Read about Steve Stroupe

 "Favorite" marginal plant?? That's akin to asking for a favorite waterlily cultivar or a favorite microbrew ... there are simply way too many choices to attempt to narrow
the selection down to just one ...

Spider Lilies Writ Large

by Steve Stroupe, Alabama USA
Click images to enlarge

But one of my favorite marginal plants for the garden pond is a native spider lily, [actually an Amaryllis] ... the Cahaba Lily, Shoals Spider Lily, Rocky Shoals Spider Lily, Flat Shoals Spider Lily, et al (Hymenocallis coronaria) which grows only in certain shoal areas in a few river systems in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. Great photos here.

The flowers are extremely fragrant, pollinated by a nocturnal moth and a species of swallowtail butterfly, and the strap-like leaves are rigidly reinforced in order to remain upright in the swift currents, which differentiates it in part from some of its floppy-leaved upland and swampy cousins. Above left is H. occidentalis growing in the shaded, moist woodlands adjacent to the Locust Fork of the Warrior River in Blount County, Alabama, where my 6-year-old daughter Natalie first poses as a decorative accessory to a lovely Hymenocallis.  

Pressing my luck again this year, I asked my now 10-year-old Natalie to stand next to this clump of H. coronaria for height comparison purposes while I snapped a picture with my cell phone. The decidedly dejected look on her face may be due to several factors:

a) A woman ... even a young one ... is almost never expected to function as a mere decorative accessory to a flower ... even a very special aquatic one. The natural order of things is here reversed and she seems to be exhibiting her displeasure at such insensitive treatment.
b) She's barefoot in a creek known to be heavily infested with bellicose western cottonmouths.
c) Daddy asked her to just do something which can be sufficient grounds alone to incur displeasure

In an effort to get back in her good graces, I allowed her to capture her very first western cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma) in that same creek just a few days after the flower picture was taken. She used a pair of 48" Whitco snake tongs which are ergonomically designed to protect delicate squamatian vertebrae while simultaneously offering maximum protection to the operator. We employed the old fisherman's trick of using perspective in the photo to make the snake appear much larger than it actually was, and Natalie was constantly amused by all the oohs and ahhs from those who thought she had captured a real whopper. The snake was only 22" (56cm) long.

The photo upper right depicts Hymenocallis coronaria, the Shoals Spider Lily, which conventional wisdom has claimed loudly and repeatedly, and to the point of being obnoxious ... simply will not grow outside its natural habitat of sunny limestone shoals in a select number of free-flowing and semi-free-flowing river systems in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina.* These particular plants were transplanted as a small, mature clump of plants from the Cahaba River near West Blocton, Alabama, between 12 and 15 years ago and are thriving (reproducing vegetatively and sexually) in a dammed, heavily-shaded and silted portion of Davis Creek ... a tributary of the Black Warrior River system in west-central Alabama, and under allegedly "impossible" conditions ... according to "experts". The particularly noteworthy thing about this stand of plants is the incredible height (over 60" [152cm]) which undoubtedly stems (pun intended) from the fact that they are also growing [and blooming profusely] in dense shade ... another condition rarely if ever encountered in their natural environs of "sunny, open rapids". The recumbent stems are the result of falling limb trauma when I opened up some sunshine for them ... not weak stems resulting from inadequate sunlight. Despite the decidedly "adverse" growing conditions depicted in the photograph, it's difficult to ignore the lush, dark green foliage, the numerous inflorescences, and the overall appearance of health and vigor, as well as the ribald sexual activity which always results in numerous offspring each year.

* Website with excellent photos of this plant, colloquially called the "Cahaba Lily" because of its natural abundance in the Cahaba River just south of Birmingham, Alabama. Please note the almost obligatory warning against plant collecting thoughtfully emblazoned in a prominent red font as if to convey a subliminal and presumably divine prohibition against collecting and cultivation? This is the Bible Belt after all and we've become acculturated to deeply respect red letter editions ... of almost anything. 

