The wild orchids are blooming on a windy day in early spring. From the bank of the C-111 canal that runs from Taylor Slough in the Everglades to Manatee Bay, we find them in a sea of sawgrass accented with green dots of willows, saltbush and buttonwood.
The orchids, called grass pinks, Calapogon tuberosus, grow in marly soils of the freshwater marsh, soils that dry early in spring instead of staying wet most of the year.
This expanse of freshwater prairie belongs to the South Florida Water Management District and abuts land saved by Miami-Dade County's Environmentally Endangered Lands (EEL) program. Together, the parcels link Everglades National Park with Biscayne National Park.
Broward, Palm Beach and 27 other counties in Florida also make efforts to acquire and manage segments of endangered natural areas scattered like pot shards across the developed landscape. They are ours to appreciate and keep for the future.
Here's a look at four natural landscapes and some of the components making them so prized.
In the Southern Glades, we stop to find wildflowers: Samolusparviflorus, the water pimpernel with tiny pinkish-white flowers; yellowtop, with clusters of tiny yellow flowers held on one plane like a flat-topped umbrella; fat lavender thistles with silvery leaves that are in the daisy family; delicate marsh pinks with their yellow centers.
Bird life is fairly sparse. Gwen Burzycki, with the Department of Environmental Resources Management, says, ''We're seeing fewer and fewer wading birds in the last couple of years.'' Still, we identify double-crested cormorants, great blue and little blue herons, tricolor herons, snowy egrets, osprey, kingfishers and grebes.
To get here, we head down the 18-mile stretch of U.S. 1 between Florida City and Key Largo, turn east at a rock road, then drive back under a bridge. In May, a month or so after our visit, a panther is killed by a car on this stretch of highway, underscoring the need for the wildlife culverts being added as the road is widened.
We end up alongside the C-111 canal, which cuts through the Southern Glades like a lightning strike. Alongside it runs a 13-mile public bike path.
Dug in the 1960s, the 20-foot-deep C-111 was intended to carry barges laden with rocket boosters from the Aerojet manufacturing plant in far South Dade out to the bay, where they would travel to Cape Canaveral. The state bought the Aerojet property in the 1980s and now manages it for wildlife.
Native poisonwood trees proliferate along the canal's northern spoil bank. Their late fall crop of fruit makes them magnets for white-crowned pigeons.
Spike rush, arrowhead and sawgrass, frogs, crayfish, marsh rabbits, deer and panthers share this big sky space, but an irritated alligator impatiently heads to mid-canal and stares back, waiting for us to vacate his lurking spot by the bank.
Working our way back to Card Sound Road, we bump and bounce through double ruts to another freshwater prairie, where Burzycki shows us two more endangered plants: creamy white colicroot, Aletris bracteata, and the lavender ground orchid, Bletia purpurea, with shy flowers that never fully open.
Colicroot has thin leaves that grow in a rosette from which the flower spike arises. Its bitter roots are said to treat colic. You would not know it's here without its flowers, which are tiny and cream-colored, attached along upright spikes like small corn kernels. They open from the bottom to the top of the stalk. Dozens of plants are blooming here, many of them along the roadside, showing a preference for a slight elevation.
When looking for them, Burzycki finds a tiny plant that is just beginning to flower. It is Pinguicula pumila, a dwarf butterwort, which traps insects and dissolves them for nutrients that otherwise are unavailable in these poor soils. This plant is smaller than a half dollar, with flowers three-eighths of an inch across when fully open. Its will to live is far larger.
The peculiar charm of scrub is its rather taciturn attitude about charm. As an ecosystem, it is dry, sandy, open and short of stature. As much as any ecosystem, it demands that you work to appreciate it.
But great appreciation comes with the little flowers and oddball plants, and the way this flora works to stay alive on the infertile sands at its feet.
Scrub is Florida's oldest ecosystem. It kept its head above water when the seas were 20 feet higher some 100,000 years ago because it rears up on ancient sand dunes. The scrub runs down the state's central spine, and is found in dwindling pockets in Palm Beach County, not at all in Broward County and in two tiny spots in Miami-Dade. These are the fenced 15-acre plot called County Line Scrub on the Dade-Broward boundary and a nearby four-acre site unromantically dubbed Dolphin Center Park Addition.
The particular form scrub takes here is called scrubby flatwoods.
County Line Scrub is rather like Janus, the god with two faces: the northern section is oak-dominated, while the southern half remains in pines.
Hiking around the northern part, we find sand live oak, with leaf margins tightly curled under; Chapman's oak, with kite-shaped leaves and myrtle oak with roundish leaves. There's even an extraordinarily rare natural hybrid called Rolf's oak that's a cross between Chapman's oak and running oak.
Winged sumac, with its topknots of compound leaves, rises around the oaks and will supply abundant red fruit for small warblers and other wildlife in the fall. Sumac is a ruderal, meaning it grows on the edges of places in poor soils. Pawpaws also are peeking out from the edges of the oaks, looking for sun. Small woody plants, pawpaws are just beginning to produce flowers when we find then, but soon will open greenish petals that turn white.
