Learn from Our Mistake! Ditch Those Daylilies at Dinnertime

Ditch lily
Hemerocallis fulva, daylily, ditch lily.

We're not at a loss for daylilies, AKA 'ditch lilies,' here at the Cat in the Flock farm. They're overgrowing a sidewalk near the house in one area and have obviously spilled over a circle in what is now the orchard, where they'd been planted with hostas. They're also popping up seemingly of their own accord in a back corner.

So when I read in various sources (most notably here but also here and here) that they could be an excellent food source - the leaves, shoots, flower buds and blooms, as well as tubers all edible - I was excited to try them. From a permaculture standpoint, if something is growing to beat the band, and we can eat the whole thing, that's a win. The negative reactions seemed minimal - only 5% of the population, according to one blogger, and others mentioned a slight possibility of mild symptoms in some people.

We'd been successfully foraging found flora from the garden for a couple of years by this point. I'd made a tea from cleavers, a tincture from wild geranium, and a salad with many an edible petal. We had eaten violet leaves and flowers without any ill effects, and we successfully ID'd and ingested without problems a mushroom called reddening lepiota, which proved to be far more delicious than grocery store varieties. So it was not without both experience and research that we went into this trial with the daylilies. We also verified that the lilies growing in our plot were indeed the common 'ditch lily,' Hemerocallis fulva, or at least we had every reason to believe they were, and harvested them fresh. Our garden is 100% organic as well, so no other contaminates were present.

Ditch lily cluster
This non-native plant grows like crazy and is really tough to eradicate.

We harvested them one Saturday morning - the 4th of July - and cooked them up according to directions published by an award-winning chef, cookbook author, and blogger, which was simply to try the flower blooms and buds, as well as the tubers, sautéd in butter with a little salt and pepper. We did this with a small handful of the tubers and a few buds and blooms.

The results were disastrous. Shortly after eating them, I felt... strange. In the middle of trying to make kale chips for a party for the 4th, I asked my husband if he could finish up, as I needed to lie down, seriously. I was knocked out with a strange sleep for an hour and a half in the middle of a sunny day, during which I neither moved nor awakened. This is strange for me, as I'm not an easy napper. When I finally woke, it was with a strong taste of those tubers in my mouth. Then I experienced a full six hours straight of violent diarrhea, with extreme flatulence. My husband also had diarrhea, though his was milder, but we had to miss the evening festivities, as the two of us basically spent the 4th of July in the bathroom. (Go ahead, make your fireworks jokes.)

Since Anthony also had a negative digestive response, and mine was so extreme, I would absolutely not recommend ditch lilies as a food to anyone. They're really not worth the potential sickness, especially since the tubers are difficult to get clean, and they're mighty tiny. It took digging up six extremely well-established plants - these things are long-lived, and ours might've been there since the '60s - to get two small handfuls of tubers. They tasted... OK. I don't know what all the fuss is about. We'd rather have a regular ol' potato, and we'd have saved ourselves an evening of absolute misery if we'd passed on these. 

Ditch lily tuber
A sample tuber.

We take responsibility for not researching enough beforehand, of course. When it comes to research, you can almost always do more. I've since gone down the rabbit hole to realize exactly why eating ditch lilies was a bad idea that never should have been suggested by those sources in the first place.

First, a word about one of Google's chief weaknesses. Its algorithm is built to give you what it thinks you want, which means it will give you whatever verifies and reinforces your search terms, rather than contradicting them. So if you search on 'daylilies edible,' it will give you results that support daylilies being edible. We see how this is a problem in politics; Facebook is the same way. The echo chambers are built for increasingly high echoes. Now if you search on 'bad reactions to daylilies,' you will get the information that cuts against their edibility. This is the opposite of how research using traditional paper media goes, where no algorithm is funneling you toward only the information that confirms your bias. 

Ditch lily buds
Ditch lily buds.

