can’t get a positive ID on it, don’t eat it. Unless you’re truly in a wilderness survival situation, there’s nothing to be gained from taking the risk.
Orange daylily is one of the most versatile edible plants in our area. Every part of the plant is edible, although it is generally accepted knowledge that about 1 in 50 people will have a negative reaction to it. So as we’ve mentioned many times before, don’t go all in on a new plant until you’ve tried a moderate amount and gauged your reaction. Starting in early spring, the young shoots and leaves are quite edible, and can be eaten raw or cooked, just like bamboo shoots. The leaves are too fibrous to eat when they get more than a few inches long, but when they’re fresh, they’re tender and easy to eat. There’s also anecdotal evidence that the large leaves can have hallucinogenic properties as well. The cool thing about this plant is that much like lettuce, you can cut the shoots and leaves off at ground level and they’ll repeatedly grow back, so you can harvest from the same plants for weeks at a time. The unopened flower buds can be eaten as well, and can even be carefully dried for later use. The flowers themselves are probably the best-tasting part of the plant, as long as you remove the stem. They look cool in a salad, too. They’re among the best natural sweeteners in the Eastern Woodlands, especially when they’re dried and added to beverages or baked goods. The flowers and buds are highly nutritious, being high in protein, fats, carbohydrates, beta carotene, vitamin C, calcium, and potassium. These nutritional qualities are shared by the roots as well – daylilies grow from starchy, knobby tubers that look a lot like small potatoes and have a flavor similar to Jerusalem artichokes. They can be baked, boiled, or eaten raw, and aren’t half bad. They’re filling, satisfying, and a great source of carbs.
Although the daylily is better known as an edible plant, it’s not without its medicinal uses as well. Both the flowers and leaves are known for having mild laxative effects (another reason to consume with moderation). It’s also used as a febrifuge, diuretic, and antioxidant. A tea or hot infusion made from these parts also has the effect of being a mild sedative and painkiller. The roots are known to be antimicrobial and anti-parasitic, and can be used topically as a poultice or internally as squeezed juice.
The large leaves that are too tough and fibrous to eat have some handy bushcraft uses – they can be plaited to make easy baskets, or woven into makeshift sandals. If you’re desperate, they can also be pounded and twisted into cordage. I wouldn’t put much weight on it, but for basic low-stress uses, it works.
So next time you’re driving down a country backroad, beyond the reach of the county sprayer trucks and away from the pollution of the city, stop and pick a few of the orange flowers you see growing on the side of the road. You’ve seen them all your life, so why not get acquainted with them?
Want to learn more about wild edible and medicinal plants in a guided, hands-on environment? Join us for Wilderness Survival CORE on June 14th-16th! Learn more and register here: https://www.sarcraft.com/course-registration/wilderness-survival-core