Paddle Through Paradise: A Guide to Alabama’s Cahaba Lilies

Cahaba Lilies on Cahaba River Alabama

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Get ready to be blown away by the amazing Cahaba Lily! From Mother’s Day to Father’s Day, this gorgeous flower blooms in the Deep South with a fragrant scent that will transport you. There are only a couple of weeks left to catch a glimpse of this natural wonder, but trust us, it’s worth the wait! Dreamers, poets, and nature lovers alike will be captivated by the beauty of the Cahaba Lily. Join us on this journey to discover more about this mystical flower!

What Is a Cahaba Lily

Cahaba Lilies on Cahaba River Alabama
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

The botanical name for the flowers is Hymenocallis coronaria, a type of spider lily. They present new, pure white flowers every morning that fade throughout the day. By evening, their scent fills the air with a sweet fragrance that attracts nocturnal pollinators like the plebeian sphinx moth.

Where Do Cahaba Lilies Grow?

Cahaba River Alabama
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Cahaba Lilies require sunlight, swift-moving water, and seasonal flooding to survive. At one time, you could find them in every river in the South East, particularly along the fall line between the Appalachian Highlands and the coastal plains. Now, only seventy-five or so stands remain across Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina because of habitat loss and water pollution.

What Is the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge?

Cahaba Lilies on Cahaba River Alabama
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

The Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge is a nearly 4,000 acres National Wildlife Refuge located in central Alabama, along the Cahaba River downstream from Birmingham, Alabama. It protects the largest remaining stand of Cahaba Lilies in the world.

What Happened to The Previous Largest Stand of Cahaba Lilies?

Cahaba Lilies on Cahaba River Alabama
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Squaw Shoals on the Black Warrior River used to be the world’s largest stand of Cahaba lilies. At one time, it held over a mile of flowers until it was dammed for flood control and navigation. Tragically, the lilly stand has flooded underneath Lock 17, and hasn’t flowered since the project completed.

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What Can We Learn From Cahaba Lilies?

Cahaba River Alabama
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Cahaba Lilies require fresh water and rapids to survive. Pollution and human development has destroyed much of their habitat, which is some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. Mile for mile, the Cahaba River is more biologically diverse than the Amazon or Congo Rivers. The damming of the nearby Coosa not only stopped the Cahaba Lilies from growing there, but sparked “one of the largest extinction rates in North America during the 20th century, with the extinction or extirpation of nearly 40 freshwater species.”

What’s Best Way to See Cahaba Lilies

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

You can see Cahaba Lilies from the shores in the National Wildlife Refuge, or by kayaking the river. You can also see them in other spots in Alabama such as the Tallapoosa River flowing into Lake Martin on the Harold Banks Canoe Trail.

What is the Cahaba Lily Festival

Cahaba River Alabama
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

The Cahaba Lily Festival is an annual celebration of the lilies in West Blocton Alabama with music and keynote speakers. They also run trips to the refuge for people to see the Cahaba lilies in their natural habitat.

Do You Need A Boat to See Cahaba Lilies?

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

You don’t need a boat to see Cahaba lilies. There are several spots where you can see them from the shores in the National Wildlife Refuge. However, you will not be able to reach Hargrove Shoals without a boat. Also, the weekends during the blooming season are very busy, so it is best to come during the mornings or afternoons.

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Final Fun Facts About Cahaba Lilies

Cahaba lilies on the Cahaba River Alabama
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Here are a few bonus fun facts about Cahaba Lilies:

How do you take care of a Cahaba Lily? Short answer here is you can’t grow Cahaba lilies at home. They require a very specific environment of fresh, clean, flowing water. But if you love Cahaba lilies, you can participate in river cleanups and activism that protects free flowing rivers and keeps them clean.

Can you pick a Cahaba Lily? The Cahaba lily is a rare, though not federally threatened or endangered, flower. That being said, many places it grows are protected areas with general rules about removing any plants and some, like the city of Helen, have specific regulations prohibiting removal of Cahaba lilies.

What are other names for Cahaba Lilies? Cahaba lilies’ Latin name is Hymenocallis coronaria, but they are commonly known as shoal lily, or shoals spider-lily.

Cahaba Lily FAQs

Cahaba Lilies on Cahaba River Alabama
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

When do Cahaba Lillies bloom? Cahaba lillies generally bloom from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day.

When is the Cahaba Lily Festival? The Cahaba Lily Festival happens every year in mid-May.

Where is the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge? The Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge is near West Blocton Alabama.

Parting Thoughts About Seeing Cahaba Lilies at the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge

Cahaba lilies
Photo Credit: Andy Montgomery via Flickr.
  • Cahaba Lily blooming season is roughly Mother’s Day to Father’s Day
  • It is possible to see Cahaba lily stands from the shore at several spots along the access road (River Trace).
  • The Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge will get extremely busy on weekends in season
  • There are no facilities at the CRNWR
  • If you’re walking on the shoals, wear sturdy river shoes
  • Be sure to use eco-friendly sunscreen to protect you and the river
  • Pack it in-pack it out. Be part of the solution, not the problem
  • The easiest canoe trip is an out and back where you paddle (and wade a little) back to the put-in
  • The Cahaba River Society offers guided canoe tours, and they are well worth it! 
  • They also put together a virtual Cahaba Lily tour if you want to learn all about these magnificent flowers from the experts
  • Local commercial trips are seasonally available from Alabama Small Boats
  • Check the river gauge for recent flooding before going (USGS  02423647 CAHABA RIVER NEAR WEST BLOCTON AL)
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For more details on paddling the Cahaba River, check out the Cahaba Blueway.

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Meet Ed & Jenn

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