The Search for the Kankakee Mallow


Emily: Hey! We’re in a boat with Robb! Rob: I’m Robb. Emily: And our friend, Trevor. Trevor: Hello! Emily: And we’re on our way to go find one of the rarest plants in the world. It’s found on an island. Langham Island, in the Kankakee River. What’s the plant? Rob: What’s the plant? Emily: Yeah. Rob: It’s Iliamna remota.The Kankakee Mallow. Emily: And it is one of the rarest plants in the world? Rob: Yeah. And it’s a real looker, too. Emily: Yeah? Rob: Yeah it’s, uh, as far as plants go, it’s pretty foxy. Emily: Yeah! Rob: Yeah. Emily: And, uh, this is the first time in over a decade that somebody has seen this plant in bloom on this island and we get to be some of the first. Rob: And then also, all the viewers get to be, Emily: Yeah! Rob: that also. Emily: Here we go! Rob: Hooray! Emily: It’ll take a while. We gotta row there. [Brain Scoop theme song] Emily: Langham Island is nearly twenty acres of bedrock protruding out of a shallow portion of the Kankakee River in Illinois. In 1872, Reverend E. J. Hill, the first botanist to ever survey the island discovered the Kankakee Mallow, a species of plant endemic only to the island. Meaning, this twenty acres island is the only place in the world where the Kankakee Mallow grows in the wild. Until the 1950s, the island was owned by the McGreuder family and we have documentation of it being a fallow farm field in 1938. In 1966, the island became a nature preserve after the Kankakee River State Park was formed. Trevor: It really wasn’t until John Shwegman and Bill Glass came here in the 1980s that they did a full, floristic survey of this island. Emily: What they found is that most of the island’s Kankakee Mallows had disappeared and were being replaced by invasive species, like the Chinese amur honeysuckle. Honeysuckle – is evil! The island was subject to a number of controlled burnings and the species was saved, but the public interest eventually died away and in 2014, a local group discovered that once again the Mallow was nearing extinction. So, a few groups of passionate volunteers have come together to help save the Kankakee Mallow, including Habitat 230 and the Friends of Langham Island. Rob: We can’t stress enough is the fact that Habitat 230, Friends of Langham Island, they’re just groups of people who believe that native plants and animals and flora and fauna they deserve the right to live just like any other Emily: Yeah! Rob: person. Emily: Let’s go find the Kankakee Mallow! But first, we’re gonna put up some signs! Trevor: So we’re gonna go down this hill here and put in a nature preserve sign, so this island has been a nature preserve for quite a long time, but it has never really had official signage. We’ll put it kinda down in this, the bottom of this hill here. Emily: I’m gonna drive this post into the ground. For nature! Oh god it’s heavy! Hahahahahha [clanking pole as it’s driven into the ground] Ah that’s pretty good. It’s gettin’ there. I’ll do one more. Ok. Well we were not helping. There, I’m tightening some nuts. There. Trevor: It’s perfect. Emily: As the sun comes out. Emily: We’re gonna pull some invasives. Rob: Yup. This is, uh, Sweet white clover. It’s one of the nastier invasives. It’s a biannual. Which means it lives for two years and it’s first year it’s very low to the ground, it’s growing it’s roots. and in it’s second year, it shoots up these very tall, uh, flower spikes and each plant can make thousands of seeds, um, and so we’re pulling it out of the ground trying to get the whole root. So, not what you did. Um, and then we’re breaking it to cut off that energy from the root to the flower so it stops making seeds. Trevor: Here we go, here’s a root. Rob: Here’s a root. Emily: There it is. Wow! So does it do that thing where it panics if you pull it up and don’t bend it Rob: Right. Emily: and all of the energy goes from the root and it’s like “we got to go guys!” and then, and then it just, like, gets all the seeds to disperse right away? Rob: That’s what I’ve been told, and that’s what I’m sticking with. Emily: Alright. Let’s get this. So, this is what it looks like… to pull a bunch of invasive clover. I’m gonna bend it. Man, this stuff get’s everywhere. ‘Cause there’s a lot of this stuff. It’s gonna take forever, but we’ll do it. Rob: Do you wanna cut some honeysuckle? Trevor: Yeah we could! Look at that. Emily: Yeah this is, uh, a formidable tool. It’s used for, um, defeating the boss in level thirteen in Final Fantasy. Rob: Yup. Trevor: It’s made of Valyrian steel and um, no. Rob: So, cut one. Emily: This is what we’re gonna go for, this one? Rob: Kill it. Kill this one. [Cutting sounds] Emily: Yeahhhh Trevor: You gotta use the whole length, oh there you go. Boom! Rob: That’s a good saw! Emily: Yeahhh Emily: Wait. The whole point of this trip is to find the Kankakee Mallow, remember? This does remind me of when we were in Peru. Rob: Well that’s what’s cool about this island is there’s no, the only trail is used by restorationists. And so it’s completely isolated from society. Not too many people have a boat, and the ones who do don’t know to come here to see this, so it’s really untouched. Rob: Oh, there we go. Trevor: Here’s the first one. Emily: [gasps] Rob: Hey girl. Emily: There it is… that’s the Kankakee Mallow. Trevor: That’s it. Right there, in bloom. Emily: So this is the first time in over ten years that this flower has been seen in bloom? Trevor: Yes. On the island. Emily: On the island. And what is it about this flower that, like, compelled you to actually take action in such a short amount of time? Trevor: I felt it was something that we could, um, potentially save because it’s an isolated area, it’s not overwhelming. It’s an area that is so unique that people would want to get behind it. Think of it like a polar bear or a panda, you know? People get excited about those things and the Mallow is definitely, in Illinois, kinda’ like that. Rob: The distance from idea to action is so short here. We got, what, four acres cleared? Five acres cleared of the twenty, of the bigger invasive species. Uh, and also we were able to employ that novel restoration technique of rolling the fire to, uh, to stimulate germination. Emily: They were just laying in wait for somebody to come by and clear everything out. So, how many Mallows are here, right now? Trevor: From zero observed plants to, to about a thousand in one year alone. Rob: Let’s go look at all of them. Trevor: Yeah! Emily: Yeahh! Emily: [gasps] Rob: So, stately, look at this. Emily: Wow! Emily: It’s majestic! Emily: Look at it! Emily: Look at that! From extinction to seven feet tall. I think the Mallow is such a fantastic metaphor for, like, learning and creating opportunities for things that didn’t have opportunities before. Rob: And how to participate in our community, you know? Emily: Right. Rob: Getting rid of the selfish things that don’t want to participate in our community and the Mallow, if you plant it elsewhere, it can get kinda’ weedy. But here it knows how to participate. This is it’s home community. Emily: We brought it back home. Rob: That’s right. Emily: What I think love the most about this story, about the Mallow, is that it’s a story of hope. It’s a story of action, it’s a story about how a place that you may not think is incredibly unique is actually one of the most unique environments. Rob: It’s urgent hope, too. Emily: Yeah. Rob: It’s not just hope you get to, like, sit in your house and, uh Emily: Hope that someone else is working on. Rob: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. It’s hope that moves people to form a group of volunteers to come out here and restore this island, you know. It is hope that gets feet in the water and uh, on the island. Emily: I can’t believe I get to be one of the first people to see this thing in bloom, in over, like, ten years. Like, I’m actually feeling a little emotional right now. Rob: Yeah, I only hope that people don’t see this as a far away thing. That, “aw this is only a gift that the people of Illinois or the people of Burbanale, Illinois get to enjoy.” But there are like, genetic lines of plants that are waiting under the soil for you to come and save them right next door to you. Um, and that this is, there are special things that you can have these special moments, wherever you are, and uh so that’s really powerful. Emily: Good job guys. Rob: Good job, Trevor. Emily: I’m gonna wipe my tears on the leaf. Rob: Just say you’re sweating out of your eyeballs. Emily: Yeah, it’s so hot Rob: So humid in my eyeballs Emily: Are you cutting sweet onions in here or something? [Brain Scoop theme music] The Brain Scoop is made possible by the Field Museum and the Harris Family Foundation.

100 thoughts on “The Search for the Kankakee Mallow

  1. Instead of the sign saying "All plants … are protected by law." It should say pick these weeds, leave these flowers alone.

  2. was it really ok to tell the location? … I feel like people with cameras and too much time will descend like cicadas 🙁

  3. I have a question with a bit of a story.

    So, years ago, I forget what nature show I was watching, but there was an animal on the beach that couldn't make it into the water. It needed to be in the water to survive, but the narrator said that they didn't help it because it would interfere in the natural selection. As a kid, I bawled my eyes out knowing that the little guy was probably going to be killed by another animal and never make it into the water.

    But that idea of non interference stuck with me. I later learned that interference in the natural progression of a species may have unforeseen consequences, or it may not. But, either way, it was better to let nature take its course.

    That being said, I think you get where I'm going with this. That doesn't mean I'm against correcting human intervention (in other words, helping near extinct species return to good numbers after humans almost caused their extinction), but in this case, were the invasive species introduced through human activity or were they part of a natural progression that may have caused the less hardy mallow to go extinct on its own?

  4. I can't help but think a bit of work with a weed whacker would be a much more efficient use of their time.

  5. This is stupid. Who cares if this flower dies. It doesn't do anything good like provide food or ingredients for medicine. This flower "deserve[s] the right to live?" What about the clover and honeysuckle you're killing?

  6. Why are we helping these weak plants who can't even into evolution? I say we burn everything to the ground then let anything from anywhere in the world live there and we'll see which plants and animals can win.

  7. There's no such thing as "restoring" an island. Nature made its course and now it "decided" that other species are more fit to live there. Why do we want to force it back to some previous condition? There is no scientific foundation for this, and we don't get to decide which point in the history of the island is the right one. Maybe before the mallow other species where there and they got extinct by the mallow itself. That's just how it goes and it's naive and also wrong (IMHO) to think we can have a say in this as humans.

  8. I've never heard of that "plant panic" thing, that's pretty cool. But why is it not enough to break the stalk without pulling it up?

  9. o.O I'd love to help out some native plants, I just don't have the slightest idea where to start :/ . I'm also in the low lands so I often feel we don't have truly wild wildlife anymore 🙁 .

  10. 6:57 — "…creating opportunities for things that didn't have opportunities before "

    Cut to invasive Japanese beetle about to chow down on Kankakee Mallow leaves.

  11. By the way I really appreciate these excursions into the outside world. Makes me feel like I'm going outside too! …as I sit and watch YouTube videos by myself, in a dimly lit room, through the innernets.

  12. If you ever get the pleasure to come to Western Australia another super-dooper-rare flower to try and find is the Underground Orchid
    http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=20109

  13. Questions to whomever might know:
    1. Is this island historically the only documented range of the mallow?
    2. If the historical range is larger and can be documented, is it appropriate or proper to introduce the mallow to other parts of its historic range?
    3. How much danger is the mallow in if the Kankakee floods, as in 2009?
    4. Have seeds been saved either at the Field Museum or some other location?

  14. I'm live in my native Wisconsin where I battle garlic mustard and buckthorn trees. You've inspired me to harder work on this.

  15. Hey cool! Bourbonnais is my go-to halfway stop when I'm driving from my home in northwest Chicagoland to Charleston for grad school! I'll have to make an extra stop at the nature preserve the next time I'm there.

