A Look at a Pioneer Potable
Hungry in the Garden of Eden
Arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in the summer of 1847 might have been the end of the Mormon pioneers’ trek across the Great Plains, but it was hardly the end of their challenge to survive in the frontier. Looking out at the valley floor in the height of summer, long before irrigation or settlement, the prospects for creating a “Garden of Eden” as Mormon leader Brigham Young planned and professed, must have seemed less than promising. Despite planting crops immediately upon arrival in the valley, timing, weather, insects and other challenges meant the first settlers would regularly turn to foraging local plants to supplement their food rations, just as they had during their overland trek.
While there were a number of edible native plants the settlers turned to when food was in short supply, it was the sego lily (Calochortus nuttalli) with its white, waxy petals colored with crescents of purple and yellow and the marble-sized bulb the flower springs from, that earned a unique, if short lived, place in the state’s food history.
According to Bill Varga, a retired professor of plant science at Utah State University, the sego lily is fairly common throughout the Intermountain West and southern Canada. It thrives in desert-like conditions and areas with sage brush but also grows in the higher elevations, often among Ponderosa pine and the more common camas lily with its spire of purple blossoms.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the pioneers actually ate more of the camas bulbs because they’re more plentiful and easy to find,” Varga says. “But they would have been able to spot the sego lily at the time they came here because it would be in bloom, and the best way to tell what plant you’re eating is by the bloom.”
Accounts from the diaries of Lewis and Clark note their party learned to forage and eat camas bulbs from the Nez Perce tribes on the Great Plains, the same territory crossed by the Mormon Pioneers as they traveled to the Great Basin.
“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,” Varga says.
A journal entry by pioneer Newman Buckley supports Varga’s assertion. Buckley wrote that he watched some of the Native American women, “go out every day and return loaded with something. I found it was sego and thistle roots to store for winter.”
Best laid plans …
Several days before Mormon leader Brigham Young arrived to proclaim the Salt Lake Valley “the right place,” an advance party led by Orson Pratt had set up camp, built a small dam on City Creek for irrigation, and planted the first crop of potatoes and turnips in a field on what is now the corner of 300 South and State Street. Arriving soon after, the party of 143 men, three women and two children began building shelters, plowing more fields for crops, and preparing to welcome more followers. The influx of arrivals strained an already thin food supply and in his book Great Basin Kingdom, historian Leonard J. Arrington notes: “In the fall, the cattle and horses had gotten into the planted acreage and destroyed everything but the potatoes. Later in the winter the Indians and wolves made away with much of the livestock.” Food was soon rationed limiting each person to a half pound of flour a day. At this point, many settlers began foraging for edible wild plants in earnest.
A journal entry by pioneer Priddy Meeks illustrates the struggle of the times. “My family went several months without a satisfying meal of victuals. I went sometimes a mile up Jordan to a patch of wild roses to get berries to eat … I shot hawks and crows and they ate well. I made some wooden spades to dig segos with but we could not supply our wants.”
The much anticipated spring harvest of 1848 was hit with a hard frost and large portions of the summer crops were famously devastated by swarms of crickets despite the best efforts of the settlers and seagulls.
As the years passed, crops and conditions improved, and by 1880 early pioneers who survived the lean years took to calling themselves “bulb eaters” as a sort of honorary title, feeling it set them apart from newer arrivals.
Wanna be a modern bulb eater?
In 1911, the Utah Legislature designated the sego lily as the state flower and in 1913, the LDS Church Relief Society chose it as their official emblem. Even with those honors, the flower and its bulb enjoy no legal protection, so harvesting and eating them is allowed. According to information from the Utah Native Plant Society (UNPS), the entire sego lily plant is edible.
“I’ve tried one,” Varga says. “The bulbs can be hard to get at and it would take a lot of work to get very many of them.”
Using a shovel or other digging tool is recommended as the bulb can be from 2 to 10 inches below the soil. Experts advise taking no more than a third of the plants in any given area for sustainability of the colony.
Sego lilies can be eaten raw and the bulbs are said to have a sweet flavor and a starchy texture similar to a potato. They can also be cooked but will turn tough and ropey when cooled.
The UNPS cautions would-be bulb eaters to be sure to positively identify the plant. Sego lilies often grow near other flowers ominously known as “death camas,” which are poisonous. As professor Varga notes, the easiest way is to identify the plant is by the bloom and the single sego lily bloom is very different the death camas’ stalk, which is topped with multiple small white flowers. The sego lily bulb, when sliced, will have no more than four thick rings while the death camas has multiple thin rings similar to an onion.