Hitting the Pavement to Save Endangered Plants

Group of people posing next to river

What if a rare plant is living right in your backyard? Well, it just might be. But how do you find out it’s there, and what can you do with that information?

Right now, some local endangered plant species are making a surprise comeback. They grow in the Calumet region, which includes the southern part of Chicago and northern Indiana. Two kinds of sedge, a grass-like flowering plant, recently set down roots on a field of slag. This hard material comes from making steel and is usually seen as toxic to nature.  

“Even though we live in one of the most heavily urbanized parts of the world, there’s rare nature that occurs here and only here,” says Robb Telfer, Field Museum Calumet Outreach Organizer.

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A man in a wooded area taking a photo with a zoom lens
Robb Telfer documents a habitat restoration site in Calumet  

Telfer works with volunteers in Calumet to protect these endangered Illinois plants. He says that finding sedge in such an industrial place shows that people and plants can live together in urban areas. But native species still need people to look out for them if they’re going to survive in the long run. Volunteers can learn to identify different plants, track their populations, and remove invasive species that threaten them.

The Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) is Illinois’ only living native flower. It doesn’t grow naturally anywhere else in the world. And until recently, it was believed to be extinct. Working with the Friends of Langham Island group, Telfer and habitat restoration volunteers used a fiery process to wake up mallow seeds hibernating underground. Now, hundreds of young mallow plants are growing on Langham Island in Bourbonnais, Illinois.

Langham Island was also once home to the leafy prairie clover (Dalea foliosa). This federally endangered species lives in just three places in the country, including Illinois. Telfer and his colleagues are also working to reintroduce leafy prairie clover to Langham using 145 year-old seeds from The Field Museum’s herbarium. (Learn more about this project on The Brain Scoop.)

To help protect rare plants like these, join Robb Telfer and Field Museum researchers and volunteers in our habitat restoration volunteer events. All you need is a desire to learn more about your local wilderness—and a pair of muddy boots! 

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Two dried plant specimens, one yellow with large leaves and flowers, one green with many small leaves and seed pods
Left: Kankakee mallow specimen collected at Langham Island. Image from The Field Museum’s Herbarium. Right: Leafy prairie clover specimen collected at Langham Island. Image from The Field Museum’s Herbarium.