The Cahaba Lilies
What are Cahaba Lilies?
The Cahaba Lily is an aquatic flowering plant which grows only in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. A type of spiderlily belonging to the amaryllis family, the Cahaba lily is noted for the striking beauty of its three-inch-wide white flowers. The lily requires a very specialized habitat—swift-flowing water over rocks and lots of sun—and thus is restricted to shoal areas at or above the fall line.
The Cahaba lilies bloom from mid-May to mid-June (or Mother’s Day to Father’s Day). The best and largest populations in the Cahaba River are located in the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge.
How can I see Cahaba Lilies?
The Cahaba River Society provides naturalist-guided canoe trips to see the lilies on weekends throughout their blooming season and have for over 20 years. CRS provides all the needed equipment. Our naturalist, Dr. Randy Haddock, is a foremost expert about the Cahaba lilies – in fact, Randy’s nighttime, nimble-footed research on the lily shoals observed for the first time the primary pollinator of the lilies, the Plebian sphinx moth. His guided canoe trips are a delight – people learn all about the globally-significant biodiverse wildlife of the River as well. And get to sip lily nectar (tastes like orange-honeysuckle). The schedule of CRS Cahaba Lily Trips is posted in early spring of each year.
To visit the lilies on your own, you can take a trip to the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge located in Bibb County, Alabama, approximately six miles east of West Blocton on County Road 24.
Directions to the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge:
1) Take I-20/I-59 southwest from Birmingham (or east from Tuscaloosa) for about 30 miles to exit 97. This is the Centreville/West Blocton exit. Turn south (left if coming from Birmingham) onto Highway 5/Highway 11.
2) After three miles on the four-lane, Highway 5 abruptly turns south (left) as a two-lane. WATCH carefully for that turn and take it. There is a “Cahaba River NWR” sign there if you can notice that.
3) Travel 10 miles south on Highway 5. Turn left onto County Rd 24 to West Blocton under the yellow blinking light. There is another small brown “Cahaba River NWR” sign near this turn.
4) Continue straight at the stop sign. You will pass West Blocton High School and West Blocton Elementary School. It is five miles from the stop sign to the Cahaba River.
5) About five miles from the stop sign you will see a roadside sign for the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge. Take the next road to the right. This is “River Trace”. This gravel road runs parallel to the river.
6) There is a good stand of lilies just under one mile down the road, and the largest stand of shoals lilies (Cahaba lilies) in the world is two and a half miles down the road. You can drive only part way. Use your judgment about whether your vehicle can manage this road.
7) There are several paddler “put-ins” along the road. The “take out” would be on County Road 26 at The Nature Conservancy’s Pratt’s Ferry Preserve. (33.01855, -87.07777)
* Please do not pick the lilies or remove the bulbs for transplantation. The plant might survive 1-2 years out of its proper habitat, but the prospect for long-term survival is slim. Besides, the most beautiful place to see the Cahaba lilies is in its natural habitat.
How can I learn more about the Cahaba Lily?
Visit the Cahaba Lily Festival in West Blocton. This year’s festival will be held on the last Saturday of May.
You can also visit these online resources:
The Cahaba Lily is sometimes confused with other blooming plants that grow along southeastern waterways. There are a few qualities that are unique to the Cahaba Lily:
- large white blossoms sprout in clusters that bloom only one at a time with each bloom lasting only 24 hours from early May to late July
- bulbs grow wedged in rocks in swift moving shoals that receive direct sunlight
- mature seed pods sink in water
The Swamp Lily, Hymenocalis oxidentalis
A plant often mistaken for the Cahaba lily is the Carolina Spider Lily or Swamp Lily, hymenocalis oxidentalis. Though the plants share some characteristics, there are key differences:
- Swamp lily blossoms are in clusters of up to six per stalk occurring in July and August
- Swamp lilies grow in marshy areas
- Seed pods float in water
To learn more about hymenocallis oxidentalis, click here to visit its wildflower.org profile.