Volunteers from near and far gathered Saturday morning at the Kankakee River State Park to catch a boat.
The boat, an aluminum v-hull with paddles, would take them about 50 yards across the Kankakee River to Langham Island where two conservation groups have revived the restoration of the island to save the Kankakee Mallow and the many other rare, native plant species that live there.
The end goal is to steward the 20-acre island’s ecosystem back to an oak-dominant savanna with hundreds of mallow in bloom, free of invasive species that cripple such growth.
The Kankakee Mallow, or Iliamna remota, grows 6 feet tall with large delicate pink flowers and is known to naturally occur only on Langham Island. Nowhere else in the entire world has the mallow been found growing naturally, though it has been made commercially available for garden settings.
The rare species hadn’t been seen for more than a decade, even thought to be extinct, until the Friends of Langham Island began the arduous work of cutting away overgrown brush and conducting prescribed “rolling bonfires” in 2014. The work paid off and in the summer of 2016, the first sun-loving mallows bloomed from one of the rolling burn scars, a technique known to encourage germination.
Since new surveying and planning began in September 2020, the newly formed Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves, joining forces with the Friends of Langham Island group, have cleared brush and invasive species growth from much of the mainland, as well as 80 percent of the island’s western slope, an area where the mallow is historically known to flourish among native grasses, Emma Leavens, volunteer site coordinator with FINP, said.
The group has also collected native plant seeds and spores they will use to help repopulate and restore the island.
“It’s pretty tremendous what we’ve accomplished so far,” Leavens said. “After a couple years of maintenance and monitoring, the native plants will begin to thrive again.”
The island was originally full of oaks and hickories and home to many rare and endangered plants, Stephen Packard, former Director of Science and Stewardship for the Illinois Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Two very rare clover species, leafy prairie clover, only found in a few places on earth, and buffalo clover, not seen since the 1800s, were once among the surveyed anomalies.
“This is an island of global importance,” Packard, who serves as a mentor for the project, said. “There’s no other island of its kind in the world and it deserves better care than it gets.”
Invasive species like Amur honeysuckle shrubs and boxelder and ash trees shrouded the sunlight and killed off the natural ecosystem needed for the native species’ growth.
Now, a dozen or so volunteers are continuing work to bring back the light.
And Leavens, along with several other volunteers who travel about an hour for the island workdays, hopes to get more of the local community involved.
“We need the local community’s help,” she said. “We would love for this to be more in the hands of local people that can look after it more closely.”
Langham Island workdays are set to continue on alternating Thursdays and Saturdays into January, as weather permits. The next event will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 5. Volunteers should meet at the Island View parking lot at the Kankakee River State Park. For more information, reach out to Emma Leavens at firstname.lastname@example.org.