After nearly two hours of trudging through a hilly, densely wooded area in Prince William County's Cherry Hill, Elaine Haug came upon a plant that looked very much like what she and thousands of other botanists have been looking for.

The Dale City resident carefully examined the six-inch-high plant and concluded, with some disappointment, that it was not the elusive small whorled pogonia, a rare plant known to exist in only three counties in Virginia, including Prince William.

It was, in fact, an Indian cucumber root, a plant that looks remarkably similar to the small whorled pogonia, but has a wiry stem covered with cobweb-like hairs and is abundant in Virginia.

"It would be nice if we can find some soon," Haug, a chief botanist with the Prince William chapter of the Virginia Wildflower Preservation Society, said of the small whorled pogonias.

Haug, who has been surveying Cherry Hill, is pressed for time. The deadline to draft a report on the whereabouts of the endangered orchids looms only two months away.

Haug said it is important to find the small whorled pogonia by then to protect it from possible destruction by a proposed office and retail development in the area.

First identified and described by botanists in 1814, the small whorled pogonia is one of the rarest orchids in the world. So far, only about 60 populations of it have been recorded in the United States, mostly in the Northeast. A population usually consists of about five plants.

Because of its rarity, the small whorled pogonia is protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. In 1985, Virginia declared the plant one of three endangered species in the state, along with ginseng and the Virginia round-leaf birch.

So far, four populations of the plant have been found in three counties in the state: Prince William, James City and Caroline.

"They are documented in Prince William Forest Park, but botanists want to keep it {the exact locations of the plants} a secret," said Nicky Staunton, president of the Prince William chapter of the Virginia Wildflower Preservation Society.

The first cluster of small whorled pogonias in Prince William was discovered by an entomologist with the Urban Ecology Lab in 1983.

"He was checking for gypsy moths in Prince William Forest Park when he recognized the small whorled pogonia," said Donna M.E. Ware, a herberium curator at the College of William and Mary. "He recognized it from a magazine article he read while he was in California."

Because of its discovery in Prince William Forest Park, botanists believe they may inhabit adjacent areas including Cherry Hill.

In December, