A large portion of the population living in Utah are descendants of the early settlers of the area, pioneer members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Because of these pioneers, every 24th of July, Utah celebrates Pioneer Day in honor of the men and women who shaped the culture and future of our state.
The food culture they brought with them has continued to this day, with dishes influenced by the many northwestern European immigrants: English, Danish, Swedish, French, German and others. Many Utah pioneer descendants still honor those traditions with dishes like Aebleskivers or German Pancakes.
However, when the pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley, food was scarce. Due to issues with crops in the first years: late planting, livestock loss, frost, crop-destroying crickets, etc. early settlers turned to Utah’s most famous flower for a food source - the Sego Lily.
According to Elizabeth Huffaker, an early pioneer, “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."
As Huffaker alludes to, the settlers most likely learned of the plant’s edibility from the Native Americans in the area. According to Bill Varga, a retired professor of plant science at Utah State University in an interview with Devour Utah Magazine, “The native tribes collected and stored the roots from the camas and sego lily and the pioneers or explorers that were savvy enough would have watched what the natives were eating.”
Kate C. Snow, President of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers in 1930 also wrote of the incident, "... [Between 1840 and 1851] the families were put on rations, and during this time they learned to dig for and to eat the soft, bulbous root of the sego lily.”
Sego Lilies are defined by their single, tall, thin stems and a white, goblet shaped flower. The center of the flower usually has bright red and yellow markings. The plant is native to southwestern states like Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming, and they like to grow in sandy soil with little rain or organic matter.
The Sego Lily
Being the official state flower of Utah, it is discouraged to forage (though not specifically illegal, according to the Utah Native Plant Society), but can often be found in bloom in early spring in sandy foothills and valleys. Each flower grows from a single bulb, which are usually the size of a marble or garlic clove.
I’ve seen many Sego Lily flowers in my lifetime growing up in Utah, but never in the quantities described by the pioneers, at least not enough to harvest by “bucketfuls”. This could be due to urbanization, or perhaps growing conditions have changed since the 1840’s.
I’ve also never seen the plant propagated in flower gardens, which is reportedly very difficult to achieve, due to their delicate nature and need for sandy soil with hardly any water or organic matter.
If you come across the Sego Lily in Utah or elsewhere, you should probably leave it alone, but if you are really curious you could dig up the bulb and try it for yourself. It reportedly has a nutty flavor and can be eaten raw.
“I’ve tried one,” Varga said. “The bulbs can be hard to get at and it would take a lot of work to get very many of them.”
Even though we don’t eat them today, the Sego Lily bulb played a large role in keeping our pioneer ancestors alive and is a part of our food heritage. It also serves as a stark reminder of the greatness of our modern agricultural practices and efficiencies. Due to technological advances and good stewardship, Utahns never have to worry about digging up plant roots to stave off starvation. We have an abundance of healthy, local, safe food at our fingertips any minute of the day.
Keep on the lookout next spring for this beautiful, iconic flower, and this July 24th remember to think of the pioneers’ sacrifice and how fortunate we are to never go hungry because of farmers and ranchers!