Kathleen Garness helps collect data on rare plant species. | Submitted photo

Kathleen Garness can credit a fascination with orchids to leading her to the land restoration work she does today. 

Garness is originally from Chicago’s North Side. She used to frequently walk past a flower shop called Minim while living in the Boystown neighborhood in Chicago. At the time, Garness wasn’t making a lot of money but she made a habit of buying at least one plant and placing it on her windowsill. 

She was mesmerized by the shop.

“It was like no flower shop I’d ever seen before…[it] was like walking into the jungle…and I thought I have never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life,” Garness said. 

She became friends with the storeowner and became fascinated with learning about orchids. This love of orchids  eventually led Garness to stumble upon land restoration work. 

But Garness’ love of nature started decades before that first visit into Minim.  

She said her first memory of a plant occurred when she was four years old. Garness started to notice plants sprouting up from the sidewalk near the tall apartment building she lived in.

“I must have thought, how strong this little plant must be to be able to find its way through a little teeny crack in the sidewalk,” she said.  

To Garness, this was a tale of resilience and instilled in her an appreciation for the Earth.

When Garness was a child, her mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was sent away to a sanitarium. Garness lived with her aunt and uncle for a year while her mother was treated.   

Her aunt had a garden and taught Garness the names of different plants.

When Garness was in her 20s when she found a book called “Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region.” After reading the book, she realized there was a native orchid population in Illinois. 

The book was published in the late 1980s. Garness wondered if orchids were still thriving in Illinois.  

A trip in 2002 to REI with her son, who was buying boots for his Boy Scouts trip, led her closer to the answer to her question. 

She met Steven Frankel there, a biology professor from Northeastern Illinois University. 

Frankel didn’t know the answer to her question but he connected her to someone who he thought might at the Chicago Botanic Garden. 

From this chance connection, she got involved with the Plants of Concern program which operates out of the Chicago Botanic Garden. The program focuses on collecting data on rare plant species. Garness has been working with Plants of Concern for about 17 years. 

She spends many of her days pulling up invasive species like garlic mustard seed and teaching volunteers about land restoration. 

Ken Klick, who is a restoration ecologist of the Lake County Forest Preserve District, was teaching Garness about rare plants one day. He pointed out several plants to Garness, some of which were around three inches tall.

From this experience, Garness learned that land restoration has applications past just learning about different plant species. 

“They all kind of looked the same until I started looking much more closely and learning about their lifestyles, which is something that I think we need to do with people as well,” Garness said.

She thinks learning about people’s stories will help push back against prejudice and ignorance.

There is a need for individuals’ stories to be heard today, Garness said, especially in a news climate that seems to prize divisive and aggressive voices.

One of the most challenging parts of her work is to get young people away from screens and into nature. 

But she has hope about the millennial generation when it comes to respecting the Earth.

“I feel that people of my son’s generation have a lot more common sense. I feel that there’s a trend away from unconscious consumption,” Garness said.