The South’s Rare Water Lily Is Ready to Bloom

Cahaba or “shoal” lilies appear from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina

Happening upon a Cahaba lily is like discovering one of the universe’s secrets. The aquatic plant only appears in rivers at or above the southern fall line in Central Alabama, especially in the Cahaba, and in a handful of waterways in South Carolina and Georgia. Beyond the Cahaba, it goes by the names “shoal lily” and “rocky shoals spider lily.” Each three-inch-wide blossom unfurls into pointed petals that resemble an exploding star. “I’ve seen little old ladies weep at their first sighting of this plant,” says Dr. Larry Davenport, the foremost expert on it. “The lily has become a symbol of the wild and free-flowing places of Central Alabama.”

Now in its thirtieth year, the Cahaba Lily Festival (May 18) in West Blocton, a town between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, celebrates its native charmer, which usually peaks from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day. Registration begins at 8:00 a.m., followed by a free program of nature lectures and a keynote talk by Davenport.

After lunch, shuttles pick up guests for a field trip four miles away to the Cahaba River to observe swaths of the plants from shore. If the current isn’t too fast, they can also paddle canoes or wade among the lilies before evening falls. “The flower opens at dusk, full of nectar, with a sweet and spicy perfume,” Davenport says. Hours after visitors leave, the fragrance attracts pollinating moths that flutter in the flowers by moonlight, ensuring another show next year.

A Cahaba lily in bloom.

In Georgia, the Broad River Watershed Association hosts hikes in Northeast Georgia to see the lily. The group also organizes a Shoal Lily Float on May 18, when registrants can paddle among the flowers in the Broad River. In South Carolina, Landsford Canal State Park, south of Charlotte, hosts Lilyfest on Sunday, May 19. Visitors walk the one-and-a-half mile Canal Trail to an overlook above a giant population of the blossoming lilies in the Catawba River—check out the bloom status on the park’s online “lily watch” before you go.