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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Myth or Miracle? Unexpected news of relatively instant gratification on Langham Island

Thought to be extinct in its only natural habitat, this insanely rare endangered species is back. Volunteer stewards and fire did the trick. 
Gone for years from its island Nature Preserve - its only natural home on planet Earth - the super-endangered Kankakee mallow sprouted around our first bonfires – after a mere six weeks.
But are these little leaves really that rare plant?
A passionate three-dozen hard-workers predicted the possibility of miracles when we started this historic restoration and rescue on September 13th. (For backstory, see post: “Survivor:Langham Island.") But we in the ecosystem rescue discipline normally expect major results to take years. Thus, yesterday, so soon after our mighty kick-off work party, we at first didn’t even think to check the edges of our six-weeks-earlier brush pile burns. But, toward the end of the day, we noticed unfamiliar fat little cotyledons coming up by the dozens. The rare mallow was said to germinate after hot fires. But this late in the season? really? October 25th? could they already be popping up so impatiently? (Spoiler alert: indeed they did, and matured rapidly enough to flower a mere two years later.)

Many of us said, “Get real. It’s probably just some weed.”

Then Don Nelson looked more carefully at the edges of those burn circles. He noted some seedlings making their first real leaves. It can be hard to know for sure from those very early leaves. But they sure looked kinda sorta right.

Cotyledons (the first photosynthetic surfaces that unfold out of the germinating seed) tend to be very simple. But the first true leaf, emerging above, looks like tthe typical five-lobed mallow leaf. (Seedling photos by Lisa Culp.)

Two years later, sure enough, it looked like this: 
Some clusters of older seedlings are starting to look even more
like the rare Kankakee mallow (
Iliamna remota).

One person, familiar with the adult plants, felt the texture of the leaves. They didn’t feel right, she said. Another person said, “They’re young, possibly pre-pubescent.” Another person, who’d raised the species in a garden said, “They look like Iliamna to me.”

Back when we launched this mission, we had to admit that we didn’t know for sure if we’d ever see the rare mallow again. We had faith, based on our knowledge of the species' ecology. But it never crossed our minds that we might see baby mallows before next spring.

“Why would they germinate now?” one person asked. “Won’t the cold kill them? Wouldn’t the roots frost-heave out of the ground over the winter?”

Another said, “The plant may know what it’s doing. This is a species that is dependent on fire. It may have to make do with whatever fires it can get.” Of course, additional seeds may germinate in the same areas next spring. Or not. Maybe they'll be the only ones to survive. Or not. If the ones we’re seeing now survive, maybe they’ll have a head start and be the only ones to sink roots deep enough to survive when summer's drought sets in, if it does. 

This adventure seems on the fast track. 

For reports from later, click here and here

Credits: Seedling photos by Lisa Culp. Blooming plant photo by Chris Benda.


  1. Doesn't it always seem to be the case that the rare plants grow right on the edge of the burn scar? It seems brush piles would be better made in long lines to increase habitat for rare plants.

    1. Last night I kept thinking about how brush piles could be made in long lines to increase the habitat for rare plants. The problem is … fire likes to advance up and not sideways.

      I then had an interesting thought. We often push material from the periphery into the fire so the unburned material will be consumed. My thought was … could we roll the burning brush pile along the ground? This would make long lines that would provide increased habitat for rare plants and would limit the heat in any single location. We might even be able to reduce or possibly prevent soil sterilization.

      I then realized the best way to prevent soil sterilization might be to pile green wood up wind of the fire and continually pull the burning brush pile on top of it. The green wood would help insulate the soil from the most intense effects of the fire while also allowing the charcoal to sift down to the ground. This should create exactly the conditions we want while limiting the unwanted side effects.

      I think this idea is worth a try.

    2. James, you may be tickled to know that we did a number of experiments along the lines of your suggestions. One variant was to roll partially burned logs out of the pile at the end of the day to let them go out around the periphery. Some of the seedlings we found germinated because of this treatment at our first workday.

      A new approach that we tried on the 25th was much like what you called "rolling" the pile. We restricted heavy wood and then were able to move the burning stick pile around with a pitchfork. We vowed to bring some of those heavy fire rakes next time for the same purpose. We'll try to do this sort of thing in various ways and document the results.

    3. I’m glad to receive the response. I feared I had talked about brush piles so much that everyone was too tired of the conversation to bother responding.

      I do not think the heat from the fire is stimulating germination. I think germination is occurring because of the partially combusted wood that is at the edge of the fire (charcoal). Charcoal is well known for its ability to absorb chemicals. I think the charcoal is absorbing germination inhibitors and other allelopathic chemicals. I believe this, rather than heat, is leading to your observations.

      If you would like to test my hypothesis then you could bring a metal shovel and a bucket to the next workday. After the fire has burned down into coals use the shovel to put some of the coals into the water-filled bucket before spreading them around. If germination occurs in areas where quenched charcoal has been applied then you will know heat is not the important factor.

      There is another use for charcoal from the fire. The smoldering charcoal can be placed around woody species to girdle them. The heat from the charcoal kills the tissue on the outside of the stem. When done during periods with heavy snow accumulation soil sterilization around the stem is prevented. This is a method that I am currently testing. When I returned to check result after my initial test I did not notice any visible burn markings on treated stems. They must have been too frozen to burn. I knew damage from heat was occurring because I could smell the wood cooking. Since this method kills by girdling it will still be a couple of years until I am able to determine effectiveness. I will also have to test more stems before I can make any conclusions. If others test the above method we will be able to get results faster.

  2. Those little seedlings look like Iliamna to me too. Congratulations to all for your dedication and vision.

  3. i know this is old, but here's a study that shows that heat aids in germination of the mallow seeds.