This the 28th post in our 50 Days of Chicago Nature, read previous posts here.
On a small island in the Kankakee River, about 60 miles south of Chicago, there exists a wildflower found nowhere else on earth.
The Kankakee Torrent, a near biblical flow of water after the last glaciation, washed through these parts and left just the right conditions for this relative of the hollyhock to thrive. The isolation of a 20-acre island ensured its survival down through the ages into the 20th century. The Kankakee Mallow, though, which is just beginning to re-emerge this spring, is briefly isolated again due to a state park closure.
"They should be up to about calf high by now," said Trevor Edmonson of Friends of Langham Island, where the mallow grows. "It's definitely going to be a triage year for ongoing island restoration efforts."
Such is the plight of a species whose fortunes have risen and fallen in the past, just like the Kankakee River that surrounds it. The waterway is well above flood stage at the time of this writing, and due to flooding the river is currently closed to all boat traffic. Kankakee Mallow is a species that has and will require human assistance.
The story of the Kankakee Mallow is one of the mighty pre-pandemic conservation successes in the Chicago Wilderness region. Six years ago, the plant was on its way to functional extinction, with no adult plants left in the wild. It was right around then that Trevor moved to the Kankakee area from DeKalb.
"I didn't know about it until I moved here," Trevor says. "I became aware of it after I started doing volunteer work at Kankakee River State Park. I had been clearing some honeysuckle in a little sand savanna, but had my efforts redirected after got involved with the [Illinois] Native Plant Society and met our local Nature Preserves Commissioner Kim Roman. I do restoration as part of my job and knew what an opportunity I had when this project [the mallow] kind of fell into my lap."
The next step was to rally Chicago's community of habitat volunteers and get them out to the island. People came from as far away as the North Suburbs of Chicago for a work day on an autumn-like day, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014. Trevor rowed them the 100 yards or so to the island on a small boat.
"The Native Plant Society had a canoe trip that summer, but they went out on canoes and couldn't even get on the island, it was so thick with [invasive] honeysuckle," Trevor says. "On our first work day, we made it a point to look for mallow plants and couldn't find any. The savanna was completely overgrown with a wall of 10-foot honeysuckle."
The mallow hadn't been documented on the island since 2003.
"Our goal was to begin the process of healing what was there and let nature sort of fix itself," Trevor says. "We were hoping the seed bank was still viable. We haven't seeded anything out there throughout this process."
The years of management, still largely an all-volunteer effort, has resulted in approximately 600 plants on the island.
"It was a nice confluence of events, I had moved to the area, the Native Plant Society did the field trip, and we all converged on the island at the right time," Trevor says. "Six years later, we've made a lot of progress."
There's still a chance volunteers will get out to the island this year. But it's also possible vegetation will begin to close in on the mallow again during a lost field season.
"It's a great responsibility, and there are a lot of other projects like that around the region that are worthy," Trevor says. "I take pride that this one is a Kankakee thing, and it is a great tool to start a conversation about nature with folks. Most people still don’t know that it exists, even here locally. We hope to change that."