Wild-Food Foraging: The Sego Lily and the Death Camass

The sego lily and the death camass are very similar in appearance, but make no mistake in distinguishing them when you are wild-food foraging because one plant is delicious, but the other can be deadly.

| July/August 1982

Learn the differences between the sego lily and the death camass when wild-food foraging. (See the sego lily and the death camass photos in the image gallery.)

Over 130 years ago, when a bad harvest threatened the existence of Utah's first white settlers, the area's native American residents introduced the newcomers to a life-sustaining plant called "sego" in the Shoshonean language. This edible wildling of the Liliaceae family, Calochortus nuttallii, kept the Mormons alive, and later became Utah's state flower.

There are 57 separate species of Calochortus that can be found from Canada in the north to Guatemala in the south, and from the Pacific Coast to the Dakotas ... and 40 of these are considered edible. Nine species are reported to grow in the Rocky Mountains ... the remaining sego lilies, for the most part, are found on the West Coast (there are 28 species in California alone). You may know the plants as cat's-ear, purple-eyed mariposa, star tulip, butterfly tulip, butterfly lily, or mariposa lily.


Calochortus favors sunny southern exposures ... and its single grasslike, blue-green leaf is often one of the first bits of foliage to appear each spring. In the Rocky Mountain region, this wild food can be found at altitudes ranging from 4,000 to 7,000 feet, with a few species continuing up to 10,000-foot elevations (this will vary by latitude). The mountain lilies prefer dry or well-drained meadows and open-timbered areas. The best places to search for the lowland species, on the other hand, are within sagebrush, open brush, and grassland communities.

When they're in full bloom, sego lilies vary in height from 2 to 18 inches. The flowers resemble tulips in shape and can be white, cream, yellow, purple, pink, salmon, or scarlet. Depending on latitude and elevation as well as species, this wild forageable will blossom from April to late August. (For example, I've found a beautiful salmon-colored variety in bloom, in April, among Arizona's Superstition ... and a small white species flowering in late August, at 10,000 feet, in central Idaho's Pioneer Mountains.)

Although the plants multiply chiefly by bulb division, a seed pod does form at the death of the flower. Its size and shape depend on the species, but all of them — when sliced horizontally — will be seen to have three sections. The dry pods and stems often stay standing through late winter and into spring if the season's snowfall is light. This fact helps make the plant an excellent survival food, too, since (if the ground isn't frozen) you can locate and dig the tasty bulb at any time of the year.

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