Rare Plants Are Stalked And Captured On Film

Photographer overcame hungry deer, bad weather, elusive blooms, and fire ants

MARYL LEVINE never intended to become a nature photographer. ''Over a 10-year period, my husband gave me three cameras,'' she says. But they always ended up at the back of the closet. ''I had no interest in photography.''

About five years ago, though, Ms. Levine became fascinated with what could be done with a macro lens and began taking close-up photos of flowers. Soon her photographs were being published and sold.

In 1992, the Houston Museum of Natural Science called to request a show of her work for the next year. ''Until that time I had only photographed cultivated flowers in gardens,'' Levine says. ''Since this was a science museum, it came to me immediately to do a special set of photographs of endangered plants in bloom. Most people who hear about endangered species think about animals or birds because they have been so controversial. Very few people are aware that we have endangered plants.''

The only problem was that the call from Houston came in April when the endangered plants around the country were already blooming. ''So I started immediately,'' Levine says. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided a grant for the project.

In just five months, Levine traveled to 20 states -- from Hawaii to Virginia -- capturing 35 of the nation's most fragile and beautiful plant species.

''This was a blessed project from the beginning,'' she says of the exhibit ''Rare Beauty: America's Endangered Plants,'' now on display at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.

Getting to the remote habitats of these species when the flowers were open and the sun was shining was more difficult than Levine imagined. ''I had no idea what was going to be involved,'' she says. ''Sometimes I had to go to five sites to find one plant in bloom.''

Levine worked with endangered-plant specialists to identify the best species to include in the project. Text panels under each photo in the exhibit tell where the plant is found, its habitat, and the major threats to its survival. (The most common foes are land development, grazing, and encroachment by nonnative plants.)

One of the species Levine photographed, the hidden-petaled abutilon in Hawaii, is now extinct in the wild.

Although she is soft-spoken, Levine's passion for this project is clear. Working with local botanists in each state, Levine trekked across fields and up mountains looking for the often-elusive plants. At times it seemed impossible, yet she managed to get every species she set out to photograph.

''I would go on these trips when it would be just horrible weather. When I would get to the site the sun would come out, I would do the photograph, and as soon as I packed up my camera and tripod it would just pour,'' she says. ''People who were with me never could believe this was happening. But it happened over and over again.''

The week before leaving for northern California to photograph the dramatically beautiful Western lily, Levine got a disheartening telephone call. The local botanist said deer had eaten all the flowers to their roots. ''My heart just dropped,'' Levine recalls. ''But I hate taking 'no' for an answer, so ... we ended up finding a little population that I photographed.''

While in Texas looking for the world's only population of black lace cactus, Levine was introduced to fire ants. It was late in the afternoon by the time she found one of the plants in bloom. ''I had to get back and catch a plane to the next location,'' Levine says. ''So I couldn't be bothered about whatever was biting me. I was intent on getting this photograph. It was only later that I realized what had happened.''

To get the tiny black jewel-flower on the Tiburon Peninsula in California, Levine had to battle a constant wind blowing the plant's thin stem every which way. ''I actually slid down the hillside, scraping everything in sight including myself and the camera trying to get it,'' she says. ''But it came out beautifully.''

In some cases, Levine's close-up photographs have helped researchers discover hidden features of minuscule flowers. When the botanist who studies the twining vine Anglepod saw Levine's magnified photo of the plant's flower, it was the first time she realized the bloom had a gold-star center. ''That was very exciting,'' Levine says.

This exhibit has been shown at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. It will remain at the Missouri Botanical Garden through April 21.

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