How to See Cahaba Lilies – Alabama’s Most Fragrant Natural Wonder

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The Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge protects the largest stand of Cahaba lilies in the world at Hargrove Shoals. These unique plants 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. We’ll tell you how to see the Cahaba lily blooms at Hargrove Shoals and why they are essential to Alabama. Cahaba lily flowers are stunning, but they are also the voice of wild and scenic rivers everywhere and the beautiful canary in the coal mine of progress that let us know when we have gone too far. We met up with Dr. Randall Haddock and a few others from the Cahaba River Society to explore the Cahaba River, Alabama’s longest free-flowing river, and mile for mile, one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world.

A Journey Back to a Simpler Time

Randy’s first lesson came before Jenn and I even entered our canoe. He rushed over to some round rocks along the shore of the Cahaba River and asked us to guess what geologic process could produce something that was both round and layered. We were stumped, but in our defense, it was a trick question. These particular rocks, called stromatolites, were formed over a billion years ago, long before the atmosphere contained significant amounts of oxygen by bacteria mats mixing with sand. It was the bacteria’s metabolism that made all life possible on Earth by creating the very air that we breathe. It’s part of the delicate dance of life that changes and adapts but it is all related.

How to Reach the Hargrove Shoals Cahaba Lilies

The only way to reach Hargrove Shoals is by boat, and because of the shoals, it’s best to use a canoe or a kayak. While it’s possible to set up a shuttle and make a 6-mile run down to the Pratt’s Ferry Bridge, we chose the logistically easier option of paddling back upstream to our car. We had to wade the boats through a couple of small shoal rapids, most notably the Caffee Shoals just below Caffee Creek, so good water shoes are a must! It would be possible to take a shorter trip by stopping and seeing the very nice stand of Cahaba lilies at Caffee Shoals, which would have cut out many of the small rapids in both directions. But, Hargrove Shoals is the world’s largest stand of Cahaba lily blooms, so we pressed forward.
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The excitement in the air was palatable as we approached Hargrove Shoals. We could hear the rapids and see the shoals framed beneath the limb of a tree. We passed over one final riffle before parking our boats at the head of the shoals. The scene was magical, with flowers extending down the river to the horizon.

Exploring the Cahaba Lilies at Hargrove Shoals

As we stepped off our canoe, Randy handed us a small capillary tube like you would find at the doctor’s office and advised us to take our paddles with us for extra stability. It was slippery and unstable on the shoals, and a couple of us took unexpected swims. Before long, we reached the first couple stands of lilies. Cahaba Lilies (Hymenocallis coronaria) are a type of spider lily. They present new flowers every morning. This morning’s flowers were white and pure, while the previous day’s were starting to fade. Following Randy’s instructions, we found a day old bloom and inserted the tube into the heart of the flower. We harvested one sweet, succulent taste of the nectar, like a drop of pure honey. Randy told us that, in the evenings, Cahaba lilies release their fragrance for their nocturnal pollinator, the plebeian sphinx moth. I imagined that drop of nectar as a scent rising from the thousands of lilies on Hargrove Shoals. It felt so real I could almost smell it. We spent about an hour exploring the Hargrove shoals, photographing lilies, and flying our drones. If we had sturdier shoes, like a good canyoneering boot, we might have ventured farther away from the boats. As it was, we only visited the first couple of stands of the vast flower field.

Lessons From the Cahaba River

As we were playing with the lillies, Randy was exploring the shoals. His first discovery really excited him, an endangered snail. The Cahaba River is recognized by the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy as being one of only eight Hotspots of Biodiversity in the world. Of the 35 species of snails found here, ten are only found on the Cahaba, while nine more are only on the Cahaba or Coosa Rivers. It’s not only snails, but a host of invertebrates, fish, and birds that rely on a healthy Cahaba River to survive. Additionally, 20% of Alabama gets their drinking water from the river. No wonder both the lilies and the river are considered an Alabama natural wonder.
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Randy’s excitement faded after he found a stand of invasive taro growing right in the shoals. He eradicated what he could find, but we were only on a little section of a gigantic shoal. The Cahaba River Society does perform regular taro removal cleanups to protect the river, but we didn’t have time for more work that day. One watershed over, these invasive plants have overrun the Coosa River, but that’s not the worst of that river’s problems.

Warnings of the Coosa River

The World Wildlife Fund reports, “The Coosa River was once one of the most biologically diverse rivers in the world, but today it is the most developed river in Alabama with only some free-flowing stretches remaining.” The US Fish and Wildlife Forest describes the aftermath of damming the Coosa as “one of the largest extinction rates in North America during the 20th century, with the extinction or extirpation of nearly 40 freshwater species.” It’s not just the dams on the Coosa, either. The world’s largest stand of Cahaba lilies used to be at Squaw Shoals on the Black Warrior River extending out with over a mile of flowers. Tragically, now they are all flooded underneath Lock 17. As we paddled back upriver, we stopped to remove a sieve that got entangled in a tree on the bank. The debris from the sieve filled three canoes. We saw uprooted trees that occur from the hydrologic forces of stormwater rapidly entering the Cahaba River drainage from all the blacktop in Birmingham. Randy says that these log jams can form at the top of a shoal, and then plow through the lilies like a bulldozer when it floods. He also told of the Cahaba River Society’s work on restoring the river that has drastically reduced raw human sewage and chicken waste from entering the water. I looked at the three canoes of garbage from upstream, and compared it to the half bag of litter we picked up around the boat launch. Even a half bag of trash is too much, but without the visitors to the Cahaba lilies, who would be the voice for the river? Endangered snails found in the muck might excite people like Randy, but it’s the beauty of the lilies that will keep the Cahaba clean for generations to come. (and the snails thank you!)
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Maps of the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge

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

A big thank you to Gordon Black, Dr. Randall Haddock, and Katie Shaddix from Cahaba River Society for making this trip happen and David Shaddix @FlyHighFPV for letting us use his cool drone footage.

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Cahaba lilies
Cahaba lilies
Cahaba lilies

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