Permaculture Feed

Learn from Our Mistake! Ditch Those Daylilies at Dinnertime

Ditch lily
Hemerocallis fulva, daylily, ditch lily.

By Lisa Brunette

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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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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5 Cool Uses for Rose Petals

Knockout Rose Bush 2020
So. Many. Roses.

By Lisa Brunette

We inherited three 'knock out' rose bushes, well established by the time we moved here in 2017. Three is a more than enough for us, especially considering this ridiculously common ornamental doesn't produce rose hips, and most pollinators don't seem to take much notice of it, either, except for the domesticated European honeybee. We removed one of the rose bushes last fall and trimmed back the remaining two, and lo and behold, this spring they exploded with more blooms than we'd ever seen before.

The roses are pretty, for sure, and they seem to be more fragrant this year, too. But we as a species are far past the point where we can allow sizable real estate to be taken up by living statues, no matter how pretty or fragrant. Should the knock out rose go - or stay? On the plus side, it was cultivated to be disease-resistant and hardy, and it's clearly flourishing even though we haven't done anything to it besides trim it back and mulch around it.

But it isn't a native, not like the wild roses that have evolved in tandem with local pollinators. So for example, caterpillars haven't had eons to adapt methods of getting past the rose's resistance to them (and it's been bred to further resist them anyway). So the remaining question for us is: Can we use it?

Rose Petals
Much more useful than just potpourri.

If we can derive some culinary, medicinal, or other human use from this plant, then it warrants its space at Dragon Flower Farm. I knew from reading the novel Like Water for Chocolate that you can eat rose petals, so I started from that assumption. Tita's famous quail-and-rose-petal sauce recipe aside, I found and tested five cool uses for America's national flower.

#1 Just toss the petals into a salad.

Maybe this is obvious, but if they're edible, you know, you can simply add them to your mixed greens and chow down. Don't use petals that have been sprayed with pesticides, of course. We're 100 percent organic, and you could be, too. If your rose petals are clean, give this a try; they're high in vitamin C. Some say the more fragrant they are, the better the taste. We've tossed them into mixes with baby kale, shredded carrot, sunflower seeds, and green olives, and they're delicious.

#2 Pickle them.

I love pickled food, so pickled rose petals immediately intrigued me when I saw this recipe over at the Martha Stewart blog. I followed it to a T and have to say pickled rose petals is my new go-to. My only complaint is that the recipe - part of one of those slideshow thingies - ends abruptly without mentioning whether or not you have to refrigerate the petals or how long they'll last. FYI, I put mine in the fridge, and three weeks later, they're still fine.

Rose Petal Products
The sum total of my rose-petal haul.

#3 Make rose water.

Rose water might make you think of your grandmother's perfume, at least if you're as old as I am, but it's so much more. You can use it in food dishes, as a culinary accompaniment, in yogurt lassi, and, of course, as a refreshing, non-chemical fragrance. It's easy to make, too: Just pour boiling water over rose petals in a jar and seal, and you've got it. Again, especially with the outdoor temps here now into the 90s, I keep mine in the fridge.

Rose Water
It's lovely to look at and smell, but useful, too.

#4 Infuse - and naturally dye - your vinegar.

If you've been following along with this blog regularly, you've already seen me use both violets and lilacs to dye and infuse vinegar. I was curious to see what would happen with rose petals, and woo hoo, our favorite little valentine didn't disappoint. Note: I recommend using a high-quality vinegar for this, organic and containing the naturally occurring organism referred to as "the mother." Why? Because you're going to want to eat a lot of it, making salad dressing and adding it as you cook, and your body will thank you for it.

Rose Vinegar
It's like Barbie vinegar!

#5 Brew rose petals as tea.

I realize you might think of this as a repeat of the rose water above, but it's meant to be more medicinal than beautifying, and rather than drink rose petal tea on its own, I've opted to pair it with another plant.

First, I want to introduce you to a concept called the "Doctrine of Signatures," which I initially heard of from the author Tammi Hartung of Desert Canyon Farm but have subsequently come across in a variety of sources. This is an ancient tradition that suggests what a plant looks like tells you what it's good for. For roses, that means the heart-shaped, velvety red petals promote heart opening. So Tita's rose-petal sauce wasn't just fictional license.

Roses have also been used to soothe the stomach and bring on a sense of calm. I decided to pair them with the definitely heart-shaped violet leaves growing here in profusion, and it was fun to find out that violet leaves have been used to promote heart health, too, also backing up the doctrine of signatures.

Here's how you make my 'Heart's Ease' tea blend. First, dry the petals, which you can manage in a dehydrator or by spreading them out in a wide, shallow basket. I layered them with the violet leaves in a dryer rack I fashioned out of netting and a garden flat box.

Violet Leaves Drying

Of course, Chaco was really grateful for this lovely bed I'd created for him.

Chaco on Violet Leaves

Once I removed the cat, started over with new violet leaves, added the rose petals, and placed the whole rack in a place where Chaco couldn't get to it, it took about two weeks for the mixture to fully dry. I then placed it into clean jars, labeled with both ingredients, the suggested use, and the date.

So, what's the verdict? Are these multiple uses for rose petals enough to justify keeping the knock out? What others can you suggest? List them in the comments below! Another option is to replace the knockout with a native rose or another one that will provide us with more rose hips...

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