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Meet the Kankakee Mallow: a Flower Only Found on a Small Island in Illinois

Few things in life are truly unique, but the Kankakee Mallow (Iliamna remota) flower is truly deserving of the descriptor; it only grows on a 20-acre island in the middle of the Kankakee River in Illinois.

Aside from being endemic to just one small sliver of land, the Kankakee Mallow became even rarer over the last several decades, as invasive species began to take over its turf. Until last year, it had not been seen in the wild in over a decade and was believed to have possibly gone extinct. Then, a community of passionate volunteers decided to step in.

Thanks to Habitat2030 and the Friends of Langham Island, the Kankakee Mallow has reemerged, with hundreds observed on the island in the year since its rescue began. In the video above, Emily Graslie of The Brain Scoop tags along with Robb Telfer of The Field Museum and Trevor Edmonson on a visit to the island to pull weeds and peep at the rare plant in person.

For even more on the Kankakee Mallow, visit In Defense of Plants.

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Naonobu Noda/NARO
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science
Japanese Scientists Engineer 'True Blue' Chrysanthemums
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Naonobu Noda/NARO

The land of the square watermelon has done it again: Japanese scientists have created the world's first blue chrysanthemums. They described their process and results in the journal Science Advances.

Nature doesn't make a whole lot of blue things. Out of the 280,000 species of flowering plants on Earth, less than 10 percent make blue flowers. But these are hipster flowers, flying low under the public radar. There's no real market for them. Blue roses, carnations, lilies, or chrysanthemums, though: now those are products florists could take to the bank.

Or they could, if scientists could get them to work. Flower experts have been trying to breed blue flowers for centuries, to no avail. The horticultural societies of Britain and Belgium even put up a cash prize in the 1800s for the first person to breed a true blue rose. Nobody won.

But bioengineering is a lot more sophisticated than it used to be. Today's plant experts can tinker with an organism's genetic code to coax it into doing things nature never intended it to do. By 2005, scientists sponsored by the Japanese company Suntory had that blue rose—although "blue" may be a generous term.

Next up for researchers was the chrysanthemum, a species that may be even more significant than the rose in Japan. Chrysanthemums are everywhere there, appearing on coins, passports, clothing, and art. They symbolize autumn, but also the monarchy, the imperial throne, and the nation of Japan itself. Making a blue mum would be a huge cultural achievement (not to mention a potential goldmine).

Researchers from Suntory and Japan's National Agriculture and Food Research Organization decided to swipe a few tricks from two preexisting blue flower species, Canterbury bells and the butterfly pea. Both species owe their color to pigments called anthocyanins. These pigments appear in chrysanthemums, too, but a slightly different molecular structure means that they make red and purple petals, not blue ones.

By swiping multiple genes from the two blue species and adding them to the mum's genetic blueprint, the scientists were able to reshape the chrysanthemum anthocyanins to make what botanists call "true blue."

Blue color swatches among blue chrysanthemum flowers.
Naonobu Noda / NARO

Once again, "blue" may be a generous term.

"Their flowers are like a cool lavender at best," artist and biohacker Sebastian Cocioba, who is trying to genetically engineer a blue rose, told Gizmodo. "I could never feel comfortable calling that blue."

The researchers acknowledge that they've got more work to do, and say they have ideas for how to create a bluer flower. "However," lead author Naonobu Noda noted to Gizmodo, "as there is no [single] gene to realize it, it may be difficult."

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This Is What Flowers Look Like When Photographed With an X-Ray Machine
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Dr. Dain L. Tasker, “Peruvian Daffodil” (1938)

Many plant photographers choose to showcase the vibrant colors and physical details of exotic flora. For his work with flowers, Dr. Dain L. Tasker took a more bare-bones approach. The radiologist’s ghostly floral images were recorded using only an X-ray machine, according to Hyperallergic.

Tasker snapped his pictures of botanical life while he was working at Los Angeles’s Wilshire Hospital in the 1930s. He had minimal experience photographing landscapes and portraits in his spare time, but it wasn’t until he saw an X-ray of an amaryllis, taken by a colleague, that he felt inspired to swap his camera for the medical tool. He took black-and-white radiographs of everything from roses and daffodils to eucalypti and holly berries. The otherworldly artwork was featured in magazines and art shows during Tasker’s lifetime.

Selections from Tasker's body of work have been seen around the world, including as part of the Floral Studies exhibition at the Joseph Bellows Gallery in San Diego in 2016. Prints of his work are also available for purchase from the Stinehour Wemyss Editions and Howard Greenberg Gallery.

Dr. Dain L. Tasker, “Philodendron” (1938)
Dr. Dain L. Tasker, “Philodendron” (1938)

X-ray image of a rose.
Dr. Dain L. Tasker, “A Rose” (1936)

All images courtesy of Joseph Bellows Gallery.

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