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Sego Lilies

By Larry A. Sagers | Posted - Jul 21st, 2012 @ 7:09am



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I'm amazed at the number of people who have never seen our state flower, the sego lily. I have lived in Utah almost my entire life, and I have never seen as many sego lilies blooming as I am seeing now.

They are blooming in dry areas along desert roadways and dry, sunny areas along the foothills. They prefer areas between 5,000 and 8,000 feet in altitude.

The flowers are beautiful, but that is not how they got to be the state flower. They are revered here because they saved the lives of many early settlers.

Native Americans, who considered the plant to be sacred, used the bulbs for food. Sego is a Shoshonean word thought to mean "edible bulb." Native American roasted them, boiled them or made them into a porridge dish.

Kate C. Snow, president of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers (1929- 33), wrote in a letter on April 17, 1930, that because of food shortages that occurred after the pioneer settlers arrived -- particularly in 1848-49 -- people were starving.

The sego lily is the Utah state flower because of its historical significance in feeding the early settlers. A member of the lily family, it is commonly called the mariposa lily. The name comes from the Spanish word for butterfly because Spanish explorers thought the beautiful mountainside flowers looked like butterflies.

Elizabeth Huffaker, another early pioneer, described the situation she and others found themselves in as follows: "In the spring of 1848, our food was gone. My husband had killed some wild game and by means of salt brought from the lake I was able to dry and preserve enough to keep us from starving.

"Along the month of April we noticed all the foothills were one glorious flower garden. The snow had gone, the ground was warm. We dug thousands of sego roots, for we heard that the Indians had lived on them for weeks and months. We relished them and carried them home in bucketfuls. How the children feasted on them, particularly when they were dried, for they tasted like butternuts."

The sego lily is a deep bulb, somewhat smaller than a walnut. It grows in hard, dry ground in the foothills in Salt Lake and other valleys throughout the Western United States. The bulbs were eaten raw, boiled or roasted but obviously should not be dug for consumption today because of the scarcity of the plant.

The Mormon crickets destroyed much of the crop, and there was little to eat throughout the winter.

The pioneers learned to dig and eat sego-lily bulbs. Those who ate the bulbs became knows as "bulb-eaters." It was a title that set them apart -- a badge of honor showing they were tough for having done that.

On March 18, 1911, the Utah Legislature declared the sego lily as the state floral emblem. It was selected after polling schoolchildren about their preferences for a state flower.

Botanically, the sego lily is Calochortus nuttalli. Calochortus is a genus that contains 65 species, including the sego and mariposa lilies.

The plant gets its name from Thomas Nuttall, a naturalist, who collected the sego lily in 1811 while traveling along the Missouri River.

Sego-lily flowers are typically white, but some other members of the species have lilac or yellow flowers. The plant has a single grass-like, bluish-green leaf.

I have never eaten the bulbs but am told they are nutritious and quite tasty. Because they are not common, leave the plants to nature. If you dig the bulb, you will likely kill the plant.

I am frequently asked where to buy sego lilies. There are a few available from people who rescue them from construction areas, but they don't transplant well. I only know of one couple who grew them in their garden successfully.

They had a dry, xeric garden that they did not water. Overwatering is certain death for these plants.

Sego lilies are native throughout the arid West. If you want to try to grow some, seeds are available from some native-plant societies, and there are other species of Calochortus genus that are available through catalogs.  

Larry A. Sagers

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