Born from the Ashes

You know that part in Game of Thrones where the dragon eggs hatch when they’re put in fire? This is like that, but with a super-endangered flower.

Illinois’s only native wildflower, the Kankakee mallow, has been missing from this state for years—it was presumed extinct in its native habitat. But this year, Field Museum scientists and volunteers from the Friends of Langham Island group were able to bring it back. Their secret? Setting fire to the ground where the plants once lived.

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“Mallow seeds respond to fire,” explains Robb Telfer, Field Museum ecologist and Calumet Outreach Coordinator. “If you get them hot enough, the seed coat breaks, and the plant is able to grow.”

Kankakee mallow once grew thick on Langham Island in Kankakee, Illinois, about sixty miles southwest of Chicago. The plants have since been choked out by invasive species, but their seeds lay dormant in the ground. Last winter, the team went to the island and rolled burning logs across long strips of land to try to activate the buried seeds.

“It was a leap of faith,” said Telfer. “We had to trust the seed bank, trust that there were viable mallow seeds in the soil that could grow.”

The team waited until summer to see if the fire’s heat had broken the seed coats so that they could sprout. They took a boat out to the island and found 900 baby mallow plants, growing in the strips where they’d rolled the burning logs. The sprouts were bright green—they don’t bloom their first year, but by next summer, they’ll be five feet tall with pale pink blossoms. (And if you’re wondering, yes—Kankakee mallow is related to the plants marshmallows are made from.)

“I was so overjoyed to see them—it seems like witchcraft, magic craziness, that it knows to grow if there’s fire,” says Telfer. “Seeds are crazy. Seeds don’t make sense. Science is weird.”

“This was a huge jolt—it shows we did enough work to save it, but our work is far from done. It takes a lot of work for the place to be able to take care of itself,” Telfer explains. In upcoming years, conservation workers will continue removing invasive species and encouraging native plant growth to bring the area back to its original ecosystem.

Telfer stresses that you don’t need to be a scientist to take part in this conservation work—he’s a poet who got involved with conservation work when he got cabin fever a few winters ago. If you’re interested in volunteering to help restore the Illinois wilderness, shoot him an email at rtelfer@fieldmuseum.org or visit our website.

Photos by Christopher David Benda and the Friends of Langham Island.