Some seeds harvested last summer from this same clump of plants have yielded around a dozen robust seedlings which are now over 16" (41cm) tall and have been grown aquatically (submerged in heavy clay soil fertilized with Nutricote 133, 360 day formulation w/minors) in some of Carl Whitcomb's 1 gallon (3.8 liter) "Rootmaker" pots, photo at left. I was leery of no-hole containers with this particular species, although I've held some of their coastal swamp cousins (H. choctawensis) in the same no-hole 1 gallon containers for over six years now which [amazingly] flower and even seed each year. Sexually mature coronaria have also been produced from seed several years back which were grown terrestrially in Pro-Mix, fertilized with Osmocote 17-6-10 w/minors, and kept well watered. Four years from a single seed to clump of seven or so in a 5 gallon (19 liter) squat pot ..."restrictive habitat" indeed. A number of Hymenocallis like coronaria are ... well ... just "weeds" to those who know how to grow them. 

The politics of [plant] endangerment sometimes seem to require an unnecessary amount of shrill rhetoric and anguished hand-wringing which accompanies the proposed legal status of the plant in question, along with what's often a minimal or non-existent amount of any real attempt at meaningful restorative activity, and this plant is certainly no exception here in Alabama where the plant has achieved near iconic status in some quarters -- partly as a result of myth-based environmental hysteria which is faithfully assisted by an apparently willingly misinformed or complicit media, and those who stand to profit from the status of a plant alleged to be constantly teetering on the brink of extinction with salvation effected only by constant infusions of capital to fund their never ending studies. This commentary is not meant to disparage the genuine restorative efforts made on behalf of those organisms which are genuinely endangered or threatened, but is meant to offer some wry observations on the system itself which often works at cross purposes with its own stated mission ... In light of this dryly cynical but playful view of the ESA [Endangered Species Act], I'm reminded of a sign in a furniture store window which stated; "Going Out of Business -- Sale 50% Off: "We've been going out of business longer than anyone else". The parallels here are simply too apropos to pass up. The Shoals Spider Lily ... Going Extinct since 1935.

Just as an interesting aside, there are only three ways that a species can be "delisted" from the Endangered or Threatened Species List by the USFW; "Extinction", "Recovery", or "Original Data in Error". Of the 50 species which have been "delisted" by the USFW since the ESA's inauguration in 1973, 9 species became extinct, 20 were recovered, and 21 were delisted simply because the originally submitted data was in error. Oops! This can be anything from a taxonomical revision ... the species were "adversely administrated" taxonomically, or simply "voted" out of existence, or else some grant-seeking academic jumped the gun with insufficient and/or erroneous data which was later disproved or successfully refuted by another grant-seeking academic with a contrary agenda. The USFW has not yet seen sufficient data to warrant listing this plant as either Threatened or Endangered (currently "Under Consideration") although Georgia has it officially declared as "Endangered", South Carolina has it listed as "Special Concern", and Alabama? ... well ... all we really care about is college football, NASCAR, cheap beer, and electing officials who want to replace the US Constitution with Leviticus.

The stated reasons for the plants' decline in some areas seem to vary with the times. A number of things have been postulated as probable causes; collectors ... always an easy target ... even believable perhaps to the eagerly uninformed and those looking for a low-hanging Azazel... agricultural, mining, and industrial runoffs, siltation, water quality issues, and damming ... according to most sources. Excessive siltation -- if severe enough, can dramatically alter the plant's ability to reproduce by seed by covering/filling the rock crevices and clefts thus depriving the seeds/bulblets from becoming securely lodged in an upstream crevice. This siltation also provides optimal habitat for fast-growing, competing vegetation such as water willow (Justicia americana). The pictured plant clump (top right) however is growing quite well in deep silt, and I've even observed two adventitious but successful seedlings thriving just downstream in equally unlikely conditions, which appear to be around two years old. One took root in a gravel bed in mid-stream ... probably trapped by debris until it took root, and another which germinated in soft mud in 24" (61cm) of slack water just upstream from a small dam. I've also observed a single plant growing in a shaded mudbank on the Alabama River close to the delta ... hardly its natural habitat either.

