Shortly after the pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, a young man named David Cannon moved to southern Utah with his wife, Wilhelmina, 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 move 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 white blossom tinged with purple. Willie admitted to both David and herself that it was indeed a thing of beauty. She never again complained. She went to work to make a productive farm and lovely home in the St. George area, where she and her husband lived for many years.*
The same plant that inspired this one discouraged pioneer with its blossom saved the lives of countless others with its nutritious roots. That plant was the sego lily.
In 1846, when the Saints were forming wagon trains at Winter Quarters, they were told to bring along provisions to last for 18 months. Some did, but most brought just what they had or what they could afford to buy. When they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, many of the pioneers had little or no food. They had been without sugar or flour for months, and 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! The pioneers 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, Native Americans helped the pioneers find food already growing in the area, including the sego lily, which had a bulblike root. The natives 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 the sego lily roots tasted like turnips, 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 paste!
Some people ground the roots and mixed them with cornmeal or flour, if they had it. When they had more roots than they needed for immediate use, they hung them to dry or stored them in a cellar for later use.
The bulbs had to be dug with a sharpened stick or 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 the settlers grew wheat and corn, and supplies came from the East. But in the meantime, the sego lily was truly a heavensent source of food.
In time, 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.
In 1911, the Utah legislature formally designated the sego lily as the state flower. This recognition was a fitting gesture of respect for the humble plant that was literally a lifesaver to the Latter-day Saint pioneers.