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Edibles (feral Day Lilies) growing in sticky green clay

 
Dan Boone
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I am starting to warm to this permaculture notion about the power and necessity of constant sustained observation.

Today I was still feeling a mite puny after a bit of a cold, so instead of spading some new garden beds I went wandering upon my wild forest to see what might be growing. It's the first spring since I started caring about wild edibles and food forestry, and so I'm delighted and excited by the recent hints of spring green popping up all over the woods.

As soon as I started down one of my trails, I found a bed (see first picture) of what I suspected (and later confirmed) were daylilies. I was delighted to see them because I know they're edible and they sound like one of the edibles that's actually tasty.

In order to confirm that they were daylilies, I dug up a few to examine the underground parts. (Yup, tubers not bulbs -- see second picture.)

To my complete astonishment, they were growing in a thick bed of almost pure sticky green clay. There was no soil mixed with it at all, and just maybe half an inch of leaf duff between the clay and the open air. Even more amazing, when I stepped back I saw that the clay bed was a local high feature; the soil everywhere else (the usual sandwich of sod, thin soil, and more-dirty clay) was four to six inches lower than my little clay knob or plateau or shelf.

So then I looked around carefully for more daylillies, but nope -- they were growing on the clay shelf only. And that made me cogitate about the origin of these plants.

I know daylilies are not native; they are exotics that have naturalized in many places. But we are way rural; pretty much everything here is either native or was introduced with farm inputs. However, there's a house plot a couple hundred feet away that -- though abandoned now -- dates back about 70 years. The daffodils still grow densely in the front yard there, and have migrated in several directions even further than these daylilies. So I assume that the daylilies come from the same yard.

But why do they survive only in the inhospitable-seeming clay, and nowhere else?

And I think the answer is one of my first permaculture insights. If I'm right, the answer is "drought".

We're trained to think of pure clay as near sterile because (1) many plants struggle to push roots through it and (2) conventional farmers find it very hard to plow the stuff (impossible unless the moisture level is just so). But I've also learned that the clay particles in soil are moisture batteries, the part of the mineral soil that absorbs and holds water (along with the organic particles).

My new theory is that daylilies may have spread all over like the daffodils, but in most locations they failed to survive the many lengthy droughts this area has suffered. In most locations, but NOT in the one place where they had forced their roots in among almost pure clay, allowing it to have become saturated by rain and surface water, creating an enormous moisture battery that's unavailable to most other plants that can't root in the clay so efficiently.

But that's just a theory, not what I'm calling my permaculture insight.

Before being exposed to permie notions, I'd have reacted to the discovery of a substantial bed of sticky clay by thinking "darn, another chunk of useless land with no topsoil, where I can't really plant anything." Now, after several months of walking this property with the express purpose of looking for places where I can successfully grow food plants without irrigation, I see this bed of sticky clay as a beautiful resource. I'm thinking "Wow, I just discovered 30 square feet of drought-proof growing area for the right plants -- and it's already got a 70-year-established population of edible perennial plants growing in it!" And my next internal question is "I wonder what else I can plant here that's tasty and will play well with the daylilies and that can tolerate the pure clay like they can, or take advantage of the fissures they've already made in it?"

And thus do I have a new resource, and a new research project to figure out how to use it.

daylilies.jpg
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patch of daylilies
daylilies-02.jpg
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excavated washed daylily with roots and tubers
 
Dan Boone
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Location: Central Oklahoma (zone 7a) ~39" rain/year
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I mentioned that the source of these daylilies was probably an abandoned/collapsing house that's adjacent to my yard. Well, today I was working at the edge of my yard (basically right at the interface between my zone 1 and zone 2) cleaning up some downed trees that had been thrown up against the abandoned house (I was salvaging the bigger trunks to use as free lawn/garden edging). And right there under my nose at the edge of my zone 1 I found a whole 'nuther patch of daylillies, probably in their original location, growing up through the brush pile I was working.

To make matters worse (for my powers of observation) I then started looking around and found yet another huge patch behind a large hackberry tree. Again, these are right at my zone 1 / zone 2 interface. How in the heck have I lived here almost ten years (9 winters, maybe 4 summers) and never seen these before?

All I can say is, it shows the degree to which I never looked beyond the mowed edges of the yard before I started taking an interest in this land. Talk about wearing blinders!

newlilies-01.jpg
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new patch under brush pile
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after removing brush pile
newlillies-03.jpg
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lots more behind hackberry tree
 
Alder Burns
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Bravo for these observations! Now you're truly inspired and will watch for other interesting and useful things as they come up wherever..... And daylilies are edible in many parts, and it looks like you have enough of them already to obtain a modest yield.
Even without producing seeds, it's interesting how some plants can spread far from their point of introduction. Plants with bulbs, rhizomes, and the like can be moved long distances by rodents, for instance....which make off with the roots thinking to stash a meal, and either forget some or find them unpalatable, and leave them conveniently planted in a burrow. In Georgia once I found a hybrid daylily in a pile of decaying wood chips, where a timber company had thinned a pine stand by cutting out alternate rows and chipping them, leaving the pile. How it got there I puzzle to this day...the spot was probably a half mile or more from the nearest human habitation of any sort which could have served as a point of origin, and the variety too modern to have persistent from some abandoned farm from before the pine plantation......
 
