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Saving the Spider Lily: Activity on Midlands Rivers, Changes in Water Flow Have Threatened the Stands of the White-Flowering Plant

May 24, 2008

By Megan Sexton, The State, Columbia, S.C.

May 24–The spider lily is at home in the river. Truly.

Hymenocallis coronaria, commonly known as the spider lily, grows in the rocky shoals and rises through the water. It grows best in rivers where fast-moving, well-oxygenated water passes over rocks — such as the Saluda and Broad rivers near the convergence that forms the Congaree.

But increasing usage on the river, people digging up the plants to take them home and changes in water flow have threatened the stands of spider lilies. A project is going on to replenish and track the plants.

Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, SCE&G, the city of Columbia, the River Alliance, S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working together to try to map, grow and save spider lilies in the Broad, lower Saluda and Congaree rivers.

There even is a festival next weekend to educate folks about the lily, while celebrating its home in the Midlands.

We asked Andy Cabe, curator of Riverbanks Botanical Garden, to fill us in on the plant.

QUESTION: Describe the plants.

ANSWER: “The spider lily is grown from a bulb. It has long, straplike, glossy, green leaves. There are big, white flowers with a yellow center. The way the petals are arranged looks a little spidery. That’s where its name comes from.”

QUESTION: What are the best spots to see the spider lily?

ANSWER: “There are some nice populations out there. At Riverfront Park, there are viewing areas cut in there and signs there talking about spider lilies.

“If you take a canoe trip on the Broad and Congaree, downstream between the spillway off Broad River Road all way to the New Orleans restaurant, you’ll see them.

“You can see them on the Broad River from the I-26 bridge.”

QUESTION: When does it bloom?

ANSWER: “Blooms become visible from mid-May to mid-June here in South Carolina. Intermittent flowering continues throughout the summer. Each plant sends up one to three flower stalks, with as many as six to nine flowers on each stalk. Shortly after flowering, the plant will drop mature seeds into the water. These seeds sink to the bottom of the river or are carried away by currents until they subsequently wedge themselves into a rock crevice or wash onto sandy, rocky riverbanks and begin to grow.”

QUESTION: Why are they threatened?

ANSWER: “Several reasons. There’s increased usage on the river; there’s foot traffic. People collect them and think they’ll make great garden plants — they don’t. Also, changes in water flow have affected them.”

QUESTION: What’s being done to save them?

ANSWER: “A huge part of it is awareness, raising public awareness of spider lilies.

“(Riverbanks has been) collecting seeds, growing spider lilies and then introducing them into the river to bolster the population.

“In our replanting project, we’ve put out 1,200 lilies. We started small; we’re getting our feet wet in this project, trying different things out. There’s no recipe for success for this. We’re not trying to repopulate the area overnight.”

QUESTION: Why shouldn’t people dig up the plants from the river?

ANSWER: No. 1, there are better plants to grow in the ground in your garden.

No. 2, you shouldn’t be taking them from the river anyway, regardless of how they perform in your yard.”

QUESTION: How does water flow affect the spider lilies?

ANSWER: “If the water flow increases too much, an entire colony could potentially be destroyed. Too little water flow deprives the flowers of essential seed-carrying capability. Most often, changes in water flow and water quality are caused by transportation along the waterway, recreational activities, runoff pollution or use of the water for generation of electricity and/or drinking water.”

QUESTION: Why is it important to save the spider lilies?

ANSWER: “We don’t want to lose any species. We look at this for its ornamental value. But also for how one species affects another species. … This is something that’s a gem here in the Midlands. It’s not a widespread plant throughout the country.

“While we still have a good-size population, it’s good to work on the restoration effort.”

QUESTION: Is the repopulation effort working?

ANSWER: “Coinciding with the repopulation project, we wanted to find a way to gauge our success. Last summer, we started (using a Global Positioning System to map) all the existing spider lilies. … We’ll know the existing population and the size of the population so we can go out on a yearly basis or whatever time and check the existing populations. That data will be good for the future. In five years, we’ll be able to look and say the population is increasing, decreasing or maintaining.”

QUESTION: What’s the goal of the restoration effort?

ANSWER: “Our goal is to have this more or less figured out: What’s the best way to grow these things, where are best spots to put them in and how do we ensure continued success.”

QUESTION: Where else are there spider lilies?

ANSWER: “There’s a nice population at the Landsford Canal in Lancaster. (Spider lilies are native to only Richland and Lancaster counties in South Carolina.) There are also some in Georgia and Alabama.”

QUESTION: Are they all endangered?

ANSWER: “In South Carolina, it’s listed as a species of concern. In Georgia, they’re on the endangered list.”

IF YOU GO

Rocky Shoals Spider Lily Festival

When: 1-6 p.m. May 31

Where: Riverfront Park

Tours: Tour the river shores with rangers and natural history experts; participate in guided kayak outings to view blooming spider lilies.

Entertainment: Music by Savannah River Bluegrass Band, Hagar’s Mountain Boys and the Carolina Rebels. Also featured are activities for children including face-painting, balloon sculptures and a scavenger hunt.

Educational exhibits: Interactive presentations from the city of Columbia, SCE&G, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, DHEC, state Department of Natural Resources, F&ME Consultants, USC, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Sierra Club, the S.C. Native Plant Society, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Botanical Services of South Carolina, the State Museum and EdVenture

Also: Nonendangered lilies will be available for sale. Food, beer and wine will be available.

Tickets: $5. Proceeds go to ongoing restoration of the rocky shoals spider lily.

More information: www.columbiasc.net

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Copyright (c) 2008, The State, Columbia, S.C.

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