Utah, early pioneers, wild plants

To early pioneers, the value of wild plants was more than esthetic. Dandelion roots and prickly pears were used in concocting home remedies. Cattails were dried and stuffed into cushions and mattresses. Dry weeds and bushes made serviceable brooms. Roots, berries, and leaves of various plants were ground and boiled for dyes. Dandelion leaves were eaten, as were thistle roots and sego-lily bulbs. Chokecherries, service berries, wild currants, and berries from Oregon grape were made into jams and jellies. Chewing gum was prepared from milkweed juices, and in the spring the inner bark of cottonwood trees was sometimes scraped into a white pulpy mass which the early settlers called "cottonwood ice cream."

The pioneers, however, did not undervalue the beauty of plants. Nearly every home had its garden of flowers, some grown from seed carried across the plains, others transplanted from the mountains. Going to the canyons for wood, men frequently returned with a plant for the garden. Sometimes the watering of these gardens was a tiresome problem, many of the women finding it necessary to carry water from ditches and wells. Native and exotic trees were planted along the streets, and scattered Utah cities and towns soon gained the appearance of oases in the desert. Among the varieties introduced by the settlers were the American elm, umbrella elm, honey locust, black locust, sycamore, catalpa, acacia, ailanthus, horsechestnut, weeping willow, linden, hickory, mulberry, black walnut, and several species of poplar and maple.

Only three plants at all common in the State are poisonous to touch. These are poison ivy, poison oak, and stinging nettle ( Urtica). Poison ivy and poison oak, both species of poison sumac, exude a volatile oil that causes painful inflammation of the skin. Poison ivy and poison oak grow throughout the State, principally on hillsides. The two species are characterized by leaflets in groups of three, glossy on top and fuzzy underneath. Poison ivy is a vinelike plant that spreads over the ground, while poison oak grows in the form of a bush or shrub, and has notched oaklike leaves that color attractively in autumn. Stinging nettle, which borders nearly every stream in the State, is similar in appearance to catnip, peppermint, and spearmint. Contact with it results in an unpleasant stinging sensation; the effect is painful, but usually of short duration and rarely serious.

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