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MLA Full: "Restoring Habitats with Magic Beans." YouTube, uploaded by thebrainscoop, 25 February 2016,
MLA Inline: (thebrainscoop, 2016)
APA Full: thebrainscoop. (2016, February 25). Restoring Habitats with Magic Beans [Video]. YouTube.
APA Inline: (thebrainscoop, 2016)
Chicago Full: thebrainscoop, "Restoring Habitats with Magic Beans.", February 25, 2016, YouTube, 07:22,
145-year-old beans from the Field's botanical collections are being used today to help restore a local native plant habitat. How does that work? We talked with Robb Telfer - a poet, and a passionate 'plant nerd' - about how he became involved in working to de-extinct rare species of endangered legumes and flowers!

Do you live in or around the Chicago or Calumet regions? You can get involved with Robb and the Field's habitat restoration programs!

Follow along with Robb's work!:
twitter: @RobbieQT
tumblr/website: (Plants of Concern - the rare plant monitoring program we're partnering with) (Habitat 2030 - young-ish habitat restorers) (Illinois Native Plant Society)

Video on The Economic Botanical Collection:

Additional mallow photos by Christopher David Benda. Thanks!

Robb, THANK YOU for taking the time to talk with us about your work. You're an inspiration!
Come hang out in our Subreddit:
Twitters: @ehmee
Producer, Writer, Creator, Host:
Emily Graslie

Producer, Editor, Camera, Graphics:
Brandon Brungard

This episode is supported by and filmed on location at:
The Field Museum in Chicago, IL
[Brain Scoop theme plays]

Emily Graslie: Hey, we're here with Robb in the economic botany collection talking about plants. Robb, what do you do here?

Robb Telfer: I am the Calumet Outreach Coordinator, and I organize habitat restoration in the Calumet area. It's where you have three or four different ecosystems butting up against each other, all coming together where it's one of the most populous places in our country as well.

Emily: So you obviously care a lot about plants.

Robb: I do.

Emily: Plants are a big deal to you. But you're not a trained botanist.

Robb: Mmm mmm.

Emily: What is your background in?

Robb: My background is in performance poetry.

Emily: Poetry? How did you get interested in plants and conservation?

Robb: I started gardening and getting into conservation as a necessary extension for what I wanted to do to have action in my life, to actually change the course of the destruction that people have wrought.

One of the restoration projects I'm working on is the restoration of Langham Island in the Kankakee River, and it is home to the only living known flower to come only from within Illinois' borders.

It is this flower called Iliamna remota, or the Kankakee mallow, and in 2014, plant nerds went out to the island, and they went looking for this gem...

Emily: Sounds kinda like a Skyrim quest or something--

Robb: It was definitely a Skyrim quest.

Emily: --that you're going on...

Robb: You collected it from an NPC, and they're like "get me time Kankakee mallow." And they couldn't because there were none growing there. It was completely overrun with non-native honeysuckle, and a bunch of invasive species.

Emily: Things that just choke out the habitat that this little-- this mallow needs.

Robb: Exactly. The mallow, in particular, really likes fire. A lot of ecosystems evolved with regular fires. In Illinois, fire was just a regular part of life. The Native Americans who lived here would routinely burn large stretches of the prairie. Lightning would often strike the prairie and start a prairie fire. One thing about the Kankakee mallow, and a few other seeds, that is really cool, is, if it's touched by fire, the seed knows that fire has passed overhead. It's like "Oh, the coast is clear. It's time to open up and germinate."

Emily: Really?

Robb: Last winter, a year ago, some folks went out and cut down as much of the invasive brush as we could, and did this thing called a "rolling brush pile." They lit this this fire, had all these logs on fire, and then, with these other big sticks, they would roll the burning logs across the ground to get as much of the ground covered as possible with fire. And then, we just sort of like held our breath and waited to see if the flower would come back.

We were able to get there in August. Right where we had done the rolling burn pile, there was this carpet of baby Kankakee mallows.

Emily: Awwww

Robb: And they counted like almost a thousand of them.

Emily: Oh my gosh!

Robb: That had germinated because we had done that.

Emily: They were so happy.

Robb: They were so happy. And so were we. It was like a really special thing.

Emily: Oh, yeah. It doesn't seem like, without human involvement, that the Kankakee mallow has a chance out there. Unless you're sending people out every single year to do these rolling brush fires, does it have a chance?

Robb: A healthy ecosystem... a healthy oak ecosystem will produce enough for there to be regular fire-- enough fuel. So, we won't have to go out there and manage it in, like, this meticulous a way. We have to do a lot of work right now, and then, maybe every, like, three years, we can go out there, do a prescribed burn, which is less work than rolling it with these logs. A healthy ecosystem is a lot easier to maintain than a degraded ecosystem, where you're just struggling to keep certain rare plants alive.

Emily: The other question that I had has to do with your other project. Essentially, you're trying to de-extinct other Illinois species.

Robb: Yeah.

Emily: How does that work if there's no place to, like, introduce them to?

Robb: We have a bunch of plants that were collected from all over the world. We have about three million specimens in our herbarium.

We were looking through our digital collections, which you can do on the Internet. We noticed that the leafy prairie clover, which is now federally endangered-- it's an endangered species plant that's recognized by the government-- We saw that on our collections, there was, like, seeds, on the plant, like the seed heads were still good, uh, they were still attached. Leafy prairie clover is a legume, and a legume that everyone is probably familiar with are beans. And what's great about legumes, in particular, is the little coating that it has on the outside. It's like a little plastic...

Emily: A waxy coating.

Robb: Yeah, it's like a protective seal on it. And so, even though the seeds that we have in our collection are 130 years old, because of that little seal, there is a chance that we'll be able to germinate seeds from this population that is genetically linked to this super-rare location. It isn't de-extincting the entire species because there are other plants-- it's still endangered, but you can still get them in other places, but not that line. And so, people at the Chicago Botanic Gardens have 28 seeds from two different plants, and, uh, we're gonna practice a bunch on some existing seeds, and then we're gonna try to germinate those plants.

Say we don't get this magic seed to work. That's OK. What we'll have done is we'll have-- we'll make sure that on the island we have established as many of its associate plants as possible. If these 150-year-old seeds don't work, we'll still be able to reintroduce leafy prairie clover to this location, and that idea that we're trying to reconstruct these photographs in our brain of these ecosystems that we know of, that can lead restoration efforts all over the place.

Emily: What kind of advice do you have for other people who feel like-- they didn't study botany, they're not horticulturists, but, like-- how can we get the kids at home involved in this kind of, like, local conservation work?

Robb: Every place, no matter where you are, has its own Kankakee mallow, its own special species that is only from that place or a place like that. And all of those rare plants, rare species, rare animals, they need protection, and sometimes that can be through monitoring their populations. It can be through removing the species that are invading their habitat.

A native habitat, a habitat that has evolved in one geological place over a few millennia, that is a very special-feeling place. That is a place that is alive in a way that can't be duplicated. And so, the work that you can do is, basically, to let that place thrive, let it be itself.

And that's the kind of work that I think anyone can participate in. It just-- it requires empathy that is large enough to accept that all species deserve to be themselves.

Emily: Aww.

Robb: Aww.

Emily: That's a nice sentiment.

Robb: I think so. It gets me up in the morning.

Robb: Yeah, that's great. I think what you do is pretty cool.

Robb: Me too.

Emily: Yeah.

Robb: Anyone can volunteer, anytime. Call me up.

[Brain Scoop outro plays]

Emily: It still has brains on it...