Vanishing wildflowers

``Save the whales'' is a familiar battlecry. But ``Save the sun-facing coneflower''? It's a cry that needs to be heeded, however, if wildflowers in the United States are to survive.

``Although it's very difficult to prove absolutely that any plant is extinct,'' says Dr. John Fay, a botanist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program, ``to the best of our knowledge 60 species of our native flora no longer exist, with 200 others in serious question.''

What's more, approximately 3,000 additional species, a full 10 percent of the native flora in this country, are now threatened.

The problem is more acute in some states than others. Hawaii is the most extreme, with 40 percent of its native flowers threatened. But virtually every state has plants already on the endangered list, or ones thought likely to be added soon.

While numbers like this can sound quite discouraging, there is much the average person can do. The simplest place to begin is with some self-restraint, suggests Barbara Ellis, publications director and editor for the American Horticultural Society.

``When most people see a field full of unusual wildflowers, they don't realize that picking an armful can have an overall effect,'' explains Ms. Ellis, ``but if just 100 of these people were content to enjoy what they were seeing and leave the flowers be, it could make a very real difference.'' (The problem with picking flowers in the wild is that it prevents seed development; consequently those plants won't reproduce.)

The key word to remember here is ``unusual.'' Wildflower conservation does not focus on every native species, but only on those with small populations growing in few places. Larry Morse, director of National Scientific Data Bases for The Nature Conservancy, offers the following criterion:

``Be careful of picking quantities of any flowers that aren't abundant in your area'' or known to be common in other areas.

Casual observation is a clue to what's common in your locale. To find out what is not, write the US Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program for a free copy of the Notice of Review for Plants, a capsule version of the federal endangered and threatened species lists. (Endangered Species Program, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C. 20240.) The review indicates the range of species by state. For specific state or regional information contact The Nature Conservancy, 1800 N. Kent St., Arlington, Va. 22209.

Resist the temptation to dig up any plant, especially a woodland shade plant. Even when the motivation is protection, transplanting to a home garden doesn't work as a conservation strategy. ``Many species are soil or habitat specific and will not survive,'' says Barbara Ellis. ``But even if they do, home gardeners are likely to move in a few years, and most won't take their gardens with them.''

Satisfy your desire for a wildflower garden by buying plants from reputable nurseries or mail-order catalogs. Be sure to inquire whether the plants are of cultivated origin, since a growing number of dealers are collecting species from the wild, particularly cacti, orchids, bromeliads, and carnivorous species. (For more information on buying propagated wildflowers, send for the June issue of American Horticulturist. The issue is being offered free with $1 for postage and handling. American Horticultural Society, Box 0105, Mount Vernon, Va. 22121.)

Support your local botanical organizations and participate in their activities on behalf of endangered wildflowers. Experienced gardeners are always needed to raise endangered plants in established gardens. The Nature Conservancy needs volunteers with other types of skills as well to help maintain and manage the more than 2.5 million acres the organization has brought under protection. It's also developing a worldwide data base inventory of rare plants -- the first step in any effective conservation effort.

Another step to take is to work toward influencing state and federal legislation to protect wildflowers. Contact your legislators directly, or write the American Horticultural Society for their Citizen Action List.

And, of course, all conservation organizations need money.

The American Horticultural Society, for example, publishes a beautiful Endangered Wildflowers Calendar. With the proceeds, the society has established the Wildflower Rediscovery Project, which offers rewards to nonprofit organizations and individuals who provide confidential information specifying locations of wildflowers thought to be extinct or very rare.

``It's plants that give character to the landscape,'' notes John Fay. ``We talk about an exquisite forest of dwarf pines, not woodchucks.''

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