Saw palmettos creep on their bellies beneath the pines and are joined by cocoplum, day flowers and wax myrtle, which has been dwarfed in the grayish sands.
Tarflower is an indicator species, meaning if you find it, you've found the scrub. Its botanical name is Befaria racemosa. Its flowers open seven wide-spreading sticky white petals, hence its name.
At the northern edge of its range is quailberry, Crossopetalum ilicifolium. Roundish leaves, pointed at the tips, with holly-like edges, along with red fruits, identify this miniature and endangered shrub.
There's a blueberry relative here, too, and rusty lyonia, which has copper-colored new leaves appealingly soft and fuzzy.
What is not here is fire. In the middle of this urban setting, it is excluded.
Lack of fire means the oaks are getting larger, while some rare plants -- the pawpaw reaching out from the edges -- are in danger of being shaded out. What also is not here is the scrub blue jay, because it needs a much larger territory. The same is true of the other scrub denizens such as gopher tortoise, scrub lizard, burrowing owl and the indigo snake.
However, there is a loop trail and a perimeter trail to take you through the little system, and you'll discover coontie, sabal palms and partridge pea and even native cactus, called Opuntia humifusa.
This is the last of its kind in our parts. Dolphin Stadium sits where an expanse of it once flourished. To see your piece of scrub, enroll in a naturalist-led program at Arch Creek or Greynolds Park, or call the EEL office (see box, next page).
There are 27 endangered and threatened plants in the evergreen forests called hammocks. Most of the trees and shrubs, such as ficus, gumbo-limbos, lancewoods and paradise trees, originated in the West Indies rather than North America, but temperate live oaks have found a home here, too.
One hammock in Goulds once was famous as a home to a tourist attraction called Orchid Jungle. Today, it has reverted to its original name, Hattie Bauer Hammock. It was acquired by the Environmentally Endangered Lands program in 1996. The county still is working on a plan that will allow public use.
Meanwhile, the slow work of forest restoration began half a dozen years ago, interrupted by two bad hurricane seasons. Rampant, invasive vines were everywhere, but biologists discovered a native vine on the site that had dwindled to a single plant. It is a passion vine called goatsfoot, or Passiflora sexflora.
Jennifer Possley at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden took cuttings of the passion vine, grew them, and ''we have reintroduced them, and they're doing awesome,'' says Jane Dozier, who is supervising the county's restoration effort. ``It now has ripe fruit.''
A natural solution hole has been found to contain the threatened broad halberd fern and maidenhair ferns. The halberd, Tectaria heracleifolia, is named for a medieval fighting instrument it resembles, a combination ax and spike.
There's an expansive out-cropping of limestone that was beneath vines, like an original floor. Ferns are claiming its nicks and notches as their own.
Cuban nakedwood, Colubrina cubensis var. floridana, is highly endangered, but growing robustly here. It's more like a big, sprawling shrub than a tree. The flowers are tiny and whitish, with a sticky, resinous center. The name Colubrina means shaped like a snake, and this plant sometimes is called Cuban snakebark.
Among our rarest surviving ecosystems is a bony place of limestone and fire called the pine rockland. On breezy days, the pines whisper audibly, their needles whooshing to each other. On early summer afternoons, scissor-tail kites circle overhead and we see an osprey fly to a pine bough, fish in claw.
This island of serenity is completely surrounded by urban development.
Rockdale Pineland runs along South Dixie Highway between Southwest 144th Street and Southwest 152nd Street, forming an isosceles triangle. An office park once was planned here, but the highly endangered plant called the Redland sandmat saved it. Little colonies of the sandmat (once known as the deltoid spurge) snooze peacefully on rock faces, laid bare when a railroad bed was dug to transport stone from nearby borrow pits.
Only about 4,000 acres of the original 185,000 acres of rock pineland remain, and EEL has added 850 acres to those now protected and managed.
Among the pines are locustberry, laden with panicles of flowers that start out white then turn pink. Saw palmettos have sweet-smelling flowers attracting bees on a warm afternoon. Coontie, the native cycads whose rhizomes were collected by pioneers to make starch, pop up here and there, along with scrub oaks, wild poinsettias and yellow-flowering lantana.
Hiking through palmettos we find the prickly pear, Opuntia humifusa, holding up gorgeous yellow flowers like golden chalices.
Last year, 40 volunteers planted a narrow strip of the pinelands that runs along the South Dixie perimeter. It was accidentally burned when a cooking fire got out of control. Remaining Brazilian pepper trees were cleared and ground into mulch, and the stage was set for renewal.
''We hope to restore the whole edge,'' says project manager Tiffany Smith. Baby pineland plants trying to survive, in addition to the little pines, include yellowtop, crotolaria or rattlebox and eupatorium with fuzzy pale blue to white flowers that butterflies and skippers love.