CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Since the 1950s the development of new homes and businesses in Florida has threatened to fragment the state's natural habitats. So, some volunteers are gathering samples of rare and endangered native plants to preserve Florida's botanical treasures before the bulldozers arrive. From Tampa, Geoff Brady reports.
BRADY: It's a cloudless sunny afternoon. Steve Dickman, wearing a leather hat to keep out the sun, leads me through acres of a West Central Florida nature preserve. We hop over several gates and find ourselves at the edge of untouched Florida wilderness that will soon fall to development.
DICKMAN: Okay, this is it. This is the boundary.
BRADY: Dickman points out clumps of hearty native plants through a rusted barbed wire fence.
DICKMAN: Looking around us here, I see other things that are potential candidates for plant rescue.
BRADY: Steve Dickman calls himself a plant rescue expert. He volunteers for the Florida Native Plant Society, a conservation group that preserves and restores plants through education. Dickman says his fascination with Florida's variety of plant life has inspired him to go on these rescue missions. We carefully slip through the barbed wire and trespass onto the property.
(Clanking wire; footfalls)
DICKMAN: Clumps of wire grass over here. These little rosettes, rolls of leaves, this is a type of cartheferus. It's in the aster family, vanilla tongue or deer tongue are a couple of common names that are used to describe them.
BRADY: This parcel of land will soon be the site for new homes, a shopping complex, and a school. We move through a dry undergrowth of woody sage plants that have overtaken a pond. Suddenly Dickman recognizes a group of plants ahead of us.
DICKMAN: This is a hypericum, that's St. John's Wort. This would be a good candidate to try and collect as many possible. You can see they're actually suffering from heat stress right now.
BRADY: Although native to Florida, St. John's Wort is increasingly hard to find in the state. Here, Dickman has found a colony. But before he can dig up and save these plants, he needs first to get permission from the developer. Most developers have no problem with the rescuers taking a few plants from their property. If we stumble upon certain types of endangered species, Dickman will need permission from the state.
(Wind, soft buzzing)
BRADY: All of the plants Steve Dickman rescues end up at a nature reserve or a public garden. Brad Carter, curator of the University of South Florida Botanical Garden, tends to a small bog made up of transplanted carnivorous plants that were rescued from a development at a beachfront property.
CARTER: We dedicated this bog planting just to plants from that site. We thought that it would be sort of a genetic repository of plants from that area that is soon to become a hotel or a shopping center or whatever. It's going, going, gone.
BRADY: Carter says without natural barriers, such as mountains, to control Florida's sprawl, more of the state's rare plants are ending up in the path of developers. And large tracts of land are being destroyed. Even with the efforts of the plant rescuers, only individual plants are saved. Allen Spencer, who works at the USF Botanical Garden, says the individual rescues are vain attempts to salvage the habitats. He says larger habitats are needed to support the plant and animal interaction.
SPENCER: I do believe in restoration, since there's so much destruction. If we don't try to restore, you know, it's not going to be perfect. But I think you can take them and restore the habitat. If you don't establish habitats, you're out of context, and it's really sort of a waste of time.
MACKIE: No, I don't think it's a wasted effort.
BRADY: Andrew Mackie is the assistant director of the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in south Florida. He says the rescue efforts afford a chance for more people to learn about native plants.
MACKIE: There are many species of native plants that are declining, that are rare, and that would be useful saved instead of being bulldozed and destroyed. And being replanted, they provide important wildlife benefits and important educational values. Probably the greatest effort there would be to educate the public about these native species and what they can provide for us.
BRADY: Mackie and Spencer agree that residents can create natural habitats by planting native species in their backyards. But so far, few people are signing up to help.
(Footfalls through tall grasses)
BRADY: That means that plant rescuers like Steve Dickman will be busy trying to preserve what remains of Florida's natural heritage, before it falls to today's fast pace of development. For Living on Earth, this is Geoff Brady in Tampa, Florida.
(Music up and under: Nightmares on Wax, "Fire In the Middle")
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