With Pioneer Day’s a few weeks away, it’s time to honor a very special plant that saved many Utah pioneers.
It’s been a banner year for our state flower. The sego lily has graced our meadows since early June, now in its late stages at lower elevations. It has generated many stories in our state. Before I launch them, I must compliment it’s delicate beauty and love for adverse conditions- the dry, rocky soils in which it’s found. The sego lily personifies the tough, resilient, beautiful pioneer spirit.
Brigham Young declared the sego lily “a heaven sent source of food.” Friendly Native Americans taught Mormon settlers how to harvest and prepare the bulbs for much needed survival food when a devastating cricket infestation destroyed crops.
From pioneer journals:
“”In the spring of 1848, our food was gone. 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 bucketful’s. How the children feasted on them, particularly when they were dried, for they tasted like butternuts.”
Elizabeth Huffaker, Salt Lake City
And here is another one:
“In my childhood our whole group of children used to go east of town, each carrying a sego digger. It was a piece of wood sharpened on one end, and flat on the other. We would just go out of town and look for segos, which were plentiful. When we found them we each went to digging by putting the sharp end of the stick into the ground close beside the sego, and pressing down on the flat end of the digger until it was a few inches in the ground. Sometimes we pounded on the top of the digger with a rock…when the stick was far enough into the ground to suit us, we just pushed it to one side and up came the segos. Then we ate them, and oh how we enjoyed hunting them.”
Lorena Washburn Larsen, 1868, Manti, UT
Native Americans considered the sego lily a sacred plant and developed culinary uses for its bulbs, seeds, and flowers. Many tribes created a healthful porridge from roasted or boiled sego lily bulbs. Several tribes considered it sacred. For the Navajo it was one of the “Life Plants” used for ceremonial purposes. Sego was derived from the Indian word Sego. Many Indian women were named Sego or Sego-go-chee. The Spanish named it mariposa, their word for butterfly for these beautiful mountainside flowers looked like butterflies.
The sego lily was formally designated as the Utah State Flower in 1911 chosen for its natural beauty as well as its historical significance.
The lily gets its scientific name Calochortus Nuttalli, from Thomas Nuttall, a naturalist, who collected the sego lily in 1811 while traveling along the Missouri River. It’s found throughout the western states. Please do not disturb this iconic beauty. Photos are encouraged!
Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society, I continue to be infatuated with Utah’s wildness!
Images: Courtesy US NPS, Michael Wheeler, Photographer
Courtesy US NPS, Nancy Julian, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & Copyright Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
Text: Jack Greene, USU Sustainability Program Volunteer, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Sego Lily, Cedar Breaks National Monument, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/learn/nature/sego-lilly.htm
Utah State Facts and Symbols, Utah.com, Deseret Digital Media, https://utah.com/state-facts-symbols
Utah State Flower – Sego Lily, Pioneer-Utah’s Online Library, Utah State Library Division, Utah Department of Heritage and Arts, https://www.utah.gov/about/state-symbols.html
Sego Lily, Calochortus nuttallii Torr. & A. GrayShow https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=CANU3
Sego Lily and Friends, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sego_Lily_and_Friends_(14368043194).jpg
LORENA EUGENIA WASHBURN, Autobiography, Published by her Children, Brigham Young University Press, 1962, https://www.ourfamilylegacy.info/files/washburnlorena1860autobio.pdf
Young, Levi Edgar, The Sego Lily (See quote from Mrs. Elizabeth Huffaker, a pioneer of 1847, p.7), The Great West in American History, Bulletin of the University of Utah, Volume 11, Issue 9, Department of Western History, University of Utah, https://books.google.com/books?id=4LfOAAAAMAAJ
Sagers, Larry A., Utah Sego Lily Thrives In Dry, Sandy Hillsides – Not Gardens, Deseret News July 25, 1990, Larry A. Sagers, https://www.deseret.com/1990/7/25/18873035/utah-sego-lily-thrives-in-dry-sandy-hillsides-not-gardens