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Original Issue


As the earth loses its wildlife at an ever-increasing rate, the woods are full of untimely and unnatural death. Soon, scientists say, extinction will be an ordinary occurrence, accelerating to the loss of one irreplaceable form of life every hour, until man is left with only his conscience for company.

Concern for animal life has taken our minds off wild plants and flowers, which are having their share of troubles getting along with civilization. Nothing's having a worse time of it than Phacelia argillacea, a curious member of the waterleaf family that grows only in the clayey soil along a stretch of railroad bed in Utah County, Utah. There this verdant plant with a deep purple flower is called scorpionweed, a fine and fitting name, considering the deadly looking spines of its bloom, which are all show and no bite. Among the approximately 3,000 wild plants and flowers that are in serious trouble, the scorpionweed is closest to extinction. It's the rarest plant in the U.S. The few that are left grow along 50 miles of the old railroad line, running from Soldier Summit to Point of the Mountain, just beyond Salt Lake City.

The scorpionweed has been declining ever since its botanical classification in 1883. It's making its last stand with the railroad, an endangered species of another ilk. By the last official count nine plants were left. These are now enclosed inside tiny protective fences.

Late last summer, however, while lunching on a roadside near Thistle. Utah, I caught sight of an odd-looking little plant on the far side of a railroad bed that ran parallel to the highway. The plant was hardy and showed no sign of having one foot in oblivion.

It wasn't until months later, upon reading a U.S. Fish and Wildlife press release announcing the 10 most endangered wild plants and animals, that I learned I'd had the good fortune to come upon Phacelia argillacea. Whether it's one of those that are now fenced in. or a glorious tenth. I can't say, but it was there, its unblemished blooms bright against the sky.