Using the daylily=negative search terms is how I finally got to some other sites, less sexy than the award-winning chef with his glowing talk of sautés. A couple of nerdier bloggers reveal just how complicated the botanical identification process can be for these flowers we call ditch lilies, for two reasons:

  1. The daylily has been cultivated by horticulturalists to a tune of 60,000 varieties, toxic alkaloids are often used in the cultivation process, and it's very difficult to verify that your daylily isn't one of these varieties. 
  2. People have had documented reactions to even the daylily cultivars deemed 'safe,' and that could be due to errant plants from the originals, but no one knows for sure.

Here's Green Deane, of Eat the Weeds: 

While daylilies are listed in virtually every foraging book as edible as I said earlier, don’t presume any daylily other than the original is edible. Many are, but don’t assume so. Have it proven. Some people also have severe allergic reactions to them. In fact, some people can eat them for years with no problem then suddenly develop an allergy. 

It's worth reading his whole post, 'Daylily Dilemma,' as he walks through the cultivar problem in detail. The other source of interest in this daylily debate is Marie Viljoen, author of the book Forage, Harvest, Feast. While she does include daylilies in her book, she offers a hell of a caveat here in this excerpted post, "Daylily Dangers and Delights":

Scrupulous foraging writers will inform you that a few people experience gastric distress after eating daylilies. It is true. I know of four people who have been sickened (the symptoms are diarrhea, and sometimes vomiting) after eating the flowers of Hemerocallis fulva. One of them is wild foods author Dr. John Kallas, author of Edible Wild Plants. He and a friend became ill after eating a flower and six raw buds. This has not happened to me, or to countless people who have eaten them with no ill effect. Understanding why it happens is a real head scratcher. It is worth putting it into a broader context. Not all toxicities are the same, and there are several factors to consider before you sit down to dinner. (emphasis hers)

Viljoen also elaborates on not just the cultivar problem but another botanical cultivation aspect, which is that some species are diploids and some triploids (referring to the chromosone structure), so that you have in the end a whole host of caveats: "Avoid the diploid wild species. Avoid the horticultural cultivars. And eat daylilies (or any new food) in moderation," she says (again, her emphasis). The best Viljoen can do is refer to a head-scratching need for more scientific study. And what does 'in moderation' mean? The wild food expert she mentions was sickened from just one bloom and a handful of flower buds.

Ditch lily row

Given the better-than-average possibility that the daylily you encounter is, in fact, not safe to eat, so much so that experts themselves have ingested them and fallen ill, I just don't see the benefit here at all. So let me reiterate: I would absolutely not recommend ditch lilies as a food to anyone. That is all.

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Want to Help Bees? Grow Your Own Food!

Metallic sweat bee on broccoli flowers
Metallic sweat bee on broccoli flower

By Lisa Brunette

Anthony and I have considered carefully how much of the garden we want to allocate to native plants that aren't a direct food source for ourselves vs. traditional orchard and vegetable plants that do feed us. So far we've tried to learn as much as we can about native edibles and have designed the garden to include them.

But it was exciting to learn through the Shutterbee program (read more about that here) that native bees can make great use of traditional vegetable and herb flowers as a pollen source. That's right: As part of my training as a citizen scientist conducting bee studies in my own yard, I was instructed not to overlook the vegetable patch and herb garden. 

Resin bee on cilantro flowers
A bee on cilantro flowers

Most efforts to promote pollinator habitats focus on native flowers such as milkweed and coneflower, which are terrific additions to the garden that we've definitely incorporated. But this is the first I've heard that food plants could support native bees! That's an exciting finding because it means the annual vegetables we're growing get an added "stacked function." In permaculture, that means it has more than one use in the garden - here as both food source for us and a pollen and nectar source for bees. There's even a specialized 'squash bee' that is so-named because it prefers the flowers of squash plants.

