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Monday, August 25, 2014

Survivor: Langham Island

The amazing story of the obliteration
(and coming miraculous rebirth)
of one of Illinois’ most globally significant natural areas.

There is no other island like it. Why do rare plants seemingly flock there? Given that it has the highest protection possible under Illinois law – how did its rare nature become nearly totally obliterated? And what rare force is coming to its rescue?

One day in 1872 the Reverend E.J. Hill somehow reached the shores of an obscure little island in the Kankakee River. What to his wondering eyes should appear but an unequalled treasure of rare plants – certainly more than any comparable little spot in The Prairie State.

To start, he found a plant known from no other site in the world. How rare is that? Illinois once had two plant species found nowhere else. The other was an obscure (almost invisibly small) saprophyte, American thismia. It was found only in two marshes just south of Chicago. No one has seen one alive since Dr. Norma Pfeifer found it for a few years ending in 1916.

But the plant Rev. Hill found on Langham Island was bold and beautiful. Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) grows six feet tall with big delicate pink flowers. Not content to find such a rarity, Hill also soon identified the second rarest of the 20-acre island’s many rare or endangered plants – the leafy prairie clover (Dalea foliosa). Although this species does live in one spot in Alabama and a few in Tennessee, it was long thought lost from Illinois (re-found by Jerry Wilhelm near Lockport in 1974).
Kankakee mallow

Is Rev. Hill a hero for these discoveries? To be honest, there’s a dark side. He thought for a year about that rare prairie clover, returned to the island, searched carefully and located only five plants. He then dug up four of them, roots and all, making off with this booty “for science.”

Alarm! Is this not wickedness? And by a man of the cloth! How could a person knowledgeable enough to recognize this gem not see the sinful nature of ripping it from its rare habitat? Clearly he’d thought about it. His notes point out that he did leave one – so as not to eliminate the species from the island. Did he ask that stranded waif how it felt about having no partner left to breed with? The leafy prairie clover was never seen again on Langham Island.

The history of Langham is sparse. Someone planted corn on much of the high ground for a while. In 1920, botanist W.N Clute looked for what he called “America’s Rarest Plant.” He found only one Kankakee mallow, worried about it, and to be on the safe side, dug it up and moved it to his garden.  

Does this plant mysteriously come and go? Kankakee mallow was indeed found in later years on the island, sometimes by the hundreds. And the rare mallow finally found a friend. On January 24th, 1966, this most ecologically precious island in Illinois was dedicated as the 3rd site in the State’s ownership to get Illinois Nature Preserve status.

The Illinois Nature Preserves system was (and perhaps is) an inspired world model, initiated by the indefatigable and revered George Fell. The Nature Preserves Commission had begun dedicating preserves in 1964. Great Men And Women had worked tirelessly to conceive and establish this new concept. Once dedicated, a tract is “at its highest and best use for public purpose” by being left as nature. Now little Langham was blessed with the world’s most permanent and ironclad form of protection. (Ironclad? The test of that claim was soon to come!)
Langham Island as it appeared in 1938. Some of the very rare plants found here include buffalo clover (Trifolium reflexum) and northern corn salad (Valerianella umbilicata), both of which are known to sprout after hot fires.  
And while the great George Fell didn’t dig up anything with a trowel, he did contribute one obstacle to Langham’s survival. George didn’t like the public all that much. (Some would consider those words an understatement.) He loved nature, and after seeing what people had done to it in Illinois, you can excuse him for casting a jaundiced eye on his own species. Certainly Fell thought the principal role of Nature Preserves status was to protect plants and animals from people.

The early documents of the Nature Preserves System repeat the same refrain over and over: No cutting trees. No mowing. No burning. No recreation. No buildings even for preserve purposes inside the dedicated area. No digging, ditching, draining, flooding, mosquito control, fish stocking. No pollution, of course. No hunting or killing anything. No jogging, cross-country skiing, swimming, archery. No walking off trail without a permit, to be issued for valid scientific purposes only. Fell begged: Oh God, people! There’s so little left! Leave it alone!

This attitude is understandable – perhaps noble. But the vision will be sustained only by public support (hint: that requires people). Also – entirely missing from this view of nature is the later-established fact that native American people had interdependencies with nature, and most Illinois ecosystems utterly require burning for good health. Ever since the retreat of the glaciers – fire came mostly from native people; and these days, nature preserve burning is done by purposeful stewards.

When land managers discovered that invasive species were a threat, the Commission was initially reluctant to approve measures to kill them. When scientists recommended prairie burns, great battles were needed to influence the cautious Commissioners to authorize them. To burn woodlands was not even on the agenda for discussion.  

So then, during these debates in the sixties and seventies, just what was happening to the seemingly isolated and protected Langham Island? The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory looked at it in the mid seventies. This influential study established the sobering fact that only 7/100ths of 1% of Illinois forests, prairies, and wetlands survived. It characterized Langham as a forest with “no known threats” and commented that natural succession would improve the habitat for the Kankakee mallow “if it is a forest species.”  

