What Is a Sego Lily?

Rebecca Cartwright

The sego lily, Calochortus nuttalii, is a wildflower native to the more arid parts of the Rocky Mountains and the southwest desert areas of the United States. This member of the expansive lily family is also known as the mariposa lily. A single stemmed perennial, it usually sets a single cup-shaped flower each year. Since 1911 it has been the state flower of Utah. The sego lily blooms in cooler seasons, and thrives in sandy soil.

The sego lily is the state flower of Utah.
The sego lily is the state flower of Utah.

Dry soil in full sun is the preferred setting for this flower, and it is often found in grasslands and high desert areas. It is native from North Dakota and Montana south to Arizona and New Mexico; west through Idaho and Utah; and east into Nebraska. Sego lily is a cool season plant, growing and blooming in late spring and early summer. After blooming the plant quickly dries up in the hotter part of the year.

Sego lilies thrive in arid areas in the Rocky Mountains and in the American Southwest.
Sego lilies thrive in arid areas in the Rocky Mountains and in the American Southwest.

The stems of the sego lily typically grow 10 to 20 inches (about 25 to 50 cm) tall. They are normally not branched, and each plant is single-stemmed. The grassy leaves average 7 to 10 inches (about 18 to 25 cm) long and two to four of these are found along the stem with others growing sparsely at the base of the plant.

Sego lily flowers are usually white, but also occur in shades of lavender, magenta and lilac. Flowers reach up to 3 inches (about 17.5 cm) across and are composed of three petals with three sepals that are narrower than the petals. At the base of the inside of each petal there are yellow and lilac or lavender bands. After blooming the plant sets a seed capsule which later splits open to release numerous flattened seeds. Generally each plant sets only one flower, but occasionally two or three may be found on the same stem.

The plant is sometimes grazed by cattle and sheep, but is not a significant source of forage because the foliage is so sparse. Small rodents dig up the bulbs to eat and sometimes store them for the winter. The Ute Indian tribes ate sego lily bulbs and taught the early Mormon settlers how to find and harvest them. During food shortages in the 1840s they provided a much needed source of food for the settlers. In 1911, citing the plant's history and beauty, the Utah state legislature made the sego lily the Utah state flower.

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