The sego lily is a beautiful flower that at one time was more than just a pretty face. It provided Native Americans and early pioneers with food when little else was available.
July 24 is designated as Pioneer Day in Utah in honor of the hardworking men and women who tamed the hostile Salt Lake Valley and nearby areas over 150 years ago. As you might imagine, those early days were not easy. Drought, pestilence, and a relatively new by necessary endeavor called irrigation, fought them every step of the way, threatening, just like the Pilgrims two centuries earlier, to starve them out.
And, just like the Pilgrims, Native Americans came to their rescue. In the case of the pioneers, the Ute tribe showed them a favorite plant that provided sustenance in hard times.
This plant is the sego lily, a diminutive but beautiful and easy to recognize perennial wildflower with a lifesaving secret. Buried four to twelve inches deep is a small onion-like bulb that, when boiled, tastes like a potato. It was often a hard earned prize though, because this flower prefers dry well-drained soil.
The sego lily, calachortus nuttallii, is typically a white flower with three broad wedge-shaped white petals with yellow bases on the inside. Each petal also sports a magenta pollination guide, a spot of purple-red that helps pollinators hone in on their reward. A narrow white sepal juts out between each showy petal. It grows a single stalk from six to twenty inches tall graced with one to three blossoms per stalk. Leaves are linear and grass-like.
One of the characteristics of this plant that made it useful for food is that it actually prefers droughty conditions. It can be found in dry sagebrush communities and foothills, places where the pioneers were able to easily access it.
The sego lily is widespread from Nebraska and the Dakotas to California. However, it isn’t the only member of the Calochortus family out there. There are at least 67 family members, 40 of which are considered edible. Not all look like the sego lily, but those of the mariposa lily group are remarkably similar. In our area, we can find the white mariposa lily blooming right now in mountain meadows.
For those interested in raising sego lilies or mariposas in their native plant garden, be advised that all members of the Calochortus family are considered very difficult to cultivate. Seeds are easy enough to collect though and if you can create an area of your garden that has well drained soil and that can remain dry after the flowers fade, you might be able to enjoy these special flowers in your own backyard.
In time, the original pioneers who had subsisted on the bulbs were called bulbeaters, a moniker they proudly wore. Indeed, many believed that the sego lily symbolized the pioneers themselves—tough, resilient and able to produce beauty and life from the harsh desert.
It seems only right to pay lasting homage to a plant that played a significant role in our western history by saving early pioneers from starvation. Utah did just that 104 years ago when it named the sego lily its state flower.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center (425 Capital)
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho