By Andrew Van Gorp on 25 July, 2015

Today we are joined by Robb Telfer, who grew up in Joliet and Elwood- Cook County, Illinois next to the Midewin Tallgrass Prairie. Robb is both an award-winning performance poet and an environmental organizer with the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Robb is currently campaigning to make the Kankakee Mallow the State Flower of Illinois. Robb, thank you so much for coming today.

Huzzah!

Robb, I’m so curious about your most recent project. You want to replace the Violet with the Kankakee Mallow as the State Flower of Illinois, and we will get to that more a bit later. But I want to start with what I think is the most poignant thread of this story, which is the history of State Flowers to begin with. 

Now, many people don’t realize this, but the tradition of State Flowers was started right here in Chicago at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, or World’s Fair as many people know it today. Did you know this?

I did not!

Yeah! I did a little research and found that a group of radically visionary women called The World’s Congress of Representative Women organized about 500 women speakers from 27 different countries to voice concerns on women’s rights. (There was just one Women’s Congress to the 100 Men’s Congresses present, and yet the Women’s Congress was the most highly attended). At this exhibition women organized to decorate their state exhibits with a flower with which the state could be identified, calling it the, “National Garland of Flowers.” This movement inspired other nature-lovers throughout the country to establish State Birds, Animals, Plants etc., essentially setting off a firestorm fervor for conservation education.

It seems fitting to me that in the birthplace of this movement, Illinoisans are considering changing the state flower to evolve with the changing needs of Illinois. More specifically in your campaign, raising awareness for a species that can only be found in one location of Illinois, on an island, is that correct?

Yes, the sole wild population of the Kankakee Mallow is on Langham Island in the Kankakee River, and it is unfortunately near extinction. This matters because of the genetic diversity a wild population represents.  

Do you have any idea how many Kankakee Mallow there are left in the total population?

No, since work has been happening this year with Trevor Edmonson and the Friends of Langham Island to clear the invasive brush that’s subdued wild mallows, we can’t say for certain how many plants are asleep in the seed bank there.  We hope lots.  A wet spring has prevented us from safely making it to the island to see how the plants are doing where we did restoration work.  Doesn’t mother nature know we’re trying to help!?

So, do you believe that we in this region will be able to save the Kankakee Mallow?

I think we’ve saved it this time, and it’s up to us to tell this story about how we almost lost it- to prevent it from happening again.  Last year a trip of plant nerds discovered that the invasive brush had prevented any living mallows from coming up – and they all knew how threatened this population was.  More work has to be done to create feasible long term stewardship.  Programs like the Chicago Botanic Gardens’ Plants of Concern are a great way to ensure we keep track of these threatened plants and protect them from impending doom.

You’ve spent a lot of time and energy promoting this idea of changing our State Flower. What makes it worth it to you? Do you feel a certain attachment to this specific flower, or are you just passionate about saving any species on principle?

I am attached through virtue of familiarity – which is funny since I’ve never even seen it alive in the wild.  I started this campaign as a way to publicly talk about the need for human intervention and protection to keep the wild spaces of Illinois not just wild, but biodiverse and healthy.  When the concept of forest preserves were invented over 100 years ago, we thought it was enough to just protect the land from destruction.  It turns out, the land has to be restored periodically too so we can keep the invasives out.  So I want the mallow to be our State Flower because I want all plants in our state to share the kind of protection they need to survive in the wild.

I saw that a few local nurseries are selling this rare flower. Is there any kind of oversight to determine from where nurseries are sourcing their seed?

I don’t know the exact story, but when the mallow was first discovered, samples were taken a few times, and planted in various places.  The seeds and plants you can get commercially have too much human cultivation to be considered wild (I’m not a scientist, but this is how I understand it). When you obtain a plant to make a version of it for sale, you are basically isolating one gene pool and breaking it off from what evolved naturally.  (This is a problem when we see things like commercial cavendish bananas all cloned from the same banana that are now all susceptible to the same killer fungus). So it’s not so much a problem that people grow ANY native plants in their gardens, including the mallow, it’s only a problem if those cultivated seeds or plants are then “reintroduced” into the wild.  When we collect and redistribute seeds or plants in restored sites, their genetic sourcing has to be directly from the ecosystem we’re planting them in.  I have lots of endangered plant species in my home garden that I bought from a nursery – including Iliamna Remota (Kankakee Mallow) – and I’m sure the pollinators are happy about that, but I better not throw the seeds into wild places after they set.  That would be disruptive in the long-run. 

It sounds like you are succeeding on multiple fronts. Not only are you raising awareness for the Kankakee Mallow’s threatened status in Kankakee County, but you are also raising awareness in the general public that there are species in our Counties that we have the power to save from extinction, right now.

That’s the idea.  In many ways, unless we create habitat corridors that connect every preserve and park in the state, biologically each place IS an island like Langham.

What can the everyday citizen do to help your cause?

Seek out volunteer restoration efforts in your local wild places.  If you are extra mobile, seek out the restoration efforts happening all over the state right now with groups like Habitat 2030 and Sustain DuPage.  People can always support through donations to various programs and spread the word to other folks who are uninformed or uninitiated.  There’s a lot of biological treasure to be discovered in this state and if we act now, we can save it.  Oh, and should we ever get to make it a vote with the state, don’t be shallow, vote for mallow!

Thank you so much for your time Robb Telfer.

My pleasure.

 

 

Don't be shallow vote for mallow kankakee mallow for state flower

 

 

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