Dan Schroeder often photographs wildflowers as he hikes along Utah's trails. But he doesn't take pictures of all of the flowers he sees.
"Some of them are so common I get used to them," said the Ogden Sierra Club volunteer. "But if I see a sego lily, I'll probably take a photograph, because they're so pretty and kind of unusual."
He's not sure why he's so fond of them -- it may be their symmetry, or that they're usually a bit isolated.
"I think we all should appreciate them," he said. "Sego lilies are awfully nice."
Schroeder's not the first person to think sego lilies are special. As Utahns have been noisily debating the wisdom of naming the Browning M1911 our state firearm this year, the sego lily has been quietly nearing 100 years as a symbol.
It was officially adopted as Utah's state floral emblem on March 18, 1911.
The sego lily was made the state flower after schoolchildren were polled about their preference, said Lisa Hoyt, a volunteer in the history department of Pioneer Memorial Museum in Salt Lake City.
When students visit the museum, the guides often relate the story of a time when the American Indians were experiencing a famine.
According to the story, sego lilies appeared where the son of a Eutaw chief died in battle; the flowers were a miraculous sign of the end of war and famine.
"We also tell them about when the pioneers came, and they came a little late for planting and didn't have food the first year," Hoyt said.
Pioneer Elizabeth Huffaker is quoted as attributing their survival to the sego lily:
"In the spring of 1848, our food was gone. We dug thousands of sego roots for we heard that the Indians had lived on them for weeks and months. We relished them and carried them home in bucketfuls. How the children feasted on them, particularly when they were dried for they tasted like butternuts."
Don't eat the lilies
Because the sego lily is the state flower, it's protected in Utah.
"It's not technically illegal to pick, yet it's highly discouraged," said Michael Piep, assistant curator at the Intermountain Herbarium in Logan.
That means they're not to be eaten either -- at least not in this state.
Maurine Smith, first vice president with the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, was in Wyoming when she tasted a sego lily bulb.
"You have to dig down about 12 inches, at least, to get to the bulb," said the Clearfield woman. "When you finally get to the bulb, it's about the size of the end of your little finger, so it would take a lot of bulbs to fix dinner."
Pioneers ate them dried, boiled, roasted or raw.
"There's not an awful lot of flavor to them," Smith said of the raw bulbs. "They're crunchy."
Sego lilies are said to be extremely nutritious, and starchy like a potato, said Pieps, but he strongly discourages people from eating them -- it's too easy to confuse with the poisonous death camus.
"They're much better off left in the ground, and out in the wild," he said.
Sego lilies grow best in the wild. Even there, it's a long and difficult process.
"The same plant won't bloom every year," said Piep. "Frequently, it will take three or four, sometimes five or more years, for enough energy to build up in the bulb to produce a bloom."
Some people have tried to grow sego lilies, but it's possible only if you're very patient and give them the right conditions.
"They're notoriously finicky," said Piep.
It can take up to 15 years, if planted from a seed, before you see a flower, he said. They don't transplant well, either.
"The best success I've heard is somebody getting two out of every 10 bulbs to grow, after moving them," he said.
Piep does know people who have successfully saved bulbs from construction sites, but he says it's rare.
"You have to put them in a yard where they get no moisture," he said. "They don't tolerate a lot of water, so basically you can't give them any extra water. They don't tolerate heavy clay soils. On the other hand, they don't like sandy soils, either, and they don't want really rich soils."
Hoyt says very few of the children who visit Pioneer Memorial Museum have ever seen a real sego lily.
"I don't think I've every seen one," she admits. "We sell fake ones in our gift shop -- silk flowers."
Schroeder sees the flowers, which bloom in spring and early summer, along the Birdsong Trail in Ogden's foothills. He's also seen them in Box Elder County and in Zion National Park.
"Sego lilies seem to be found throughout the state, which is kind of neat and appropriate for a state flower," he said.
When Smith was little, she used to find sego lilies in vacant lots in Ogden. That's highly unlikely now.
"Their numbers aren't probably as high as they used to be because their habitat is basically the bench areas -- and guess where all the homes are going," Pieps said. "I suspect we'll probably never lose them to extinction, or have to declare them threatened or endangered. ... But it would be nice if they were a little more abundant, where people could get out and enjoy them."