Paradoxically, a similar [habitat deprivation due to siltation] effect can also occur in a healthy, mature population in a pristine environment although for other reasons than siltation. The Hatchett Creek population which is vastly more impressive than Hargrove Shoals (for so many reasons) seems to have exhausted all available "nursery sites" for home-seeking seeds and seedlings. While seed collecting there around 20 years ago, I mused about this possibility while having literally millions ... or vast quantities which suggested such incredible numbers of these magnificent plants which were displayed in full view. I wondered just how many centuries or millennia would have elapsed since the first plant evolved and took root in Hatchett Creek before all possible available cracks and crevices were fully occupied by fortunate seedlings or mature plants. Tons [literally] of seed are discharged there each year, each one vying for those coveted cracks in a limited shoal area in a relatively small river, just above the fall line**... their last chance to find and occupy suitable habitat before being swept away into the vast and inhospitable coastal plain ... So I mentioned this to my friend and we spent at least thirty minutes or so attempting to find at least one suitable crevice or cleft ... no luck. The only habitat not occupied by the "lilies" that we saw, were vast expanses of unsuitable bedrock with no crevices at all to trap or nurture a desperate seed. While this ad hoc investigation certainly lacked scientific rigor, it did at least point to one interesting observable phenomenon. At any rate there is at least one thing that is a certainty; there are literally TONS of seed produced annually just from this riverine population alone ... which go to waste as do most seeds from virtually any plant.

** Fall Line: In geomorphology, a fall line (at times referred to as a fall zone) marks the area where an upland region (continental bedrock) and a coastal plain (coastal alluvia) meet. Technically, a fall line is an unconformity. A fall line is typically prominent when crossed by a river, for there will often be rapids or waterfalls. (Wikipedia)

The plant population touted in Alabama as "the world's largest" [a claim hotly disputed by the state of South Carolina by the way] is located in Hargrove Shoals in the Cahaba River near Birmingham, and has been steadily declining for years without any detrimental effects from downstream damming, since no dams exist on the Cahaba River downstream of the fall line. In fact, the current populations of H. coronaria exist on smaller rivers and creeks which are highly unlikely to be "dammed" in the future with anything more than a low water concrete slab with culverts which do little to alter the water level. The damming threat was primarily from large hydroelectric dams built in the early-mid 20th century which did unfortunately destroy some huge populations. The lilies at Hargrove Shoals have declined considerably in my lifetime with not only a discernable loss of mature plants but also with a marked decrease in sexually reproductive capacity ... so much so that seed collecting is a poor proposition at best in this particular population. It's not even worth the effort to wade out there and look for seeds even though I only live 30 minutes away. Contrasted with this unhappy situation is a stretch of Hatchett Creek in Coosa County, Alabama, where a friend of mine and I collected 50 pounds of seed in just a little over an hour ... 20 years ago!

My only controversy with the hand-wringing crowd is not the righteous claims regarding pollution, habitat degradation, and environmental issues which are extremely serious concerns to all riverine life forms, but rather the egregious and unconscionable misinformation and sputum put forth about this plant which accompanies some otherwise laudable conservation efforts. While I can't and won't ascribe motive to these folks, and find most conspiracy theories rather credulous, I can't help but marvel at the widespread prevalence of bull---- (bleep :>) ) information on this plant, accompanied by militant and dogmatic insistence on coronaria's alleged inability to grow anywhere outside its native habitat. It's a basic propaganda technique which uses fearmongering in an effort to push an agenda on the easily swayed and uncritical among us. This is really too bad because this incessant flow of gross, self-serving misinformation only serves to impugn the credibility of those who might otherwise wish to be taken seriously. Here are a few representative samples plucked from various websites:

Unknowing lily lovers may collect the lilies to plant in their gardens not knowing that this will eventually lead to the plant's death.

Please do not pick the lilies or remove the bulbs for transplantation. The plant might survive 1-2 years out of its proper habitat, but the prospect for long-term survival is slim.
This is the most successful of all the mimetically transmitted dire warnings against coronaria cultivation, as this particular one appears verbatim on several websites, although usually in less dramatic font hues and textual enhancements.

They require a strict habitat and it is a waste to try to transplant them.

