The cheerful daylily is a cornerstone in many perennial gardens. Its virtual summer to frost profusion of blooms, bright color, and ease of care are attractive to any gardener. What many gardeners don't know, is that hemerocallis fulva, known as "gum jum fa" (golden needle flower) is a delicacy enjoyed in Chinese dishes. The unopened buds have a sweet taste, a crisp "song" (best understood as al dente) texture, and a versatility enjoyed in salads, stir-fries, soups, and noodle dishes.
If you're not already growing daylilies, you probably know someone who is. Because the plants naturalize freely, your friend or neighbor would likely not mind dividing and sharing with you. If you need to buy your own, choose the common daylily or the tiger lily. They are always available from garden catalogs or garden centers. Daylilies have fleshy tuberous roots that should be set at the same level they were growing (if transplanted) with the crown just below the soil level. Daylilies are not only easy to move, but easy to care for. Compost dug into the planting hole is appreciated by any plant, but beyond that, daylilies are not fussy. After planting, water in well. They'll quickly become accustomed to just about any soil and are hardy in most of the United States.
Harvesting and Preparing Daylilies
Daylilies are aptly named because although the flowers are thick, appear hearty, and seem to last for weeks, each flower lasts for only one day. It is simply the sheer number of blooms that gives the impression they are so long-lasting. For eating, the buds are picked when plump on the morning just before they open. Because daylilies bloom from summer to frost, buds will be available for picking whenever the cook needs them. They can also be harvested and air dried for use after the flowering period. To prepare daylily buds for eating, gently squeeze open the tip of the bud and carefully pinch off the pollen covered anthers. Before cooking, soak/rinse carefully to remove any hidden insects or debris.
Buying Daylilies for Eating
If the ease of a carefree and gorgeous flower multiplying quietly in the corner of your garden does not appeal to you, or if you simply do not have room for another plant, daylilies for cooking can be purchased at Asian supermarkets. The "gum jum fa" can sometimes be found fresh, but is often sold dried in a bag or brick. Dried daylilies simply need to be rehydrated by soaking in cool water for about half an hour. Sometimes, cooks will rehydrate dried flower buds and tie a knot in the middle to add body and bulk that is somewhat lost during the drying process.
Daylilies have a sweet flavor and appealing texture, making it easy for the first-timer to enjoy. The biggest (and probably only) hurdle is to get over the fact that you're eating flowers! Then again, think of all the other flowers and flower buds you typically eat - broccoli, asparagus, artichoke, or perhaps even nasturtium or other flower petals... Though daylilies are versatile in the kitchen, I have enjoyed them in a white noodle soup with black mushrooms and sliced pork, and Chinese leeks. The recipe below uses daylily buds in a typical Chinese stir fry.
Daylily, Chicken, and Vegetable Stir Fry
- 1 cup freshly harvested and prepared (see above) daylily buds
- 4 stalks celery cut into chunks on a diagonal
- 1 carrot sliced on diagonal
- 7-8 pieces of wood ear (rehydrated and left in large pieces, with hard stem snipped off)
- 4 cloves garlic, smashed with side of cleaver
- 2 boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into small pieces
- splash soy sauce
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 2 tsp cornstarch
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- dash white pepper
- 1/2 cup water mixed with about 1 Tbsp cornstarch
- cilantro for garnish, cut in large pieces
- Marinate chicken in soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch, sesame oil, and white pepper.
- Just before cooking, add a drizzle oil to chicken and stir. This will keep chicken pieces from sticking to each other. Add oil to wok. Quickly cook chicken over high heat, then remove and set aside.
- Cook carrots and celery. After a few minutes, add garlic. Cook until vegetables are soft.
- Add cooked chicken, wood ear, and flowers. Continue to stir fry for a few minutes until heated through and buds soften and wilt. When done, the buds will be wilted, soft with a pleasing texture, but not mushy.
- Add water/cornstarch mixture. Continue to heat until sauce thickens. Add more salt or soy sauce to taste, if desired.
- Add cilantro, stir to incorporate and remove from heat. Serve with rice.