Since starting the campaign to change Illinois’s state flower to the critically endangered Kankakee mallow – Iliamna remota – I’ve become pretty enamored with this plant’s story. The only living plant species known to come from within Illinois’ borders, as of last year, its native habitat of Langham Island didn’t appear to have any living plants left. A group of volunteers formed Friends of Langham Island and set to work to restore the mallow and save it from the exotic invasives that threatened to add it to the long list of native extinctions.
Organized by Trevor Edmonson and Stephen Packard, the island’s Friends (which grow by the day) put together a management plan that would restore the habitat to a more mallow-friendly environment. Clearing out and burning the invasive brush became essential – not only were they hogging all the soil nutrients and altering its chemistry, but they were shading the open oak woodland habitat that had been in place there for the entirety of the mallow’s existence.
Potawatomi people used to manage the island before being forced from the area by European colonial jerks – a management which included regular fires. The mallow’s seeds respond very well to fire in order to germinate (I found this out myself when growing some mallow seeds in a plastic container that I accidentally left out in the sun too long – it scorched the seedlings that had already started (about 30% of what I planted) but in their place the remaining 70% germinated – these things are scorch-activated!).
With this in mind, the Friends came up with the idea that they would roll the brush pile fires over the spots where the mallow was last seen. Everyone was counting on the fact that although the flower wasn’t there the previous year, the seed bank still had decades of viable seeds asleep under the surface. So we burned what we could and hoped for the best.
Early in the Spring there was some sightings of what COULD have been mallows – tiny seedlings with similar leaf shapes to mature mallow, but could also have been a few different species. And before groups could come back out and check to see if they were the real deal, Illinois received more rain than any other state in the country for June – and all of THAT rain seemed to fall on Kankakee County.
Because we are law-abiding habitat restorers and NOT vigilantes, the Friends had to wait until the river was re-opened by the government. For weeks it was very high, very fast, and debris regularly swept down it: the perils of trying to save a plant on an island.
I was getting itchy like everyone else to see if the plant was back (Trevor said he’d swim there if he had to), and so I asked my friend Eric Wolff if we could fly his drone over the island. We got some great hi-res photos as well as this video
but as you can see, we weren’t able to get close enough to identify individual plants. However, looking at the video and comparing it to the Google Earth photo at the top of the post, you can see how much work we were able to accomplish re-opening the canopy and making it mallow-friendly. Of course, fire and open sky is also really great for the dreaded invasive white sweet clover, a plant that could easily take over the mallow habitat if left alone.
Then the state reopened the river and we immediately organized a workday and plant monitoring day for August 1st and 2nd. Trevor, Stephen, Linda Masters, Michael Rzepka, Michael Swierz and myself rowed to the island and walked to the winter burn scars. And it was there that we met this handsome chum:
We found it! Trevor said we were the first people to see a confirmed mallow on Langham in ten years. I didn’t do an exact count, but of the 9 or so burn scars – including the rolling burn piles – we found mallows in almost all of them. Including this remarkable sight:
It was proof that the management strategy of rolling fires was exactly what this plant needed in order to return from the brink (along with canopy-opening and a prescribed burn earlier this year). This felt like we had discovered gold, or when Jed Clampett found “bubbling crude,” precious and profound.
Gonzo the Muppet sings a song called “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” which features the lyric, “There’s not a word yet/for old friends who’ve just met.” Whatever that word is, that is exactly how I felt. It wasn’t just the thrill of seeing this plant returning from the dead, it was that it was doing so in its home ecosystem. After all the work I had done talking about it as a viable state flower, as a symbol of the necessity of habitat restoration, to see it fulfill the promise we made to that habitat was instantly a cherished memory of mine. There’s still work to do, but it will be done with lifted spirit.
Rachel Goad’s monitoring the day after found quite a few mallows – up from zero the year before – as well as many other conservative plants on the island. Rachel runs the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern program and the data she collects monitoring conservative plant species is essential to stewards like Stephen and Trevor when they create and update the management plans for a site like Langham.
In the short term, many joyful emoji can be texted between plant nerds, but going forward we have this story that we can share forever about why habitat restoration isn’t futile. Our wild spaces are essentially islands and all the species on those islands require the same thoughtfulness and care to protect, proliferate, and celebrate as the mallow is now receiving. Those who live near-ish to Langham can join that party, but there’s probably an island of green near anyone able to read this that could use some love.
Go love! And may carpets of tiny green hope be your reward.
UPDATE: Here’s an article I forgot about that proves heat breaks seed dormancy in mallow seed coats. I mean, also, perhaps the pictures above prove that too, but if you’re into science and stuff, it’s a good read.