The Cahaba Lily Festival: A best-kept secret.

Those Saturday visits to West Blocton always leave the ruffling of favorite memories in their wake. Actually, the Cahaba Lily Festival is not a secret at all- it is well-publicized and you can find details at the Cahaba Lily website.

We arrived in West Blocton one hour after we rolled out of Saturday morning bed at 10 am. The streets were closed to traffic so the entire Coryell Caravan wandered around and chatted with some of our favorite artists, including Sue Blackshear, who was displaying her paintings.

Inside the Cahaba Lily Center, folks from all walks of life were enjoying homemade food and the company of fellow lily-lovers. We missed Larry Davenport’s morning lecture, which gnawed at me quite a bit since Larry is one of the naturalists who helped put the lily on the map. Larry 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”. What began as a small project turned into a fantastic flower reconaissance as Larry “expanded the known lily populations in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina from an initial 10 to 70.”

Milla dangles her pony bag as she takes in the streets of West Blocton.

But it takes a community and a dedicated citizenry to save a river and its fairy tale flowers. Around 20 years ago, Dr. Randall Haddock and other local lily lovers formed the Cahaba River Society, a state-wide model for cooperative and sustainable ecological preservation. At about the same time, the tiny town of West Blocton began their festival to honor the local lily. For Haddock, “the lily immediately became symbolic of the beauty, fragility, and certainly the resilience of the Cahaba River itself.

Patrick and Kevin discuss paddling the Cahaba as Milla weighs her options of possibly touching more art.

Conservation photographer Beth Maynor Young, who has taken some of the most famous photos of the Cahaba lily, describes it as “pompous” and daring enough to dwell in the middle of a river in rapids. But she can’t cloak her respect and awe for this persistent, fragile flower. Beth has expressed her sadness over the fact that the Cahaba lilies grew in so many Southern rivers located along the fall line back in the days before the dams.

Milla found a few paintings on the sidewalk that no one seemed to be guarding. She took the opportunity to “touch that purple”, as she put it. Then we loaded up and set out for lunch along the banks of the Cahaba at the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge. You can get there by driving approximately six miles east of West Blocton on County road 24. Access is provided by a gravel road on the south (right) side of Bibb County Road 24 approximately 250 yards past the refuge entrance sign. Prepare for river clay-colored dirt roads.

The king had packed a picnic basket so we sat down along the banks of the Cahaba to snack and read brochures about local life along the Cahaba. We learned that the area in which we were picnicking was greatly impacted by previous human actions. Coal mining first occurred within the area that is now the refuge in the mid-1800’s. Piper #2 underground coal mine cut through the refuge. A portion of the area was strip mined in the mid-1900’s. This mining pit is still visible today.

Following the depletion of coal within the refuge area, commercial timber companies purchased most of the area that is today Cahaba River NWR. Most longleaf pine left following coal mining days were cut and, over the years, replanted to loblolly pine. Efforts at longleaf pine restoration are currently underway- exciting!

We spotted a few specklings of Cahaba lilies off in the water. At this point, the earnest plotting began- “I’m going to cross those rocks and then swim to that lily patch…” and so on.

Photo taken by Alan Cressler.

So what’s all the fuss over a flower? The Cahaba Lily is also known as Hymenocallis coronaria. The plant grows in rivers across the southeast United States. Current populations exist in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, where it is sometimes referred to as the Shoals Lily because it grows in shoals.

Photo taken by Alan Cressler.

At 182 miles, the Cahaba River is the longest free-flowing river remaining in Alabama. It is also one of the favored living locations for the aptly-named Cahaba lily. The Cahaba River houses 64 rare and imperiled plant and animal species, thirteen of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. In fact, with 131 fish species, the river holds more than any other river its size in North America. In defiance of the dams, the river and the lily stand together every spring.

Hargrove Shoals, located near the small town of Centreville, contains the single largest lily concentration in the world. Marking the center of the river and roughly a center point for the state, this is where the lily-lovers come to seek her enchantment year after year.

The flowers bloom between early May and late June. They usually open late in the day and begin to wither the next day. In most cases only one flower will open each day. The seeds take shelter in the crevices of rocks found in swift-moving currents. In this sense, each lily is a momentary marvel.

Max had no qualms about mingling with all the lily-spotters out in the shoals. He eventually made his way over to the farthest patch of lilies all on his own as I tried to keep the girls from eating snail shells that looked like candy.

See that lily patch up in the left hand corner of the photo above? That’s where Max claims to have touched one of the lilies with all the smugness of a medievalist on a pilgrimage. Granted, it takes at least 30-45 minutes of carefully stepping over slippery rocks and through knee-deep rapids around plants and small crevices to earn the right to see a lily up close.

If you missed the festival, you can still learn about the lily at the Cahaba Lily Center in West Blocton (driving directions here). My sources for this post include a brochure from the Cahaba National Wildlife Refuge, an article in Flower Magazine, the 2013 Cahaba River Festival Flyer, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and various kind persons who take pleasure in passing on what they know.

On our list of things to do in West Blocton this month: Hike Piper Trail in the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge. Only one mile long and one way in with the same way out makes it toddler-friendly. Benches dot the trail, and two overlook platforms allow you to look down at the Cahaba River and get a birds eye view of the lilies below. The entrance to the trail is one mile east of River Trace Road on Bibb County Road 24.