On a Saturday afternoon at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve here, a dozen visitors on a guided tour wind through a field of Virginia bluebells. The guide leads them on a detour down a wooded path toward a lone white blossom.
One by one, the visitors get down on their hands and knees in the moss and sniff the sweet, fruity aroma of the little wildflower. Besides the enticing aroma, the spreading globe flower is a star attraction because it is an endangered species in Pennsylvania and is globally rare.
The Bowman's Hill preserve, founded in 1934, is enjoying a boost in popularity that parallels a rising nationwide interest in wildflowers. Flower lovers are flocking to arboretums and botanical gardens that showcase native flora, which are also becoming a favorite of gardeners and landscapers.
"The more you look at the flowers, the more you're drawn into them," says Judy Sulliven, native plant gardener at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. "It's like being Alice in Wonderland - it's a whole new world."
The public's enchantment with wildflowers could be coming just in time, as some species are gradually disappearing. They are threatened by suburban development, herbicides, growing deer populations, and competition from nonnative plant species. The conclusions of a 20-year research study by the World Conservation Union in Washington show that about 29 percent of the 16,000 plants native to the United States are at risk of becoming endangered.
Visitors to the 100 forested acres of Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve can tour through about 1,000 species, 80 of which are designated as being "of special concern."
"We put on 'shows' with wildflowers as a hook to get people involved with conservation," says Paul Teese, director of the preserve. Many visitors take home seedlings from the nursery and have joined the "bloomers club" of regulars who try to identify each species as it peaks.
Other parks and gardens around the country are also drawing more visitors and expanding their programs on wildflowers.
Twenty years ago, when Gary Wilford started giving wildflower walks at the Forest Glen County Preserve in Illinois, a dozen people would show up. Now, the groups are as large as 60 people and have been as big as 125.
"People who have been tromping through the woods for years have just recently started taking more notice of the flowers," Mr. Wilford says. He also notes that a constant stream of phone calls has been coming in from hikers wanting help identifying the blossoms they have seen on trails.
More visitors are coming to the Randall Davey Audubon Center in Santa Fe, N.M., with a primary interest in wildflowers, according to David Henderson, the center's executive director. "That's surprising given that we're the bird people," Mr. Henderson says.
To accommodate more visitors, the Connecticut College Arboretum in New London, Conn., recently renovated its Edgerton and Stengel Wildflower Garden. It now has wider paths winding past more species and is the most popular adoption choice for volunteers in the arboretum's "hort helpers" program.
"People are really fascinated by the flowers," says Glenn Dreyer, director of the arboretum. "Not only to look at them, but for their folklore and because of the popularity of herbal remedies."
When designing its garden, Connecticut College looked to the Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Mass., a 45-acre botanical garden maintained by the New England Wildflower Society. In the past 10 years, the number of visitors to the garden has quadrupled to 40,000 annually.
Last year, the society started a rare-plant garden with 200 species. That garden and a rare-seed bank are part of the New England Plant Conservation Program. The seed bank maintains 150 species as a backup in case a catastrophe in the wild wipes out a rare species.
Another natural threat to wildflowers is deer. The deer population in parts of the Northeast has grown to more than 10 times its size at the turn of the century. Deer feast on lilies and orchids first, but all wildflowers are vulnerable since they are easily accessible on the forest floor. Preserves and gardens have had to erect high fences to keep out the hungry herbivores.
Wildflowers' popularity has moved beyond specialized gardens and preserves. City governments are filling public gardens with native wildflowers. And a trend in landscaping is to replace grass lawns with wildflower fields that are attractive and cost less to maintain because they do not need to be mowed or fertilized.
The National Council of State Garden Clubs has launched Operation Wildflower to plant native wildflower species along the nation's highways, and personal gardeners are also favoring them.
"The wild look is definitely in," says Vincent Naab, plant merchandiser for the Home Depot's northeast region. The chain reports increasing sales of wildflower seed mixes and popular shaker cans of seeds for butterfly gardens and fragrance gardens.
Ms. Sulliven of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies emphasizes that it is important for gardeners to buy only wildflowers that have been grown from seed or a cutting rather than collected from the wild, which further damages their populations.
Conservationists are hoping that the public's interest in wildflowers will boost efforts to preserve the environment in general.
"If you have a rare species in your garden and someone says, 'Hey, I haven't seen that before,' then that starts a conversation about plants and conservation, which is a good thing," says Bowman's Hill naturalist Matt Palmer.