For my first official foray into the farmyard to record bees, I was pleased to find that indeed, native bees were busy taking advantage of the flowering vegetable plants. I'd left the arugula standing when it bolted in the summer heat, and it's popular with tiny sweat bees.

Metallic sweat bee on arugula
Metallic sweat bee on arugula

So that's one more compelling reason to grow food in your yard. The list was already pretty long, but here's what we've got now. By growing your own food, you will:

  1. Save money, especially if you grow from seeds. You could also get a secondary set of money savings from a reduced need for medicinal interventions, whether that's from traditional medicine or alternatives.
  2. Eat healthier, as your food won't lose integrity via shipping and storing, and if you grow organically, you'll cut out pesticide contamination. You're also likely to eat more veggies because they're fresh and tasty.
  3. Get more in touch with the cycle of life as you take part in it as a mulcher, composter, and seed-sower.
  4. Enjoy a motivating daily workout as you put sweat equity into something that yields more than a toned physique.
  5. And now we can add: Help pollinators by providing them a much better food source than turf grass!
Bee on borage flower, an edible bloom that tastes like cucumber
Bee on borage flower, an edible bloom that tastes like cucumber - I use it in salads and to flavor water

Of course, if you want pollinators to take advantage of the flowers, you need to leave them there. The broccoli I started from seed indoors mostly faltered, but a few took off, and then quickly bolted (next year, we try a different approach). The flowers are pretty, so why not let them go? Ditto the chervil and arugula, both of which love cool weather and are pretty much done now that it's 90+ degrees here in June. That reminds me, the arugula is about to go to seed, so I better get out there and snag the remaining leaves...

Happy yardening! I wish you mulch success!

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Beecoming a Citizen Scientist in St. Louis' Shutterbee Program

Leafcutter Bee on Rudbekia
A leafcutter bee on our yellow coneflower.

By Lisa Brunette

This spring I joined with 186 other participants in a research project called Shutterbee. Without needing to meet in person, we will conduct a study of the bee populations in our gardens. It basically works like this:

  • Shutterbee ecologists train us in their research techniques and protocol.
  • We learn how to identify, photograph, and record our bee populations using a phone app called iNaturalist.
  • Every two weeks, we spend at least 20 or 30 minutes taking a walking survey of our gardens, photographing bees using the protocol.
  • We then upload our findings to iNaturalist for both Shutterbee's and the general community's ID and record.

I've already gone through the two-stage training sessions, about five hours of education and practice spread over two weekends. Due to COVID-19, the trainings were held online, making this low-touch research project even less-touch. Researchers at Webster University and Saint Louis University are trying to determine whether non-invasive photo surveys can adequately take the place of traditional netting. Normally, bee researchers head out into the field, capturing bees with nets for study. This project explores whether or not photo surveys by citizen scientists can take the place of netting, or at least contribute to it. 

Bee on Wild Garlic
This bee on wild garlic is still awaiting ID.

The answer to that seems to lie with us, the program participants. Based on previous years, what researchers have seen is that while the richness and diversity of bee recordings carries across to the citizen scientist findings, we amateurs in the field often miss the rare bee sightings. So Shutterbee has asked us to keep an eye out for bees that seem to break the bee mold, so to speak. For me, being a good citizen scientist means learning as much as I can to think and act like an ecologist, getting to know the bees in my garden and the plants they prefer.

Shutterbee
The Shutterbee logo, designed by students at Webster University.

The focus of this study is native bees, not the honeybee, which is a non-native, domesticated insect considered by many to fall into the livestock category. While colony collapse disorder in the European honeybee population is of concern to agriculture, it's the decline in native bee populations that fuels this research project. Native pollinators are important because:

  1. 87% of flowering plants are animal-pollinated
  2. 1 in 3 bites of food we eat is made possible by pollinators
  3. Many of our most nutritious foods need pollinators*
Bee on Wild Hydrangea
A native bee in the family Megachilidae, on wild hydrangea.

