Shortly after the pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, a young man named David Cannon brought his wife, Wilhelmina, to southern Utah to help start a settlement. Wilhelmina, or “Willie” as she was called, was not at all happy. She hated the hot, dry desert, and cried constantly. She pleaded with her husband to take her back east, where plants and trees grew more easily and the weather was more moderate.
“Everything is so ugly here,” she complained. “If you can show me just one beautiful thing in this place, I will make myself content and stop complaining.”
David went up into the mountains and returned with a beautiful three-petaled blossom with delicate colors. Willie honestly admitted to both David and herself that it was indeed a thing of beauty. She never again complained but went to work with her husband to make a productive farm and lovely home in the St. George area, where they lived for many years.
Amazingly, the same kind of plant that inspired one discouraged pioneer with its blossom, saved the lives of countless others with its nutritious roots. It was the sego lily.
In 1846, when wagon trains were being formed at Winter Quarters, the Saints were told to bring along provisions to last for eighteen months. Some did, but most just brought what they had or what they could afford to buy. When they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, most of the pioneers had little or no food. They had been without sugar and flour for months; their few other provisions had also been used up on the long trip across the plains. Many were reduced to eating whatever they could find—crows, rabbits, wolves. One settler wrote that he made soup from water and a piece of animal hide! They had arrived too late in the season to plant enough crops, and they faced a long winter of cold and bitter weather with empty stomachs.
Fortunately, friendly Native Americans lived in the area, and they helped the pioneers find food that was already there, including the sego lily, which had a bulblike root, something like a radish. The Indians showed the pioneers how to dig, cook, and preserve these roots.
It took a lot of sego lilies to make a meal for a family. Although most of the root bulbs were about the size of a large marble, some were only as big as green peas! Some people said that the sego lily roots tasted like a turnip, and they were apparently better when freshly prepared. One pioneer wrote in her journal that when the cooked bulbs cooled, they became thick and stringy and looked like wallpaper paste!
Some people ground the roots and mixed them with corn meal or flour, if they had it. When they had more than they needed for immediate use, they hung the roots to dry, or stored them in a cellar for later use.
The bulbs had to be dug up with a sharpened stick or a knife. It was backbreaking work, but in those first few years, it meant the difference between surviving and starving. Brigham Young said many times that the pioneers would never have lived through that terrible first winter if it had not been for the sego lilies. Eventually wheat and corn were grown, and supply trains came from the east. But in the meanwhile, the sego lily was truly a heaven-sent source of food.
For many people, the sego lily came to symbolize the qualities of the pioneers themselves. It could survive in poor soil with very little water and still produce a beautiful flower and a life-giving root. It was hardy and tough and grew with no care or attention.
While not nearly as plentiful as it was in pioneer days, the sego lily is still found in some valleys and foothills throughout the area that was once known as the Utah Territory, which includes all of present-day Utah and Idaho, and parts of Nevada, Wyoming, and Arizona.
In 1911, the Utah Legislature formally designated the sego lily as the state flower. This was a fitting gesture of respect for the humble plant that was literally a lifesaver to the Latter-day Saint pioneers.