BOURBONNAIS, Ill.–A faint path, almost as elusive as a deer trail, wound up Langham Island from “the beach’’ where Trevor Edmonson grounded his rowboat.

He led Kim Roman, Stacey Johnson and me up the path on June 29, sidestepping a northern corn salad plant on our way, to see blooming Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota).

Kankakee mallow in its full flowering glory on Langham Island.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Kankakee mallow, flowering in clusters of faintly pink blooms vaguely smelling like lilac, is found wild only on Langham Island on the Kankakee River at Kankakee River State Park.

“In 2014, you couldn’t find any, but then you couldn’t walk up the bank without a fight and blood,’’ Edmonson said.

“It’s a much nicer walk through this time than the last time,’’ said Johnson, KRSP superintendent.

The reason for that goes back to 2014 when Friends of Langham Island was founded by Roman, Edmonson, Stephen Packard and Dan Kirk. There first work day drew 30 volunteers.

Work to bring back Kankakee mallow focused on battling invasives, particularly bush honeysuckle, which had taken over the island, and garlic mustard, sweet clover and buckthorn.

Edmonson figures they have about five or six acres of the island’s 20 acres cleared.

In trying to work on bringing back Kankakee mallow, Edmonson relied on notes kept by Bill Glass, who has long since moved on to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, and research by a student at Northeastern University.

Beating back invasives wasn’t the only issue. Native redbud was dominating, too. Well, so were deer.

The fence that matters in the restoration of Kankakee mallow.
Credit: Dale Bowman

“Before we had the fences, half were bitten off by the deer,’’ Edmonson said.

We found our way to the fenced enclosure on the crest of the island, Inside the fences, 6-foot high Kankakee mallow bloomed profusely.

“It is like a petting zoo,’’ Roman, of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, noted aptly.

The Chicago Botanic Garden funded the fencing. The posts came from KRSP. Edmonson said trail cameras often show deer around the fences. The day we were there, a deer had damaged one corner of the fence jumping over it.

The fence matters. Of 700 plants last year, 500 were inside of the enclosure.
Roman and Edmonson said one key to maintaining the island, beside battling invasives, are the prescribed burns, something easier to do on an island than other places.

The island is used by deer, but also beaver, coyote, raccoon, rabbits and squirrels. A Fowler’s toad was found on it. Many mussels can be found along the edges. Edmonson would like to see an insect survey done on the island.

In the 1980s, John Schwegman found 316 plant species on the island. Since restoration began, more plants have been documented.

“Hoping to find leafy prairie clover and buffalo clover,’’ Edmonson said. “Hoping when we open the island up more that they may show up.’’

For now, at least wild Kankakee mallow makes a comeback.

“This is a wild place,’’ Edmonson said. “There are not many places on the Kankakee in as pristine condition. Once cleared, it will be a nice guidepost for the river.’’

On the way out, we walked by wild dill (thicket parsley).

Asked why Kankakee mallow mattered, Edmonson said, “At least for me, it is kind of like the polar bear: you want as much diversity as possible.’’

Work days are typically in the fall or spring. Find Friends of Langham Island on Facebook or at langhamisland.org.

A close-up look at Kankakee mallow on Langham Island.
Credit: Dale Bowman