Field Notes 10

Southeast BY CAROL BISHOP MILLER / Huntsville, Alabama, Zone 7

Lily of the River

A SINGLE CAHABA LILY in bloom is incomparably beautiful: a six-inch starburst of luminous white atop a bare, threefoot stem that emerges from a shock of erect, dark green, swordlike leaves. En masse, stretching by the thousands across the broad, rocky shoals of central Alabama’s Cahaba River, the beauty of this rare aquatic amaryllid is overwhelming. Found only along the fall line separating the southeastern uplands from the coastal plain, the Cahaba lily (Hymenocallis coronaria) grows in shallow, free-flowing water, its bulbous roots anchored among layered rocks where the stream fans out and pushes back the tree canopy, allowing the plant to bask in sunshine.

“It’s my fault,” says Samford University botanist Dr. Larry Davenport of the Cahaba lily’s failure to qualify for the federal list of endangered and threatened species. “I’ve found too many populations.” The first to conduct a formal scientific study of the Cahaba lily and its distribution, Davenport has located almost 60 populations along river systems in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Davenport is a fixture at the Cahaba Lily Festival, a day of lily-related fun traditionally held the last Saturday in May in the town of West Blocton, 23 miles southwest of Birmingham. Lectures, door prizes, a sumptuous brunch provided by the West Blocton Improvement Committee, the crowning of Miss Cahaba Lily, and gently adventurous canoe rides to view the lilies up close highlight this wholesomely invigorating event. Visitors hike, drive, or canoe into the newly created Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, a 3,500-acre preserve along a 3.5-mile stretch of the river that encompasses Hargrove Shoals, site of what locals claim is the largest existing stand of Hymenocallis coronaria, stretching for nearly half a mile.

“The best thing we can do to save the Cahaba lily is to preserve its habitat,” says Davenport, who lists dams, deer, poaching, salt water discharge from mining operations, and siltation from upstream development among the threats to the species” survival. Davenport points out that a number of other species depend on the lily. “It’s crawling top to bottom with dependent critters, and this is such a rare, unusual habitat,” he says.

An herbaceous perennial, the Cahaba lily, known elsewhere in its range as shoals lily, blooms from early May into early June. Each budded scape bears a week’s worth of flowers that open in sequence, one flower per evening, each lasting through the following day. Said to glow even on a moonless night, the upturned flowers are pollinated by nocturnal sphinx moths, which hover like hummingbirds to sip the sweet, fragrant nectar. Unlike those of landlubbing Hymenocallis species, the large, olivelike seeds of the Cahaba lily sink rather than float, promptly lodging among the rocks, where they may germinate within a week and produce seedlings by late July.

Spent among such friendly folks and beauteous scenery, my visit to the Cahaba Lily Festival last May was one of the highlights of my year. And such a good value—brunch: $5; canoe rental: $10; T-shirt: $12; a day among the lilies: priceless!

For information about the festival, contact Kae Allen (205–938–2479 or

Worth growing

Southern spider lily Hymenocallis caroliniana

We may not be able to grow the Cahaba lily in our gardens, but those of us in Zone 6 and warmer can certainly grow the more common and less finicky southern spider lily (Hymenocallis carolinianaand closely related species), found in marshes and moist woods from Florida to Texas and as far north as Illinois and Indiana. While it may lack the lordly stature of its aquatic cousin, its spidery white flowers, borne in umbels of two or more atop a twofoot scape, are every bit as dramatic. Spider lily is adaptable but prefers a rich, moist to wet, acid soil in either sun or light shade. Flowering occurs in either spring or summer. Sources, page 92.

To do in the garden

  • Replace faltering pansies with long-blooming, heat-loving annuals, such as narrow-leaf zinnia (Z. angustifolia), annual vinca (Catharanthus roseus), and impatiens.

  • Sow okra, melons, and squash, and set out other lovers of warm soil, such as eggplant, sweet potatoes, caladiums, and dahlias.

  • Pinch back or shear lanky chrysanthemums and asters for a bushier, more floriferous fall display.

  • Stop and smell the roses. In interior regions of the Southeast, roses reach their peak of bloom in May.

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