Nothing can stop the annual Cahaba Lily Festival and our state’s most sacred plant

Birmingham Alabama
Majestic Cahaba Lily, photo by Pat Byington, Bham Now

For over thirty years, I have marked two special events on my calendar in May. 

The first event happens naturally, the appearance of the Cahaba lily, within the Cahaba River, which first shows around Mother’s Day and lasts till about a week or two before Father’s Day.

The second event is the annual Cahaba Lily Festival in West Blocton, Alabama.

Already Blooming

Bham Now’s Pat Byington with his daughter Whitney Byington at the Cahaba River in 2012.

Of course, like clockwork, the lilies are in full bloom in the river right now.  If you want to see them visit the Cahaba River Wildlife Refuge website or connect with Cahaba River Society

The festival in the midst of a global pandemic? Nothing can stop this event.  This year’s Cahaba Lily Festival will occur virtually on the morning of Saturday, May, 16th.  

There are  three ways you can watch/attend. Visit:

What Makes the Cahaba Lily and the Festival Special

Birmingham
Screenshot of Dr. Larry Davenport and Paul Freeman at “Cahaba Lily heaven”

What makes this delicate lily that blooms every May in rural Bibb County and in isolated rivers and streams throughout Central Alabama so special? Earlier this week, Bham Now asked Samford professor and the world expert Larry Davenport on the lily that question and much more.

“It (Cahaba Lily) has become a very appropriate symbol of the wild and free flowing streams of Central Alabama,” Davenport declared. “It is a sacred plant for a lot of people.  It is the icon for the Cahaba River Society.  It deserves all that. It possesses a fragile beauty and lives in a very precarious situation. It has been severely mistreated and bounced back. It deserves the praise and love it gets.”

Discovering the Lily

I asked Davenport, what it is like seeing the lily and what makes it different.

He said, “Imagine you are in the middle of a river in Central Alabama.  It is rocky. There is a swift current. Foaming water around the rocks. And right there are plants as delicately beautiful as Easter lilies.  

Bright white, three inches across with expanded petals.  The perfume they produce is intoxicating.  What keeps them there is that rocky shoals situation. The current that pushes them deeper and deeper into the crevice, holds them fast.  They are a very rare plant because they depend on those shoals. They are only found there. There is an entire assemblage of other creatures there, dragonfly larvae, snails, rare things that are very dependent on those shoals. Kind of a magical ecosystem all its own.”

Why the Cahaba Lily Festival Matters

Thirty years ago, the first Cahaba Lily Festival was held in West Blocton, the town that has proudly adopted it. Dozens of people attended that first event.  Each year it grew and for nature lovers the festival is an annual pilgrimage. The spotlight the festival gave to the lily helped create a movement to protect its habitat.

“It gave the lily the audience it needed,”added Davenport.  “In 2002, the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge was created, and I have to say it is because of the people of West Blocton that the lily got that much attention and protection.  Now there is 3-4000 acres of land protecting it.”

Tune in Saturday

Before you go see the Cahaba lilies this May, tune in Saturday and learn from Davenport, the local residents of West Blocton and organizations working together to protect it.  They will introduce you to this sacred plant – and have some fun too (don’t miss the crowning of the Miss Cahaba Lily). 

See you online and on the river.

  • Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.