Inventory biologists also recommended research on the mallow’s natural habitat. Illinois state botanist John Schwegman took up the challenge. He reported that the original surveyors of the island noted in 1834 that island was “beautifully timbered” with “burr oak, white oak and hickory.” Later reports described the habitat of the mallow as “dry banks,” “open woods,” and “rocky grassy slopes.” Schwegman found that the mallows, formerly present by the thousands, numbered only 109 flowering stems in 1981. Worse, the mallow was not reproducing.

The few mallows left were in the sunniest parts of this now brushy island. Schwegman and colleague Bill Glass began cutting alien shrubs and lighting experimental burns. This work seemed to protect the existing plants, but there was still no reproduction. Then, a breakthrough: where woody brush burned, creating a hotter fire than burning dry leaves or grass, suddenly the ground sprouted with seedling mallows along with seedlings of some of the island’s other endangered species. A sigh of relief! Now Langham would recover?

According to a 2006 conference poster by April L. McDonnell, Henry R. Owen, and Sean C. Jones of Eastern Illinois University, restoration efforts recommended by Schwegman were implemented for almost 20 years. There was an overall increase in the mallow population from 109 stems in 1981 to 1,646 stems in 2002. Yet, according to the poster, “… management of this island has been lacking since 2003, which may increase the potential for declines in the population.”

Did conservationists need to be concerned? Some nature preserves owned by little agencies had suffered badly from a lack of stewardship. But certainly a high-priority nature preserve owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources would be okay. Or would it? Funding for nature in the Land of Lincoln plummeted under our most recent (and now incarcerated) governor. There have been some improvements under our current governor, but considering the economy he inherited, how much restoration of the biodiversity program could be expected all at once? And there never has been remotely enough, considering. 

Thus it would transpire that on August 2nd 2014, the apparently optimistic and innocent botanists of the Illinois Native Plant Society sponsored a trip to this special island as part of their annual meeting nearby. What a great idea! We'd got conference info about all the rare plants and were excited! Two dozen of us paddled down the Kankakee and wobbled out of our canoes onto the beach. We then hiked up and down the southwest shore of the island, where the densest stands of the rarest plants once stood. We found none.

Thick briars and gnarly brush kept most people standing along the shore, disoriented. They kept asking, “Are we sure we’re on the right island?” An intrepid few crashed through branches to discover the hidden Eden that must be somewhere. Open woods? Grassy slopes? One by one the explorers emerged, tired, bleeding. No one seemed angry, just confused, perhaps depressed. The whole island was brush. None of the famous rare plants of any species could be found anywhere.
Trevor Edmonson looks for remnants of Langham Island's "open grassy woods." He doesn't find any.
How could this be? No botanist-with-a-trowel problem, this disaster was island-wide. Back at the conference many of us pounced on poor Kim Roman – field rep of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission for Langham Island. Being generally polite introverts, we tried to formulate our questions in neutral language. Kim told person after person. “You have to understand, it’s just Dan and me. I have 72 preserves.”

When trip leader Rachel Goad of the Chicago Botanic Garden asked Kim if she’d authorize a volunteer group for the island, Kim said, “Oh! Yes! As far as I’m concerned. Let’s talk with Dan.”

Dan Kirk is the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Natural Heritage Biologist for the region. His job is impossible. DNR staff has been cut back from what was already insufficient to restore health to its woods, wetlands, and prairies. As Dan put it, “I used to play 'round-robin' doing a little bit of stewardship at each of my sites. But by the time I got back where I started, it was all undone. Spread that thin, you can’t accomplish anything that lasts. I had to focus on the preserves where the resources I had could do something sustainable.” Yes, indeed, he’d love for a volunteer team to tackle Langham. (Dan is responsible for 22 DNR-owned preserves in seven counties.)

If this case is a scandal, and we’re looking for someone to blame, we can’t heap it all on one jailbird governor and reduced staff. Just why is it that concerned people never heard of this disaster? Shouldn’t some “Friends of Nature” have been sounding the alarm? Government agencies don’t get resources unless there’s strong public demand.

Some people are now starting a “Friends of Langham Island” to help out, keep watch, and inform all who care. We're organizing a “kick-off workday” for September 13th. This island needs and deserves stewards.
Much of the precious island now looks like this. How could this be? And yet we know how it could.
Fortunately, some portions still have remnants of the grassy turf Langham once was known for. 
Langham will rise again.
Help build momentum at the first volunteer brush bash – Saturday, September 13th.
Spread the word. Join us.
It will be an inspired event.
  •         If you can, bring work gloves, loppers and hand-saws. We’ll have extras.
  •         We need a few boats. Park Superintendent Kathy Pangle has promised their canoe,        but the more “boats” we have, the more quickly we can ferry folks and tools back              and forth.
  •          Let us know if you might like to help organize this kick-off.

The kick-off is sponsored by the Illinois Native Plant Society, Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. By all means, come and bring your friends. We believe that a problematic history will change course – and start heading in the direction of inspiration. Let there be light – for the rare ecosystem of a magic island!   


Clute, W.N, 1920, The Rarest American Plant. The American Botanist. 26:127-29.