I've already learned a lot from this study, such as how to tell bees from flies or wasps. You might think that's a simple task, but you should think again. Many flies have evolved to mimic the look of bees as a defensive mechanism.

Daisy fleabane
Looks like a bee, but it's a hoverfly called 'margined calligrapher,' here on daisy fleabane growing in our wild patch.

After a few test-walks through the garden, I've also learned that all the work to remove invasive plants and exotics and replace them with native plants is worth it. During my surveys, it was the flowering natives that drew the bees for me to photograph, as shown in all of the photos on this page.

I'm excited to take part in this program, offered jointly by Webster University and Saint Louis University. I served as visiting professor in the game design department at Webster during the 2017-18 school year, and one of my students was our first full-time hire at Brunette Games. Not only is Saint Louis University my undergrad alma mater, but we also recently hired two more students from SLU's English department to our Brunette Games staff.

Ligated furrow bee on Rudbekia
The yellow coneflower is popular. This visitor is a ligated furrow bee.

Professor Nicole Miller-Struttmann has been an awesome educator and evangelist so far in her leadership of Shutterbee, and I look forward to meeting everyone in the program in person, hopefully, in the future. If you're in the St. Louis area and interested in participating, you still can next year. While the program is at capacity for now, it's a multi-year study, and Shutterbee plans to train more people in 2021.

What's buzzing in your garden? Post your bee pics below!

* According to educational materials distributed by Shutterbee.

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A Peek at Our Peony, and Some Free Plants!

Peony bud

By Lisa Brunette

I've got a short one for you this time - I know; you're probably like, "Really, Lisa? Because you're a big fan of those longform blog posts (TL;DR)." But this time I just want to do two things: 1) Show you our beautifully rehabilitated peony and 2) offer you some free plants.

So the peony had been a sickly, struggling thing for the past three years, and in 2019 I was sure it had finally succumbed to blight. But we mulched around it and decided to give it a chance. Well, this spring, it sprang back to life with great promise, as you can see in the awakening bud above. But peony buds are a really slow tease, taking their time to come to full bloom.

Peony opening

When it finally opened, it was a visual and aromatic treat. While I knew their short-lived but storied flowers were legend, I hadn't realized peonies smelled so good.

Peony 2020

They made for a lovely cut flower when we finally opened up from quarantine here and had the whole fam damly over for Memorial Day. Chaco agreed, and luckily, peonies pose no threat to the kitty. In fact, his taste for the peony water is smart, as the petals have been used to flavor water since antiquity.

Peony with Chaco

Peony: short-lived but spectacular, safe for cats, and, as it turns out, immensely useful for humans. We have such a small bush, with only about five flowers in total, but if we ever get more, we can use the petals in many of the same ways we use rose petals. It's even been used medicinally.

Now for the free plants!

You might recall from a previous post that we have about 100 yellow bearded irises here at the Cat in the Flock farm. As much as we enjoy the sight of them in late spring, they're limited to that, aesthetics. We can't use them because they're toxic to humans, and we can't even bring them into the house as a cut flower because they're toxic to cats, and Chaco is like Mikey in the old Life cereal commercials. 

Iris 2020

So if you're in the St. Louis area, come on by, and I'll give you some free rhizomes. They're done blooming now, and I'm happy to pot them for you to take home. Just email me at this handy link.

See? I told you it'd be short!

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Daisy fleabane
A 'margined calligrapher' on daisy fleabane.

By Lisa Brunette

We're nearing the end of year three here at the Cat in the Flock farmhouse, and that means a lot of the native plants we've either added ourselves or that have seen fit to volunteer are blooming. The saying with natives goes, "First year sleep, second year creep, and third year leap," and we're now in the leap year on many of these flowering plants.

