Utah State Flower - Sego Lily

Take a look at a list of state flowers and you may come to the realization that some of them are downright mysterious choices. Weeds, non-native plants and plants common to the entire country make up the list. Utah’s state flower, the sego lily (Calochortus nuttallii), on the other hand, was the perfect choice. Not only is the flower striking to look at, it holds deep meaning for the people of Utah. The sego lily is a small plant, bearing a single stem and one flower. The bloom’s life is fleeting, drying up soon after blooming. This may be why the only sego lily many Utah school children see today is on a field trip to the botanical gardens.


The sego lily, although a member of the lily family, is in a separate genus from the familiar garden lily. Native to a number of western states, its natural habitat includes Utah’s foothills and valleys. Sego lily grows to 8 inches in height and, in summer, bears 3-inch satiny, white flowers with yellow and red markings. Sego lilies have grassy foliage and grow from bulbs, like other lily family members.


Like many other states, Utah legislators put the choice of an official flower in the hands of the state’s school children. They overwhelmingly chose the sego lily. Although the flower is beautiful, it was chosen more for the important place it holds in Utah’s history. Early settlers may have starved had it not been for the sustenance the sego lily provided. Governor William Spry signed the legislation naming sego lily Utah’s flower in March of 1911.


Sego lilies are “notoriously finicky,” according to Michael Piep, assistant curator at the Intermountain Herbarium in Logan, when interviewed by the “Standard Examiner.” They are particular about soil -- eschewing both clay and sand -- and they may take up to 15 years to bloom when grown from seed. When grown from a bulb, you might wait two years for a flower, and then it may not bloom again the following year or even the year after that. Sego lilies grow best without water.


Utah’s Gosiute tribe considered the sego lily bulb a delicacy and instructed the early Mormon settlers how to use it during food shortages. The small bulbs reside deep in the soil and had to be dug out by hand. The Gosiute boiled or roasted the bulbs, sometimes mashing them into porridge. Many were dried and stored for the following winter. Today, sego lily bulbs serve as forage for rodents and are a naturally occurring ornamental in Utah’s landscape.



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