For five hours the two professors squatted under a laurel thicket at Reddish Knob, high in the Shenandoah Mountains on the Virginia-West Virginia border 120 miles west of Washington.

Norlyn Bodkin, a botanist from James Madison University in nearby Harrisonburg, held the magnifying glass and metric ruler while James Reveal, professor of botany at the University of Maryland in College Park, held the notebook and the pencil. They were peering at little white flowers.

Gradually the pieces fell into place and a thrill of discovery -- a feeling few botanists ever experience -- swept over them: they had found a new plant.

"This is one of the things you are always looking for, feeling around for," said Bodkin. "And there it was, right in my back yard, only 35 miles up there from the campus."

There, at 4,398 feet, they discovered the little white members of the lily family, hardly six inches tall, and realized they were not the Virginia Wake Robins that people who had seen them before thought they were.

They were, the two scientists slowly concluded, an entirely new variety of lily.

It was a moment of glory that rarely comes to botanists on the Eastern Seaboard, where no new variety of flower has been found since World War II. For a moment at least, Bodkin and Reavel saw what no man had seen before, a series of little identifying marks that made this variety of flower different from any other.

It was the first time that Bodkin who has taught at the Virginia school for the past 18 years, had found a new plant, but for Reveal, a tall, soft-spoken man who had helped Bodkin win his doctorate at Maryland, the thrill was not new. Reveal has discovered more varieties of plants in America than anyone else.

It was Reveal's hunch that started the search for a mountain variety of the Wake-Robin. Reports had come in that Virginia Wake Robins had been sighted in Rockingham County and neighboring Pendleton County, W.Va. This did not make sense to Reveal. The flowers are normally found in low-lying coastal areas. How could they grow in the mountains, too?

So when Bodkin called in late April, asking his assistance identifying some of the plants he had found on the mountain, Reveal rushed to meet him and they headed into the hills together. It was the plant's flowering period and it would not be long before the pods would burst and the little white flowers dried up and disappeared for another year. "We did some really heavy botanizing at the time," said Bodkin.

After laboriously recording statistics about the plant, the men went back to Harrisonburg, and compared their findings with the characteristics of the Virginia Wake Robin -- the Trillium pusillum virginianum -- and the findings did not jibe. Although the two flowers look similiar to casual observer, the botanists found distinctive differences.

The mountain plant's leaves were shorter and broader than those of its coastal cousin. Under the magnifying glass the two botanists could see that the edges of the petal were wavy. The anther, which contains the pollen, and stigma, on which the pollen falls and develops, were the same length; in the coastal variety, the stigma were longer. And the sepals, the green, petal-like parts of the flower, were boat shaped, rather than flat.

It was quite simply, says Bodkin, "a very beautiful little plant."

And it was enough to prove the species, and give them the right to name the plant. Trillium pussillum monticulum -- "of the little mountians" -- they decided and for casual use, the Shenandoah Wake Robin. Next will come the scholarly paper. Because Reveal and Bodkin could find fewer than 1,000 of the flowers, they will try to have the plant placed on the Endangered Species List.

The odds of success are small. One June 22 the Department of Interior announced that vertebrates, as opposed to all "lower forms of life", will get priority for places on the list. It was an emotional decision, complained Reveal: "Flowers don't have sad, brown eyes.

"It's a biased priority," he said, reflecting the slight that he says botanists often suffer. Protection, he said, "is going to be up to the citizen now."

Bodkin is giving the Shenandoah Wake Robins his own measure of protection, refusing to tell all but a privileged few of their precise location on the mountain. "The plant is of no great value, other than aesthetically," he said. "But that's reason enough."

The long process of identying and writing about a new flower -- and then trying to protect it -- is well known to Reveal, a veteran in the field of taxonomy, or plant identification. He has not kept a precise count, but reckons he has discovered or identified more than 50 plant varieties. The secret, he says, is to go where no botanist has ever thought of going. He has scoured deserts in the middle of summer, and in 1968 inspected the Nevada Testing Site, finding five new varieties.

In 1975 he received the botanists' ultimate tribute, having a plant named after him. It was a variety of the sunflower plant, which he discovered during a foray into Mexico. It was christened Montannoa revealii . A plant found later the same day by Reveal and his wife, Rose Broome, was named after her: Sinclaria broomeae.

No miracle drug or exotic perfume will come from the Shenandoah Wake Robin, says Bodkin and Reveal. Like all other flowers they collect, the Wake Robins they picked have been pressed between sheets. Specimens have been sent to the National Herbarium in the Natural History Museum on the Mall. They will join about 25,000 other flowers.