Forestry & Wildlife
AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – Each year in Alabama, as spring transforms into summer, a special change occurs in some of the state’s river basins. These lush, dense aquatic habitats are soon glistening with white flowering stalks of Cahaba lilies. This rare floral treasure calls Alabama home and is a must-see for nature enthusiasts.
What is a Cahaba lily?
Meet one of Alabama’s most spectacular floral species, the Cahaba lily (Hymenocallis coronaria). First described by American botanist William Bartram in 1773, the Cahaba lily is an aquatic perennial plant found in sunny, riverine habitats.
The Cahaba lily, also known as the shoal lily or shoal spider lily, is a member of the Amaryllis family. This group is only in four southeastern states. These states include Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
“With specific habitat requirements, it should come as no surprise that Cahaba lilies are only found in waterbodies at or above Alabama’s fall line,” said Rachel McGuire, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System aquatic resources outreach coordinator.
Early Life Stages
The lilies begin their journey when their bulbs wedge between rocks and in crevices of shoals with swift-flowing water to root themselves in forever homes. The leaves of these unique flowers begin to emerge from the waterline in mid-April with flower stalks developing shortly after.
“The Cahaba lily blooms from middle of May to late June. In fact, many locals will be quick to tell you, the lilies bloom between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day,” McGuire said. “These plants grow up to 3 feet tall and are densely clustered amongst the rocks of the shoals.”
Flowers, Fruit and Seed
The stellar white blooms can grow up to 3 inches wide with six petals, containing one bloom per flowering stalk. Each flowering stalk contains six to nine buds surrounded by bracts, a type of modified leaf.
Individual blooms last only 24 hours, with only one flower bud per stalk opening typically in the evening each day. The flowers are fragrant and contain nectar that attracts a wide variety of insect pollinators. These pollinators include trumpet vine sphinx, plebeian sphinx moth, pipevine swallowtail, blue swallowtail, tiger swallowtail, silver spotted skipper and various bumblebees.
Pollinated flowers mature into a pod that swells and ultimately splits to reveal several oblong green seeds. These seeds become so heavy that they weigh down the flower stalk into the water, where the mature seeds sink. These seeds set up future generations of Cahaba lilies after eventually depositing into nearby rock crevices by the water’s current.
Show Me the Lily
In Alabama, the most publicly accessible and dense population of Cahaba lilies is found at the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge in Bibb County, near the town of West Blocton. This refuge is also home to the annual Cahaba Lily Festival since 1990.
However, the Cahaba River is not the only river where you can find these aquatic gems. You can also find the Cahaba lily in the Black Warrior, Coosa, Tallapoosa and Chattahoochee river basins. More specifically, the lilies are historically in Hatchet and Yellowleaf creeks and the Mulberry and Locust forks of the Black Warrior River.
The most prominent threats to Cahaba lilies include river damming, sedimentation and the occasional, but unfortunate, practice of poaching.
“The most likely reason Cahaba lilies have remained prolific in the Cahaba River is its lack of historic damming,” McGuire said. “This has left most of the river free flowing, leaving their critical shoal habitat intact.”
The past decade has brought heightened awareness and appreciation of the plant by the public. These lilies are currently under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
McGuire said the next time you are driving, especially around the Birmingham area, take a closer look at some of the Alabama license plates. You may find a special tag offered by the Cahaba River Society that features the Cahaba lily.
While the blooms are still vibrant, get outdoors and enjoy these aquatic jewels of Alabama. For more information on Cahaba lilies and where to find them, visit the Alabama Extension website at www.aces.edu.