Pioneer Day evokes special memories of those who settled in the mountain valleys of Utah. Struggles these early pioneers made against the weather, insects, soils and water are legendary. Never in history has such a large group of people settled such a vast area and planted and grown so many different crops. These crops represented a broad ethnic and economic diversity from throughout the world.
It was not the crops but the native plants that sustained the lives of these pioneers in the early years. Most everyone is familiar with the Sego lilies that were a great blessing to those early settlers. Other plants are not as famous but were used as vital foodstuffs.The pioneers arrived in the valley too late to do much planting the first year. They planted potatoes and other crops, but planting after the 24th of July they obviously did not get much production. The Salt Lake Valley was described as a "sterile waste place, glistening with beds of salt, soda and deadly alkaline." Jim Bridger reportedly offered Brigham Young $1,000 for the first bushel of corn produced in the valley. Frost, Mormon crickets and other problems made the early years very precarious.
One common plant used by the early pioneers that now frustrates us as a garden weed is redroot pigweed. My great-grandfather wrote about the pigweed that miraculously grew and saved their lives. Pigweed has a radishlike root and was used as greens or the roots were eaten. Another common group of garden weeds that were often eaten included goosefoot and lambsquarter. These were eaten much the same way that we would eat spinach, either cooked or uncooked.
Thistles that we now curse were once highly prized by the pioneers. One early pioneer wrote, "I use to eat thistle stalks until my stomach would be as full as a cow's." The young leaves of stinging nettles were also used as greens. The cooking destroyed the irritating parts that affect the skin. Camas bulbs for which Kamas, Utah, was named, were also used for food. The bulbs were eaten or a crude molasses was made from boiling the bulbs. Unfortunately, if too many of the bulbs were consumed they could cause severe illness. The bulbs also grow in proximity with death camas, so this particular plant involves certain risks to the user. The pioneers also used grease wood sprouts and other plants to supplement their meager diet.
Gooseberries, strawberries, raspberries and currants grew in the mountains and were highly prized. Chokecherries were a favorite for preserves and jellies. Ground cherries (related to the tomatoes) were collected after the first frost and made into jam.
One particularly interesting plant is the Ephedra, is often referred to as Mormon or Brigham tea. This unusual plant was used by the Chinese as a medicinal plant as early as 3000 B.C. The plant makes a bitter drink and was thought to be a blood purifier. The pioneers apparently used it as a hot drink, and it is still purported to have medicinal value. This interesting plant grows wild in the desert among the sagebrush or the pinion and juniper trees.
Immigrants were encouraged to bring many different plants from their native lands to try in this area. Missionaries traveling to foreign countries also returned with seeds and cuttings that could be grown on intermountain farms or in gardens. Many of these were introduced as cultivated plants and herbs for cooking or medicinal purposes.
Some of these plants did well, in fact, too well and became serious weed problems. Burdock, tansy, catnip, spearmint, dandelion and many others were introduced this way. Dyer's woad was introduced as a plant to make dye and is one of northern Utah's most serious weeds.
As you think about the other contributions the early pioneers made, remember the interesting and sometimes strange plants they used to stay alive. Remember also the many other fascinating plants they introduced to this area that make our quality of life better.
- IT SEEMS AS IF THE entire state of Utah is inundated with little green worms. According to Jay Karren, USU extension entomologist, almost all of these are cabbage loopers. Unfortunately, they have not confined themselves to cabbage and are feeding on a wide variety of crops and ornamental plants. The pests have been hard to control because of poor spray coverage and the large number of pests. Bt (dipel or thuricide) sevin, thiodan or malathion are registered for many crops. Repeated sprays will probably be necessary.
- THURSDAY GARDEN GET-TOGETHERS: 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. at Red Butte Gardens at University of Utah each Thursday through September. Call 581-5322 for more information.
- "Daylilies" July 25. Instructor: Roger Whitaker.
- "Shade Gardens" Aug. 1. Instructor: Alex Morris
- "Garden Clinic" Aug. 8. Instructors: Jay Karren, Larry Sagers, Jerry Goodspeed and Karen Shotwell. This will be an excellent time to bring insect or plant disease samples to be identified. There is no charge for the lecture or the diagnostic services.
- Larry A. Sagers is a horticulturist with the Utah State University Extension Service.