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Rare Plants Are Stalked And Captured On Film

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

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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.

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