The term “look up” took on a whole new perspective years ago when I attended Cub Scout Day Camp Leader Training. The Boy Scout field representative teaching us said that if we ever lost a Cub Scout, we should look up. Little boys love to climb trees, he said with a laugh.
I always look up now. That’s how I found the topic for this post. Gumbo lily is the word just above Gumbo-limbo (my last post) in the dictionary. Ironically, when looking up in the dictionary, I looked up.
Probably every Cub Scout in the Western United States knows that the Gumbo lily isn’t really a lily. It’s a desert or butte evening primrose that grows in the cracked “gumbo” soil across the West – from the Dakotas to Texas, from Missouri to Montana. I lived in both Kansas and Texas and never saw one, but the Gumbo lily grows there, just not in my neighborhood. I’m not one for a prairie hike.
Gumbo lily is described as a short, tufted plant with lance-shaped, toothed leaves about six inches long. The flowers bloom white, but soon age to a rose or lavender color like the Confederate rose here in the South changes from white to red in a day.
I wish my Cub Scouts and I could have been along to see the excitement when Meriwether Lewis first collected the Gumbo lily “near the falls of the Missouri” in 1806. In 1811, the eminent English botanist Thomas Nuttall identified the same species, Oenothera caespitosa, in the Badlands of North Dakota. Cattle avoid it, but the Native Americans ate it. It has a sweet scent, is valuable to bees, and its roots and young shoots make it an edible prairie plant. It might work in a prairie soup, but not gumbo, no matter the name. That would be like adding turnips to gumbo.