  16. That awkward moment when you zoom in on an invasive Japanese beetle chewing on the endangered mallow… 😓😓

  17. OK, not wanting to be a stick in the mud, but what's the point here? I mean, going out of your way to save some species from extinction, wasting resources and stuff. After all, there's this little thing called evolution, which, unless it'd affect OUR species in any direct or indirect way, we shouldn't be meddling with (thinx I), no matter what our feelings might be; it's only natural. So yeah, pandas and mallows are cute, but if mankind's continuing existence is not in any way threatened by their impeding doom, as far as I'm concerned, fuck 'em. Nature's lab never ceases cooking up stuff, guys; if you want something cool to observe, just be patient and keep observing, or make your own critters, if you are qualified for that – we're part of nature, after all, so genetic manipulation is just a more sophiscated form of evolution.

  18. I bet there's some great pokemon on that island. lol. in all seriousness great video. great plant. great work

  19. Love this! So excited to learn about endemic species like this! (also, Asiatic honeysuckle totally IS evil)
    I like how Trevor described the mallow as a charismatic species – you don't hear many people say that about plants

  20. I'll leave the ethical discussion about human intervention to others; but for the purposes of a video there is a strange order of events here:
    1. Put up sign saying plants etc are protected by law
    2. Proceed to remove some plants, and cut down some shrub saplings

  21. What a great video!! So exciting to get to see people's efforts to preserve and restore actually pay off.

  22. Anyone else notice he is rowing but the boat isn't going anywhere? It's a shame because he was really putting his back into it.

  23. I hope that in the near future the plant will flourish and continue to grow. Oh, how I wish to see it in person.

  24. thx for this interestingly ha bisky vlog and i bet there could be more of those flowers if you are able to get some of their seeds and plant them else where like in green houses

  25. By the way Emily, what on Earth were you carrying in that massive sack on your back? Was it the drone for the flyover shot? Lunch for 12? A small child to draw away predatory animals?

  26. well, it was untouched, until 41 K viewers saw it on internet , knowing it's natural, isolated and reachable ….. so ….

  27. How cool this is! I will share this story. It's a story with many great messages, a happy ending, and likely… for many, an inspirational one for new beginnings.

  28. I totally agree that it should be encouraged to grow in its original habitat, but I can't help wondering whether or not asking for volunteers to grow the plant in nearby parts of Illinois from say Kankakee to Chicago or north wouldn't be prudent after it gets larger than a thousand plants.

    I'd put some in my yard in the Beverly neighborhood of Chicago. There are many State Parks like Starved Rock where it might do well and is the Field museum or someone else keeping replant-able seed stock?

    Great episode!

  29. Unfortunately, I noticed at about 7:00 that a Japanese beetle was eating it. Another invasive species that's even harder to deal with.

  30. Not only is this really cool, but I love how there were several shots included which demonstrated how the plant interacts with the ecosystem, be it with ant or beetle, subtly showcasing its importance on this island.

  31. what's funny is that the state park this island is in sprays hundreds of gallons of weed killer throughout the park and trails. it's ridiculous. and these guys used herbicides to kill invasive species on the island during the "restoration". aren't herbicides one of the main causes of invasive species to begin with?

  32. 7:12 "getting rid of the selfish things that don't want to participate in our community" So getting rid of old republicans then? We need an organization for that. They're stifling the growth and development of the nation and won't even live long enough to feel the effects of climate change that the younger generations will have to endure. We can't pretend anymore that all sides are equal. There is the truth and then there is republican dogma.

  33. I love that you tested up – there’s nothing wrong or embarrassing about getting teary over nature!

  34. It's now 2018. I sure hope enough of these dedicated people are still protecting this tiny island.
    I love how untouched it is too. I'd love to go there but physically it would be very hard. But more importantly I think it should mostly be left alone without a lot of tourists.
    Thanks for the virtual YouTube tour though. With YouTube I've traveled all over & learned so much. Especially on how to disect an animal from Emily in a way that's absolutely fascinating.

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