Spider lilies are back

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Whitewater Express brings spider lilies back to the Chattahoochee River

By Denise DuBois

If you’re rafting down the Chattahoochee River this summer, thanks to Whitewater Express, you may see some native plants that haven’t been on the river in 100 years. Owner Dan Gilbert, with the help of volunteers and a few gardening experts, worked for two years harvesting shoals spider lilies and planting them in the river with the hopes that their roots would anchor in the Chattahoochee River’s rock bed and bloom. This summer will be the third time volunteers will plant 1,000 lilies in what will be a 10-year project planting a total of 10,000 lilies.

“The spider lilies used to be in the river in the 1800s,” Gilbert said. “These are beautiful lilies. When the dams were put on the river, it flooded them out. They were below the water line and died. We were told this project would not work because of the water fluctuations, they wouldn’t grasp on to the base of the river. We’ve found it does work. We’re very excited about it. We have a 25 percent success rate. There are currently 500 thriving lilies out there.”

The lilies can handle being below the water line as long as they get sunshine at low flow times. Gilbert noted that the biggest challenge would be the changing water levels, but the plants were made to be in and out of the water.

“The best way to see them is in a raft on the classic water trip,” Gilbert said. “We’ll point them out to you. Once we’ve put thousands out here, they’ll repopulate themselves. These are tough plants.”

Lilies aren’t the only plant that Gilbert and Whitewater Express want to see on the riverbanks.

“We think it’s so pretty on the river. We would like to start a garden project. We would like to bring native azaleas and plant them on the bank,” Gilbert said. Camellia gardens, children’s gardens and edible gardens on the banks are on his mind, too.

“We took a stagnant river with dams and removed the dams and let it go back to a natural state. If you let nature take its course, nature does a pretty good job. The fish are coming back and because of that, the blue herring are more active than they used to be. This is a great environmental story,” he added.

The spider lilies that are on the Chattahoochee are white and are only found in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and parts of North Carolina.