Today, in Utah, we are celebrating “Pioneer Day”; a day to commemorate the arrival of the Mormon Pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley. Today, on this little piece of the internet I call my own, we are going to celebrate the sego lily; a beautiful little native plant that played an important role in the survival of some of the native tribes as well as those first pioneers.
When the pioneers arrived in Salt Lake in the summer of 1847, they went right to work planting crops. Unfortunately due to late planting times, and then having subsequent years of their crops being destroyed by crickets, these early settlers depended on foraging. The Shoshone (or by some accounts, the Ute) people taught them of this edible bulb called sego (or sago), and pioneer accounts credit their survival to this help. In 1911, because of both its beauty and its historical significance, it was designated as the Utah state flower.
There are a few Calochortus species, many of which go by the names “mariposa” or “mariposa lily”. The Utah Sego Lily is Calochortus nuttali. It has few narrow leaves that are 2-4 inches long, and upturned, bell-shaped flowers (think of a tulip) that are generally white with yellow and crimson at the inside base of the petals. It flowers from April to June, and can flower when it is as short as 2 inches tall and up to 18 inches tall. Growing in rocky, dry, exposed soils I’ve often wondered how such a fragile plant can not only survive, but how it could have been harvested in enough quantities to help the settlers survive. The bulbs are small, the size of a walnut or smaller, and can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried and ground into a flour. Though I have never eaten one myself (because up until now I thought it was illegal to harvest them), one forager says that they are sweet with a texture similar to that of a sweet potato.
Though I have dreams of being able to incorporate it into my own garden someday, from what I understand it is difficult to propagate and nearly impossible to transplant. Until I (or someone else) figure out a better way, I’ll continue to enjoy it as one of my favorite wildflowers. So simple, so delicate, and so elegant.
National Audubon Society Field Guide to Wildflowers, Western Region