Schwegman, John E., Vascular Flora of Langham Island. Erigenia 11 (March 1981).

Schwegman, J. E. 1984. State of Illinois recovery plan for Iliamna remota. Greene. 111. Dept. of Conservation, Springfield, IL. 20pp.

Survey of the native, endangered Kankakee Mallow (2006 conference poster) Eastern Illinois University

Photos of the Kankakee mallow courtesy of Chris Benda. Thanks, Chris. 


  1. Twenty years ago I'd have joined you in a heartbeat. Thanks so much for what you're doing. Hope you get some good results.

    1. Some of us are very happy that the young (relatively) Trevor Edmonson is among the leaders of the kick-off. We can hope that many next generation leaders will be there shoulder-to-shoulder with him.

  2. This is so much bigger than the rescue effort, which is huge and remarkable. Where are our lobbyists, where are the people of great influence in preserving our lands? I know, I know, the State's a wreck, but shouldn't the people of this State know what a sinking ship we're in? Is media coverage planned for this? We need a "Dead and Dying--the Plight of the Native Lands of Illinois", a multi-part series. Two people for the entire State? Incredulous.

    1. No, not the entire state. Kim has "only" 72 nature preserves in seven counties.

      But I get your point. Many people (in and out of government) have raised the same one. I agree. But for the next few weeks, let's spread the word of the September 13th "rescue party" - and work on this positive thing - in part to show that people do indeed care!

  3. This is an eloquent and compelling story. I too hope that the next generation leaders, whose recent emergence has been a source of great pleasure for me, will take on this and other projects. Imagine this as the kickoff to advocacy groups for many more of our Nature Preserves!

    The story of Hill and Dalea foliosa is interesting, if only in its depiction of 19th Century collection-oriented botany. Though this approach built vast herbarium collections, its dangers are evident in this example. Hill wrote that he had been "unintentionally too good a collector, and probably extinguished the plant, though thinking enough had been left for seed." It was only with Pepoon's Flora of the Chicago Region that a prominent botanist decried the impact over-collecting was having on rare species. With digital photography and GPS, we can now leave detailed records without harming rare populations.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Let me respond to two issues you raise, gardens and girdling.

      As I understand it, natural populations will generally have characteristics (genetic alleles) not found in plants "rescued" to gardens. Yes, if all plants from natural populations are lost, then plants from gardens can play an important role in conservation. But it's by far the best for biodiversity conservation to save, defend, restore original populations in natural habitats under natural conditions. In the case of the Kankakee mallow, it has been shown to have a seedbank that responds to hot (wood fire) burns. When brush is cut and burned on many parts of the island, it's likely that the diverse gene pool will express itself again.

      Interestingly, when Langham Island's corn fields were abandoned, the mallow became common in them too. Therefore, seeds must germinate in the absence of wood fire as well. Other mechanisms have been speculated about, and possible research has been suggested, but I think our major work is cut out for us for now.

      As to the question of girdling, there are strong arguments for it. John Schwegman's original management plan for the island included girdling. Girdled trees will eventually fall over and burn, perhaps resulting in lines of mallows in historic patterns? But we are not planning girdling for our Langham Island "kick-off" events, in part because the immediate challenge to focus on is the huge problem with shrubs and saplings - and also because fall is not the best time for girdling. There will be much to think creatively about as we plan for the longer term, later.

  5. I took a picture of honeysuckle on an island downstream from Langham during the INPS meeting because it was impressively big. It does not seem to 'paste' into my comment.It is great that an effort is being made to restore Langham. I will be there. I hope the effort is successful.

  6. Islands are often refuges for unique flora and fauna. Mammoths survived on Wrangel Island up until around 2000 B.C. Lemurs survive on Madagascar even though their ancestors from mainland Africa went extinct long ago. Of course, the unique life found on the Galapagos is so well known that it does not even need description.

    The fact that Kankakee Mallow existed on Langham Island indicates that it must have been more widely dispersed at some point. It remains to be determined whether a seed bank remains.

    Those who grow native plants in gardens have on occasion saved species from extinction. The Kankakee Mallow may be another species to add to this growing list. If readers would like to help conserve this species by planting it in their home garden then seed and plants can be purchased from the below link. Seed of Dalea foliosa is also sold.

    It is rather ironic that rare fire-dependent plants inhabited an island. This gives even more credibility to the assertion that fires were deliberately set by the inhabitants rather than caused by lightning.

    I would like to help. Is anybody carpooling from longer distances like my area? Can I girdle or will only cutting, burning, and herbiciding be utilized?

  7. I just attended my first L.I. workday. What a great place and great people. There were at least two dozens volunteers there. People from as far away as Chicago and Winnetka.
    Floyd Catchpole paddled all of us out there and back in a canoe, 2 and 3 at a time! I think the next day is planned for Dec. 13, 2014. If you can make it, it's well worth the effort. Thanks to all for spearheading this huge undertaking.

    1. Yes, December 13th 10:00 AM til 3:PM is the next date. All hard workers very welcome. But if the river is treacherous with icebergs, we may have to cancel our some of our winter days. Check the Friends of Langham Island page on Facebook for the latest.