Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Daylily as a Permaculture Subject - Part 1

The Daylily as a Permaculture Subject

Hemerocallis fulva ex Korea, Seoul National University, NA 54920
Flowering in my garden June 2013

Part 1
Introduction and Overview

Brian Reeder

*Disclaimer - (I am not recommending in any way, form or fashion that anyone should ever in any way, form or fashion consume any part of any daylily plant in any way, form or fashion. While Hemerocallis (daylily) is a common food and medical substance in Asian countries, if you have never eaten daylily or do not have accurate information on the consumption of daylily, in whole or part, or known-edible forms of daylily, it is completely upon your discretion when experimenting with consuming daylily in any way, form or fashion. I strongly recommend that first time consumers be very careful in the amount of any given daylily they eat in order to observe the effects on their individual and unpredictable systems. Some people have experienced diarrhea from consuming daylily in quantity and some daylilies have been known to have sedative effects, which might be referred to as ‘poisoning’ or ‘poisonous effects’ by some extremely sensitive people. The internal chemistry of each daylily, as well as each person, may vary and so no general information about daylilies as food or medicine can be made that will cover all daylilies and all human reactions/interactions with/to daylilies in any given instance. What is perfectly fine for one person may cause the greatest harm to another. In fact, I would go so far as to recommend that you never eat, drink or consumer anything (Hemerocallis or otherwise), in any way, form or fashion, ever, as doing so may cause unforeseen problems ranging from a disagreeable taste in the mouth to instant and total death (though no death has ever been documented from Hemerocallis and people the world over do eat and drink a wide range of things). If you do seek to consume Hemerocallis in any way, please consult a physician, your pastor or religious leader, local law enforcement, three or more philosophers, a dietician, politicians from your party of choice, multiple Facebook groups and a bevy of Twitter trolls. What you put in your mouth is your problem, and not mine. :-)

I have grown daylilies (Hemerocallis) as a garden plant for over forty years, with most of that time focused on their floral traits and their value in flower gardens. However, I have long been interested in permaculture and ‘food forestry’ and in the historical uses of the daylily in Asia. Over the last decade or so I have spent a great deal of time contemplating the uses of daylilies in permaculture settings and what new varieties might be developed to improve upon the existing species and cultivars for use in permaculture.

Many species of the genus Hemerocallis have long been used as both food and medicine in Asia. Peter Valder in The Garden Plants of China (1999 - Timber Press) (1) mentions evidence that the genus has been cultivated in China for several thousand years. The most commonly used parts of the plant for food are the flowers, either as opened, then dried, flowers or in the form of the buds. The buds are eaten cooked or raw. The buds and/or the opened flowers are usually referred to as ‘golden needles’. They are commonly used in soups and stews. Young shoots and roots are also used, though there is some suggestion (2) that the roots may have some toxicity. Excellent information on using daylily as food can be found at the Ollie Daylily Garden website under the navigation header link ‘Edible Daylilies’. 

Rodriguez-Enrique and Grant-Downton present an overview of the  economic possibilities of the genus Hemerocallis in their 2012 paper A New Day Dawning: Hemerocallis (daylily) as a Future Model Organism (3). They use the term ‘nutraceutical’, which is a combination of the dual aspects of nutritional and pharmaceutical uses.

Research on the flowers have shown that the buds have very high levels of antioxidants (4). Some research (5) has shown that daylily flowers contain stelladerol, a unique glycoside that shows strong antioxidant properties. Other research (6) has identified other antioxidants in the flowers that also show strong antioxidant properties. Rodriguez-Enrique/Grant Downton and other researchers (8) suggest that the Hemerocallis have great potential for use as nutraceutical foods.

The Hemerocallis is an ancient medicinal plant within its native range (7). In traditional Asian medicinal systems, the Hemerocallis has been used for its sedative effects, treating sleep disorders and mood alteration. In several Asian cultures it is called ‘forgetting sorrows plant’. Preliminary research suggests there is an effect on sleep cycles in animals (9). Other researchers (10) (11) have shown evidence for reduction of depression symptoms in animal subjects. The leaves have been shown to contain several compounds with medicinal properties (12) and have long been used to treat various conditions in Asia. There is research suggesting that compounds from Hemerocallis roots are useful against schistosome parasite infection (13). Compounds from Hemerocallis roots also have shown action against certain caner cells (14).