Remember that last patch of grass we needed to mulch over? Well, I decided to let it go wild instead, just to see what it would do. In that back part of the farmyard, there wasn't much grass anyway. The above native daisy fleabane grew up everywhere of its own accord and seems to be a favorite of the hoverfly called 'margined calligrapher.' Yeah, I know it looks like a bee, but it's not. See the bulbed-out eyes? That's a telltale sign it's a fly. I also have confirmation from a few sources on iNaturalist. The leaves of fleabane are edible; they taste a bit like radish.

Amorpha fruticosa
False indigo bush, or Amorpha fruticosa.

I first learned of Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo bush, at a free 'Plants and Pints' presentation at a local brewery. This was in the fall of 2018; the talk was called "Creating a Healthy Orchard Ecosystem," given by Dean Gunderson of Gateway Greening. He pointed out the nitrogen-fixing habit of this plant and recommended adding one for every two fruiting plants, a rule of thumb we're following in the home orchard, where we now have two apple trees, two pear trees, two cherry bushes, three blackberry vines, and so far four false indigo bushes. 

Amorpha fruticosa is a cool-looking plant, with those bottlebrush purple blooms. Over at Southern Meadows blog, you can read more about its attributes.

Monkey face flower
Allegheny monkey flower, or Mimulus ringens.

Last fall I scored a number of native plants on markdown sale. They were all past the bloom stage, so I had no idea what they would look like when the flowers came in, but I at least knew from its name that Allegheny monkey flower would resemble a monkey's face. Mimulus ringens, you do not disappoint! This one is well-sited in the shrub layer underneath our old lilac bush, where it's quite healthy.

The next pairing is sort of a mystery to me. I'm not sure if the yellow coneflower is the result of seeds I sowed exactly one year ago, in June 2019, or if it's a volunteer. My notes say I sowed monarda (bee balm) seeds in that spot, but maybe they weren't monarda. Clearly, coneflower would rather grow there instead. It looks marvelous with the pale yellow flowers of potentilla growing beneath it. Interestingly, both plants are known for their medicinal qualities, so their presence in the kitchen garden area makes total sense. Sometimes, plants are smarter than we are.

Yellow coneflower and potentilla
Mystery coneflower and potentilla.

Back in early spring of 2019, I picked up a small wild hydrangea at a native plant sale at the Butterfly House here in St. Louis. You might remember my post about all the spring bulbs coming up at the Butterfly House and my excitement about the native plant finds. Here's what the hydrangea looked like exactly one year ago, in June 2019. It's next to an insect hotel that fits in the palm of your hand.

Hydrangea 2019
Wild hydrangea, exactly one year ago.

This year, it's exploded with growth, nearly blocking the view of the air conditioner I was hoping it would conceal. Note it's covered in blooms. I've had to move the Japanese lantern three times as its growth keeps swallowing it up.

Hydrangea 2020
Wild hydrangea now.

Hydrangea is of course known for its lovely blooms, and the native variety doesn't hold back. It's just getting started here in mid-June.

Hydrangea bloom
Hydrangea aborescens starting to bloom.

This last native I have to admit is a new, exuberant purchase, and it went into the ground in full bloom. I had seen white milkweed in a catalog, so when I stumbled upon Asclepias incarnata 'Ice Ballet' at my local garden center, there's no way I could leave it there. Since most of my plants have been grown from 100 percent free seeds or starts, I consider a sizable potted plant like this a real splurge, but so far totally worth it.

Asclepias incarnata Ice Ballet
Milkweed is the only food for the Monarch butterfly.

Are you surprised to find that native plants can provide such a lovely range of blooms? It's a win-win, as they add beauty to your life, and they feed crucial pollinators in two ways: 1) by providing them with nectar from the flower and 2) by providing their larvae - such as butterfly caterpillars - with their preferred food (the leaves). Milkweed, for example, is the only food eaten by Monarch butterfly larvae, so without it, they won't survive. The 'Ice Ballet' I added here is one of three milkweed plants in the garden; the other two both came to us free from Wild Ones events, one as seeds and the other as a start.

What's new and native in your garden?

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