Sego Lily is a beautiful white desert flower with three main petals and yellow and purple colors in the center of the flower. They will have 3 sepals. It has an almost grass like stem that is round and can grow anywhere from 3 or 4 inches to over 12 inches tall and the stem will extend as far as 10 inches (or more) into the ground to the bulb.
The Sego lily is found generally in sandy well drained areas from Idaho to New Mexico and from Nevada to Nebraska.
The Sego Lily is one of the first plants I learned to identify in Utah. The bulb is very tasty and sweet. It has a starchy texture similar to a potato. It is a treat for sure. Even my kids love to snack on the. They are a little difficult to dig sometimes because they will grow among rocks and can be anywhere from 2 inches under the soil to 10 inches down or more. I’ve found that using a digging stick or weed puller is often the best option because you can carefully dig around the rocks. If you find a large rock near one and can pry that rock up the bulb will often be found easily as it may be hugging that rock under ground.
The stem of the flower is very fragile and they cannot be pulled from the ground. If the stem breaks then you significantly lower your chances of finding the treat below the surface. When this happens to me I have learned my time is often better spent searching for a new bulb to dig up. I have not found fields packed tight with Sego Lily but have been able to harvest a couple hands full in a short amount of time. I am not sure what the Utah pioneers were seeing when they used them for a food source in 1848-49 but if it was anything like what I see today it would have been a lot of work to get them out of the ground.
Look alike plants
The Sego Lily is said to have some poisonous look-similars but as with most plants you will not misidentify this plant once you come to know it. In some areas Death Camas does grow near the Sego Lily. If you know the sego lily and see a death camas growing near it you will see quite a difference.
The easiest way to tell the difference is to see the flower as the two look nothing alike when flowering. Another option is to cut the bulb in half and look at the rings. The Sego Lily will never have more than 4 rings and usually does have four (though I have seen only 3 in small bulbs). The Death Camas has multiple rings like an onion. Death camas rings are paper thin and the sego lily are always thick. If you truly learn to know this plant you have no danger of eating a poisonous one. Just be sure to learn the Sego lily well first. THis is one that I always show in my walks each year. It is good to learn about this plant in all stages of life. The bulb can be eaten at any time during the plants life but is best in early spring.
As with any wild edible, please be responsible with harvesting. Generally you do not want to take more than about a 3rd of the colony of plants in any given area so you allow the rest to repopulate. I sometimes harvest from lots where house are being built (with permission of course) and in these areas there is less concern for depleting a source because the entire colony will be destroyed soon anyway but when in nature please be responsible and take only what you need or a small portion to leave some for others to enjoy and to allow the plants to continue to thrive.
Legal to harvest
“Contrary to popular belief, our state flower (the Sego Lily, Calochortus nuttallii) enjoys no specific legal protections. But like any other native plant material, landowner permission is required for removal and a written permit if transported on a Utah highway. Moral/ethical considerations also apply. Native plants usually do not survive being transplanted and many require specific soils and/or have other special requirements. Grow native plants from seed or purchase locally grown native plants appropriate for your area. ” -UNPS.org (see resources below)
Warning! You need to make sure you are harvesting the Sego Lily and NOT the Death Camas. Their flowers look nothing alike and if you cut the Sego Lily bulb in half you will see no more than 4 rings while the Death Camas will have many like layers of an onion.
The entire plant is edible. The bulb and white of the stem that is under ground will be the sweetest part of the plant. You can eat any part of the plant raw alone or added to a salad or other recipe. You can also cook or roast the bulb.