You can’t miss them if you know what you’re looking for.
The Cahaba River lilies are aquatic flowering plants that bloom exclusively in three southeastern states, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. Here in Alabama, the shoals of the Cahaba River is one of those select areas.
The location of the lilies is concentrated on a feature called a “fall line.”
These “fall line” habitats contain sections of layered rock. This creates places for the lilies’ bulbs to wedge into the rock’s crevices, Dr. Randy Haddock, Cahaba River Society Field Director, explains.
“Anything that lives in a rocky shoal in the river has got to be pretty tough and be able to hang in there pretty vigorously,” Haddock says. “That’s what the lilies have managed to figure out.”
Their tough nature and rare beauty are huge draws for spectators, but it’s harder than you think for visitors to sneak a peek at the lilies.
“There aren’t any roads directly to where the biggest patches of lilies are,” Shane Harris, coordinator of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System‘s Tallapoosa County office, says. “The only way to get to them is by water, and those waters aren’t navigable except by kayak or canoe.”
Nevertheless, people flock to these areas for a chance to float the Cahaba and experience the dreamlike wonder of the lilies.
“It’s amazing to see patches and patches of them,” Harris states. “You can float right to them.”
The lilies are a striking attraction against the river’s muddy banks, producing an eye-catching white bloom.
A new flower opens every night and they last only a day. Each stem, however, produces several buds, Dr. Nancy Loewenstein, an Extension specialist in forestry and wildlife sciences, explains.
Blooming begins the second week of May and typically runs through the middle of June, giving observers about four weeks to take in the lilies’ beauty.
“It is a bucket list kind of thing to see,” Loewenstein says. “It is beyond amazing.”
Haddock highlights how botanist and expert on the lilies, Dr. Larry Davenport does not know of another native wildflower as celebrated as the Cahaba Lily, with three states hosting community celebrations of its blooming.
In Alabama, the West Blocton community hosts a festival with speakers, storytelling activities and a chance for visitors to view the lilies. The festival takes place every year on the third Saturday in May.
To withstand a dynamic environmental and social environment, the lilies must work to combat threats.
According to Haddock, the biggest issue facing the lilies is stream flow shifts because of urbanization.
Erosion causes stream banks to begin to collapse, washing trees downstream.
“We are seeing big chunks of trees bang into the rocks where these lilies are and dislodge them,” Haddock says. “That clump washes downstream and eventually into the Mobile Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.”
Sedimentation can also affect the lilies. If any bit of sediment fills the nooks and crannies where the lilies grow seeds, cultivation could be compromised, Loewenstein, says.
Another threat to the survival of the lilies, according to Loewenstein, is an invasive plant species called wild taro.
“If these plants get into the stream, they take root in the exact same place where the Cahaba Lily seeds would want to grow,” Loewenstein says. “They take the habitat that could be the Cahaba Lilies’.”
Loewenstein describes two key factors in keeping the wild taro at bay.
The first is prevention. All parts of the wild taro plant can sprout with the right environmental conditions, therefore, Loewenstein suggests avoiding tossing any part of the plant into the environment.
“Don’t use wild taro anywhere near streams, especially if you are near the upper reaches of the Cahaba River where plants can escape downstream into the shoal,” Loewenstein states.
The second is control. The plant can be very difficult to regulate once it is established, so it is vital to keep its sprouting at bay.
Whether it is urbanization, sedimentation or cultivation of new plants, the Cahaba Lily cannot fight these hazards on its own. It is up to citizens and visitors to ensure this hidden treasure’s survival.
For more information, visit the Cahaba River Society.