Consider the Rocky-Shoals Spider Lilies

On Memorial Day weekend we bypassed the motor boats and the barbeque and packed a picnic river lunch. We drove an hour and a half to Landsford Canal State Park on the Catawba River near Chester to finally see the famous Rocky-Shoals Spider Lilies in full bloom.

I say finally because seeing the spider lilies blooming is something that’s been on our outdoor “to do” list for years. The window is narrow-they bloom in late May every year-and so you have to plan. Planning is not always our strong suit, so it helped that our friend Steve Patton took the point on pulling together a flotilla of 16 adventurers in canoes and kayaks.

Though spider lilies are found throughout the South, the rocky-shoals spider lily is our own piedmont beauty. It’s a member of the Amaryllis family and grows 40 inches tall in impressive clusters wedged among the shoals in wide piedmont rivers. The white blooms look like, you guessed it, spiders, with long drooping rays like legs. Â

The shoals at Landsford Canal State Park on the Catawba are one of only a dozen or so sites in the piedmont of South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama you can still see the lilies in abundance. Progress has taken its toll on our piedmont rocky shoals. There are dams on all of our major rivers, and the best site for a dam is always in competition with the lilies. Electric power or lilies? You can guess how those fights came out.

The Landsford population could be the biggest left. The Catawba River habitat is perfect– wide shoals with fast-moving and well-oxygenated water and low levels of pollution and sediment. It’s like having one of the surviving wonders of the Southeast practically in our backyard, so why not make the time to head over to commune with an a federal “species of concern” in its vanishing habitat?

It’s appropriate that we couldn’t drive an interstate to get to Landsford Canal State Park. We took old-fashioned back roads. Driving Highway 9 from Spartanburg is like entering a time machine. We passed through Pacolet, Jonesville, Lockhart, before bypassing Chester and seeing our first fast food in an hour.

We crossed the Broad River at Lockhart. A remnant population of the lilies survives there, but because of the dam they are barely holding on. I’d like to visit them someday too, to pay homage to their persistence and grit.

I know the people of Union County and Chester County are hoping for “economic development” of another sort, but there’s something so comforting about those vast rural spaces filled with trees and remnant farm land. There seems more hope for a sustainable future in this landscape than there is driving up I-85 to Charlotte past peach orchards graded flat and planted with distribution centers. In a land like we drove through on Highway 9 there seems more potential for people and animals and native spider lilies to live peacefully together.

When we arrived we parked in Landsford Canal State Park we unloaded our gear, and put our boats on the water of the Catawba River. We were not alone. There were picnicking holiday visitors on shore, and out on the water a big “eco-tour” group was ahead of us. We could see 20 green canoes clustered downstream among rocks and lilies. We could hear the tour guide lecturing about the ecology of the spider lily.

Heading downstream the kayaks had an easier time of it. The river was low and it was a puzzle figuring out all the routes through the rocks. Once down among the lilies I finally inhaled the vast beauty of a vanishing piedmont wonder.

We didn’t get the eco-lecture, but the lilies convinced by their mere presence. I could smell them all around me. Red-winged blackbirds zipped in and out of the white stand of lilies. The sound of the shoals formed a soothing backdrop. An osprey hunted upstream.

We floated on down through a few hundred yards of the lilies making their last stand and took out before walking back to the put-in along the 19th century canal for bypassing the shoals.

What can be done to save the rocky-shoals spider lily? Knowing they exist might be the first step, followed closely by appreciation. As we floated through their glory I thought how seeing them like that should be some sort of graduation requirement for South Carolina citizenship. We’ll be back to do it again May weekends in the future.

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