Lisset Perez-Muñoz, Miami; teacher at West Miami Middle School | Photo by Jeffery Salter
Flowers in Disguise
"To most people, the pine rockland ecosystem is just weeds everywhere. We have a new principal, and she tells me all these weeds have to go. I tell her, 'You have no idea what you are saying! I don't want your landscaping in here. I'm going to make you a pine rockland lover.' I told her to read up on it, do her homework. The pine rockland ecosystem, which is mainly pine trees and saw palmettos with a thin layer of soil on top of limestone, is endangered, and it has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in Florida.
"We built the pine rockland garden at West Miami Middle School in 2007 as a way of returning the area, which once held a tennis court, to its original condition. Now it's a habitat for the butterfly, the bee, the pollinators. I especially love bees, their colonies, the way they move from flower to flower and take the pollen with them. They're so cool.
"I teach my sixth-graders about the pinelands. Then I have the seventh-graders who are trained to weed. They go home and educate their parents, and the parents will tell me, 'My kids are all into gardening now.' One boy who lives right across from the school has planted a little corridor of pine rockland at his house.
"In the summer when it's the rainy season, the garden looks wild, like a weed forest. Normally the pine rockland needs fire to survive, so in the dry season, we manually remove all the actual weeds to mimic that. I assign the kids a plant, and I tell them to walk around with it in their left hand and with their right hand to pull them all out. That's our 'prescribed burn.'
"I love when older kids come back to see the garden. I often have old pictures of them planting trees, and they like to take new pictures with trees they planted a few years ago. You look at the old picture and the new picture and you see how both the plant and the kids have grown." —interview by Christine Coester
Fighting Extinction Of the pine rocklands that once existed in Miami-Dade County, 98 percent have disappeared.
ON THE WEB Learn more about pine rockland gardens at bit.ly/pinerockland