Even Dr. Larry Davenport of Samford University ... the acknowledged leading authority on H. coronaria states that the plant "...requires a very specialized habitat -- swift flowing water over rocks and lots of sun." Emphasis supplied:

The representative information above is simply incorrect as stated, and undoubtedly has the net effect of often discouraging the introduction and reintroduction of nursery-propagated plants into "suitable" and especially "unsuitable" habitats. Fortunately, South Carolina seems a bit more optimistic about the possibility of nursery propagation and reintroduction of this plant into suitable environs, with both the South Carolina Native Plant Society and the City of Columbia among others, who are considering and implementing programs of this type, as have a number of private individuals. Restocking programs can be challenging of course, but it's a start at least ...

Seed collection for H. coronaria is accomplished in mid to late summer, and usually consists of picking up the seed off the creek or river bottom or plucking loosely attached seed from the long stems, although some unexpected early summer floods this year carried quite a few of my seeds downstream before I could harvest them. The seeds are normally the size and shape of small pecans although some are almost round and seem more reminiscent of H. occidentalis. An easy way to germinate the seeds is to place them in a "laundry basket" aquatic plant pot and float the pot (seeds will sink) in a water garden or aquatic bed with vigorously oxygenated and/or moving water until they germinate and form small bulblets ... and then plant them in a 4" (10cm) pot either aquatically, or by any other method which assures constantly moist or saturated soil. If propagating large numbers for restocking, cell packs work well, but either overhead watering or ebb and flow sub-irrigation should be used to encourage air-pruning of the roots which will minimize root trauma during transplanting. One key to success with this species is to keep the large, fleshy, and relatively slow-growing roots as intact as possible.

The small plantlets will need a moderately cold dormant period for several months (Zone 7-8 equivalent). If stocking a wild habitat is the objective, then it's best to wait until the seedlings are almost a year old and then plant them well after the subsequent spring rains which will dramatically increase their chances for establishment. In the natural reproductive cycle of this plant, the seeds are produced in summer when the water level is lowest, where they germinate underwater, usually under full sun, and are eventually propelled by the current until they're trapped in a rock crevice or cleft and take root, where they're held in place by positive water pressure until they become deeply rooted in the mud and gravel. The only partially successful restocking program mentioned in the Herald article above used "bulbs", but my experience has been that second year seedlings have the best survivability rate in restocking programs. This is due to at least two factors:

a) The plant is still small enough to tuck securely into small and protected places in order to take root.
b) It is still aggressively growing at this stage of its life and has, or is much more likely to have, all of its roots intact ... much more so than a mature bulb which doesn't transplant nearly as easily and could easily fail in a wild environ. Even mature bulbs transplanted in controlled nursery conditions demonstrate a relatively slow and wobbly recovery when carefully extracted from propagation clumps which invariably involve the loss of roots.

We've shared plants and seeds all over the country for many years with widespread reports of success. This year we placed a few 2007 seedlings in an urban Chicago water garden. Perhaps they'll survive there too?

Cahaba lilies at Hatchett Creek

Below are Hymenocallis coronaria seed collection photos taken on Hatchett Creek, Coosa, County Alabama. The trip occurred on August 15, 2008, and we were about a month late. Like my little stand in Davis Creek, these shoals had also experienced unseasonally heavy rains which had washed the great majority of seed downriver. Most of the seeds we collected were already sprouted.

A new baby just starting out in life, but without a home as yet.

Two well-developed seedlings with the archetypically agressive root structure. These plants are estimated to be a month old or so.

A family of six in what appears to be a very inhospitable environment. The linear fracture in the rock was wide enough for the roots to gain a firm purchase initially, but insufficient for the plants to really thrive given the tightly confined space.

H. coronaria growing in a typical habitat.

A lonely sentinel in another tiny crevice. This plant could be 2 years old or older depending upon how much stunting had occurred. The crevice can be clearly seen here, just in front of, and just to the right of the bulb.

Mature plant showing the roots necessary to anchor it successfully in swift water. This particular plant was growing in an area which was eroding, leaving the roots fully exposed. It is virtually impossible to extricate a single plant from a clump with this many roots intact. The bulb is approximately 2.5" (6.4cm)
in diameter.

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