While much more research is needed to quantify the effects listed above, the research so far is very suggestive and the traditional uses, both medicinal and culinary, lead me to believe the there is much to value in the Hemerocallis for permaculture uses.

H. fulva Korean - foliage

In Asia, the two species most often used for food and medicine are H. fulva and H. citrina. There are many variations within each species, constituting varieties, forma or clones of the species. (I will leave it to the taxonomists and botanists to determine exactly what all those various forms are). The fulva, especially are very diverse and I will discuss several below. In traditional Asian cultures, the daylilies are simply divided into main categories - orange (the fulva including pink and red variations) and yellow (everything else). The yellow category is further divided into tall and short categories. While there is constant wrangling and argument about species and forms and their relation and distinctions, I find the ancient categories of ‘orange’ and ‘yellow' (tall and short) to be very useful.

Early Stout cultivar Rajah, which is very close to H. fulva

Any of the species forms that are used in Asia should be applicable to use in permaculture. Amongst the H. fulva, forma Europa is the best known, and is often called the ‘ditch lily’. It is ubiquitous throughout much of the world and is well-known from the ditches of roads throughout America. Many of the fulva forma can be quite invasive, with Europa being the most extreme in this regard. H. fulva ‘Hankow’ is another robust and rambunctious type that is a later flowering form. H. fulva ‘Korean’ is a more recent import, arriving in the US in the 1980s from Seoul, South Korea, collected and imported by Darrell Apps. It is robust and vigorous, but so far has not been as invasive as Europa or Hankow. It is an early flowering form that has a robust plant with very clear orange and red flowers. 

H. fulva Korean

There are many other types of fulva forma being grown in cultivation. Asian countries must have many we do not know of, but here in the US, we have several more including ‘Cypriani’, ‘rosea’, ‘Chengtu’, ‘maculata’, ‘pauciflora’ as well as some unnamed forms. Crosses of any of these forms could produce more variations within the species. 

The citrina clones show variability in flower shapes, tone of yellow color, height of scapes, etc. Few of these variations carry names, most just being given a number or simply called “citrina”. The citrina group are clumping, not running as in the fulva group, and so may be more suitable for certain settings. The running nature of fulva forms does have many applications though, beyond the uses I have discussed so far, such as edging along wood lines or banks of streams and for use in erosion control and land reclamation.

H. citrina clone

In working with the species I have mentioned above, I have found many very good traits, including resistance to daylily rust in some of the varieties of both fulva and citrina. However, one trait that I have not found amongst any of these is strong resistance to thrips and other insects which feed on flowers and buds. This can present a problem in areas with such insect pests. Of the fulva, the only form that seems to miss much of this insect predation in my garden is Hankow, due to blooming very late in the season and missing the worst season for thrip predation in my area. There are a few problems that these insect pests can cause, such as bud drop, complete destruction of scapes and bumpy to thorn-like enations that may cover the buds making the texture rough and unpalatable. I have not worked with every species, but to date the only species I have seen with any resistance to thrips is H. dumortierii, though this form is very early blooming and is not known to be a major food source in Asia. However, I do know from observation and testing in the hybrid dallies that there are some cultivars with strong resistance to thrips and other such insect pests.

Spider Man - A modern hybrid tetraploid cultivar with strong rust and thrip resistance

Susceptibility to both daylily rust and thrips and other insect predators in daylily species and hybrid cultivars is a big problem in permaculture settings where these pathogens are present, as spraying for funguses and insect pests is not practical in these garden settings. Of the two types of pathogens, the insects may represent a greater problem, as they negatively effect the buds and flowers. However, as resistance is found in the Hemerocallis for both problems, efforts can be made to breed cultivars for permaculture purposes that show resistance to either/both of these issues.

At the outset of my own daylily breeding program, a major effort from the start in 2010 has been toward outcrossing modern cultivars with species clones. My work has focused on doing this at the tetraploid level where the gene pool has been shown to be most narrow amongst all Hemerocallis populations (3) (15). Since the initial hybridization of Hemerocallis species in the 1890s through the mid-1900s, there has been little introgression back to species materials. The program of Brian Mahieu from the 1990s through the early 2000s utilized this technique, crossing modern diploid hybrids to species materials to widen the gene pool and work toward specific flower phenotypes, plant vigor and hardiness. Gil Stelter has done some work in the 2000s with crossing modern tetraploid cultivars over fertile triploid forms of H. fulva working toward modern flowers with vigor and hardiness in his cold Canadian winters. 

