The Cahaba: A River of Riches

An unsung Alabama waterway is one of the most biologically diverse places in the nation, home to rare flora and fauna

The 190-mile-long Cahaba River is home to many rare species, some of which were thought to be extinct. The showy Cahaba lily (at Halfmile Shoals) thrives in clean, clear, rapidly flowing water. (Beth Maynor Young)
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Randy Haddock stands on a muddy riverbank in central Alabama, looking over his favorite place on earth. Haddock, a slight, spectacled biologist with a trim beard, smiles as he hoists a canoe over his head, carries it to the water and launches it almost soundlessly into a calm stretch of the Cahaba River.

Between brilliant-green margins of broad-leaved trees, the Cahaba flows from its headwaters near Springville through the suburbs of Birmingham and into the heart of the state. The river slips southward with barely a murmur, unnoticed by many who live nearby. But Haddock, who has plied it for 20 years, knows the Cahaba as one of the grandest places in North America.

Biological splendor is usually associated with faraway places and fabulous creatures, rain forest river basins or African elephants. The close-to-home grandeur of the Cahaba is more subtle, counted not in jaguars or monkeys but in snails and mussels. To those willing to look closely, though, the river is as fascinating as any jungle.

The Cahaba boasts the longest free-flowing stretch of river in Alabama—140 miles—and one of the longest in the Southeast. Biologists have found that it shelters more fish species per mile than any other river in the country. Its floral attractions range from a spectacularly showy lily to a low, unassuming prairie clover, one of several local plant species that, until recently, were entirely unknown to science.

"I keep seeing things I've never seen before, so I feel compelled to keep learning," says Haddock, as he dips his paddle in the water and sets off downstream. "The Cahaba is different every time."

This overcast spring morning, our quarry is big botanical game. The river stretches ahead of our canoes in a long, silent pool, a promising sign for our small group of lily hunters. "The bigger the pool, the bigger the shoal," Haddock says. Shoals—rocky bars that reach across the river—trap lily seeds as they tumble downstream and shelter them as they sprout.

The river bends, and Haddock hears water babbling ahead. Moments later, the lilies loom into view, their bushel-size bunches arrayed in rows, their papery, moon-faced flowers forming a frothy fence. Our group falls quiet. Some of us are seeing the lilies for the first time, some for the hundredth, but the sudden expanse of blooms silences even the veterans.

As our canoes float into the rocky shoal, the lilies seem to engulf us, the giant pale flowers reaching to our chins. Though the Cahaba lily, also known as the shoals spiderlily, once grew throughout the Southeast, it's now restricted to about 70 stands. A quarter of the stands are in the Cahaba River, and one of the densest and largest is found here. Their display is as fleeting as it is rare. The lilies begin to bloom on the Cahaba in May, with each flower opening in the evening and lasting but a single day. The entire spectacle is over by mid-June.

Botanists have praised the flower's beauty for centuries: "nothing in vegetable nature was more pleasing," wrote itinerant naturalist William Bartram, who explored the Southeast just before and during the American Revolution. But few had studied the flowers, and questions remained about their basic biology.

Haddock, trained as an ecologist, moved to Birmingham in 1988 for a medical-research job at the University of Alabama and volunteered to lead canoe tours for the Cahaba River Society in his spare time. Though no one knew exactly why the flowers opened at night, Haddock suspected a nocturnal pollinator and decided to test his hunch.


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