Dan Boone
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It really is quite amazing to see how things spread over 70 years. The other day I noticed and identified (because it leafed first) an Ohio Buckeye tree sapling. If there's a mature tree on this property it wasn't nearby, I looked pretty hard. So who carried in that huge horse-chestnut seed? Squirrel maybe, but this was in one of those spots where recent deadfalls opened up the canopy. I suspect germination of an old seed in the seed bank from a long-gone parent tree.

As for the daylilies, the first patch I found wasn't enough to harvest for a meal. But these new patches will certainly provide inputs for my salads, so I'm delighted to find them. What's the best time to plant daylilies? 70 years ago!
 
Marc Troyka
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Firstly, it's the flowers of daylillies that are usually eaten, not the tubers or leaves. Typically the flowers are harvested before they open, and dried or cooked fresh as "needles".

Second, although "clay" seems to have become synonymous with "bad soil", that's hardly the case. Most clays can hold a lot of minerals as well as water (that is to say that they're fertile), and as long as they aren't compacted they can even be the best choice.

Something you might consider as part of your observations is soil compaction, which is what really makes it hard for plants to grow their roots through. If you take a long straight stick and poke it down through the soil as far as you can, you can easily get an idea of how compacted (or not) an area is, and how far down roots can grow before getting stuck. If the issue is really compaction, a light sheet mulching can fix that in only a few years and with minimal work. What you do with it after amending it is up to you, but in your area there aren't very many limitations besides water.
 
Dan Boone
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Marc, if you google a bit I think you'll find a lot of people eating the stems of the daylilies (cooked or when young/tender enough, raw) and there seems to be a fair bit of salad use of the flowers as well. I should think eating tubers or stems makes a bigger impact on the patch.

I've tasted the tubers and young stems raw and found them tasty but impractical (lotta cleaning). Looking forward to testing the buds/flowers.

Agree about compaction. It seems to vary with depth; a lot of my clay can be laboriously spaded in the top foot but below that (if bedrock is not already encountered) you're chipping it with a mattock and getting a few ounces of clay flakes with each swing.
 
David Goodman
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Good for you, Dan, to look at the property with new eyes. That is exciting.
 
Matu Collins
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Developing the eyes to see! It's amazing how long it can take to see something right in front of my own eyes.

Interesting observation about the daylilies and clay. I wonder if the clay is holding on to nutrients along with the water. That's one of thenice things about clay, in my understanding.
 
Marc Troyka
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Dan Boone wrote:Marc, if you google a bit I think you'll find a lot of people eating the stems of the daylilies (cooked or when young/tender enough, raw) and there seems to be a fair bit of salad use of the flowers as well. I should think eating tubers or stems makes a bigger impact on the patch.

I've tasted the tubers and young stems raw and found them tasty but impractical (lotta cleaning). Looking forward to testing the buds/flowers.


I stand corrected. From what I read the flower buds and tubers are the only parts worth the work though.

Dan Boone wrote:Agree about compaction. It seems to vary with depth; a lot of my clay can be laboriously spaded in the top foot but below that (if bedrock is not already encountered) you're chipping it with a mattock and getting a few ounces of clay flakes with each swing.

The top foot is the most important part for most plants, but if it's laborious to dig then it's definitely compacted. Luckily that's not a difficult fix. I'd also be willing to bet that your 'bedrock' is probably just hardpan, but chicory, yarrow and/or daikons can fix that in a year or two as well. I think you could have some rather enviable garden spots with a bit of work.

Matu Collins wrote:Developing the eyes to see! It's amazing how long it can take to see something right in front of my own eyes.

I ended up watching the light distribution in my garden area for a full year and still managed to get it wrong. This year I watched my garden for like a month before I spotted some wild onions in the distance and decided to adopt them. It seems no matter how much you look you can always find things you didn't notice before.
 
Dan Boone
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Sorry to say, the bedrock is good old-fashioned sandstone, there's no mistaking it. A few years spent shoveling gravel into a sluicebox in the gold fields of the upper Yukon left me knowing more than I ever cared to know about bedrock. My permaculture and horticulture knowledge is painfully slight but my practical geology is pretty solid.
 
Marc Troyka
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Dan Boone wrote:Sorry to say, the bedrock is good old-fashioned sandstone, there's no mistaking it. A few years spent shoveling gravel into a sluicebox in the gold fields of the upper Yukon left me knowing more than I ever cared to know about bedrock. My permaculture and horticulture knowledge is painfully slight but my practical geology is pretty solid.


Well that's unfortunate, but it really only rules out giant root vegetables and there aren't many of those. Sandstone is also known for hosting aquifers, which might also explain some of what you're seeing.
 
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