H. fulva 'Europa' - the infamous 'ditch lily'

Much of my own work since 2010 has been focused on this type of work. There are others working with this type of breeding at this time, but the focus is generally on the flower, with some focus also on plant hardiness and vigor, with some small interested in the rhizomatous traits of H. fulva. The Facebook group Friends of Fulva is a small group of breeders dedicated to working with fulva genetics, some focused on bringing those genes back into the modern gene pool and this is admirable work, as the narrow gene pool of modern daylily hybrids, especially the tetraploids, should be a concern to daylily breeders.

As I have worked with these crosses in developing lines, I have begun to see a huge potential for creating daylily hybrids that are more than just pretty flowers, but that also encompass useful traits for permaculture. The traits are there within the Hemerocallis gene pool. It is only a matter of combining those traits into lines that have all the desirable traits for permaculture uses from the species, but with improved resistance to thrips and other insect pests. In the next part, we will look at selecting plants for use in permaculture and selecting base plants for a permaculture-focused breeding project.



  1. Valder P. 1999. The Garden Plants of China. Portland, OR: Timber Press.
  2. Zhang Y, Cichewicz RH, Nair MG. 2004. Lipid peroxidation inhibitory compounds from daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) leaves. Life Science 75: 753-763.
  3. Rodriguez-Enrique MJ, Grant-Downton RT. 2013. A new day dawning: Hemerocallis (daylily) as a future model organism. AoB PLANTS 5: pls055; dos:10.1093/aobpla/pls055.
  4. Bor JY, Chen HY, Yen GC. 2006. Evaluation of antioxidant activity and inhibitory effect of nitric oxide production of some common vegetables. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 54: 1680-1686.
  5. Cichewicz RH, Nair MG, 2002. Isolation and characterization of stelladerol, a new antioxidant naphthalene glycoside, and other antioxidant glycosides from edible daylily (Hemerocallis) flowers. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 50: 87-91.
  6. Lin YL, Lu CK, Huang YJ, Chen HJ. 2001. Antioxidative caffeoylquinic acids and flavonoids from Hemerocallis fulva flowers. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 59: 8789 - 8795.
  7. Micek J, Rop O. 2011. Fresh edible flowers of ornamental plants - a new source of nutraceutical foods. Trends in Food Science and Technology 22: 561 - 569.
  8. Rop O, Micek J, Jurikova T, Neugebauerava J, Vabkova J. 2012. Edible Flowers - a new promising source of mineral elements in human nutrition. Molecules 17: 6672 - 6683.
  9. Uezu E. 1998. Effects of Hemerocallis on sleep in mice. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 52: 136 - 137.
  10. Gu L, Liu Y-J, Wang Y-B, Yi L-T. 2012. Role for monoaminergic systems in the antidepressant-like effect of ethanol extracts from Hemerocallis citrina. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 139: 780 - 787.
  11. Yi LT, Li J, Li HC, Zhou Y, Su BF, Yang KF, Jiang M, Zhang YT. 2012. Ethanol extracts from Hemerocallis citrina attenuate the decreases of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, TrkB levels in rat induced by corticosterone administration. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 144: 328- 334.
  12. Zhang Y, Cichewicz RH, Nair MG. 2004. Lipid peroxidation inhibitory compounds from daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) leaves. Life Science 75: 753 - 763.
  13. Cichewicz RH, Lim K-C, McKerrow JH, Nair MG. 2002. Kwanzoquinones A - G and other constituents of Hemerocallis fulva ‘Kwanzo’ roots and their activity against the human pathogenic trematode Schistosome mansoni. Tetrahedron 58: 8597 - 8606.
  14. Cichewicz RH, Zhang Y, Seeram NP, Nair MG. 2004. Inhibition of human tumor sell proliferation by novel anthraquinones from Daylilies. Life Sciences 74: 1791 - 1799.
  15. Tomkins JP, Wood TC, Barnes LS, Westman A, Wing RA. 2001. Evaluation of the genetic variation in the daylily  (Hemerocallis sip.) using AFLP markers. Theoretical and Applied Genetics 102: 489 - 496.