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Long Live the Cahaba Lily Cahaba River Society Aim to Protect its Local Flower BY KAYLYN ALEXANDER Birmingham, Alabama — Delicate, white flowers blossoming three inches wide begin covering the shoals of the Cahaba River starting mid-May to early June. The Hymenocallis coronaria, better locally known as the Cahaba Lily, flower once a year only in the Southeastern United States. Since the 1980's the lilies have been slowly dying out, yet the species is not listed on the Endangered Species Act and enjoys no protection at the federal level.

The Cahaba Lily is a type of spider lily in the amaryllis family with specialized habitat requirements. The aquatic perennials can only bloom if the bulb is successfully lodged between rocks of a free-flowing river's streambed. The lilies favor areas underneath open tree canopies with plentiful access to direct sunlight. The Cahaba River harbors the largest population of the flowers in the world.

The Cahaba River Society (CRS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the Cahaba River and its wildlife, recognized the Cahaba Lily's decline in the early 1990's. Ever since the organization has been working to protect the species from extinction through legislation, policy, growth solutions and low-impact development.


"The Cahaba Lilies are one of the main focuses of this group," said Randall Haddock, CRS Field Director. "We work in municipalities with legislators to propose legislation that protects the flowers. The CRS also promotes good water quality and policies for people downstream."

The lilies are most abundant in areas where the Cahaba flows through Bibb County, six miles from West Blocton, AL. A little less than four miles of the river was established as the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge in 2002. One of the purposes of the refuge was to protect and manage the lilies.

The West Blocton community organized a lily festival in 1999 in effort to protect the rare flower. The event is now known as the Cahaba Lily Festival and is organized by the West Blocton Improvement Committee. The CRS became a partner of the Cahaba Lily Festival to provide opportunities for attendants to see the flowers up close. The organization offers group canoe trips and $20 canoe rentals for anyone interested in canoeing among the flowers.

Although the Cahaba Lilies have gained widespread support from environmental and

wildlife conservation groups across Alabama, there are still numerous threats to the lily.

""One of the biggest problems I think the lilies have is that when you have a high water event, trees can wash down stream and crash into a clump of lilies, dislodging them," said Haddock. "What's going on with Birmingham with all the building, paving and development activities, a greater volume of water goes down river, causes bank erosion and trees crash into the lilies."

In 1998 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service commissioned a botanist to gather information on the Cahaba Lilies' species, distribution, habitat needs, flowering and fruiting seasons and potential threats. Lawrence Davenport, Ph.D., botanist and Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences, volunteered. His research on the flower has been published in Southern Lepidopterist's Society's newsletter, Flower Magazine and Nature Journal.

“I began to study the Cahaba lily in 1989 as a candidate species for a threatened or endangered listing with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” says Davenport. “What eventually happened was that I expanded the known lily populations in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina from an initial 10 to 70,” said Davenport.

 The past 25 years the festival has occurred, Dr. Davenport has been invited to be the keynote speaker. His enthusiasm for the Cahaba Lily is evident year after year as he discusses the lily and its biology. Davenport comments that in the past years the Cahaba Lilies' flowering season has been successful.

"The lily has good years and bad years, depending largely on whether or not flooding of their shoals occurs when they are in flower. They have been flowering earlier lately, causing the shifting forward of the annual Cahaba Lily Festival to the third Saturday in May," said Davenport.

Haddock affirms that flooding during the previous year can diminish the flowering the next. A problem also exists if water is not able to soak into the ground. Haddock expressed the need for hydrologic readjustment in order to fix this problem.

"Storm drains instantly go into river. The result is that the water flows higher and the volume is greater than is used to be. Those factors are causing the bank to erode and trees to crash into the stream," said Haddock.

A number of organizations in Alabama are actively working to safeguard the Cahaba Lily including the CRS, Bibb County Wildflower Society, Nature Conservancy and Living


"I think the lily’s future looks bright. Over the past 25 years, we have raised public awareness of this plant—it has become a 'poster child' or symbol for the wild, undammed rivers of the Southeast," said Davenport. "Three festivals—West Blocton, Landsford Canal and Columbia (both in SC)—celebrate it. And folks now realize that to protect this species, you must protect its habitat. The setting aside of 3,500 acres of prime lily habitat in 2002, now protected forever as the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, is a prime example of such an effort."

The Cahaba Lily Festival will take place May 17, 2013, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge. Lunch is provided and vendors will offer t-shirts, caps, artwork and various nature-related crafts. Admission is free and donations are encouraged.

For more information on the Cahaba Lilies or to make a donation towards their preservation, visit

Crs lily feature article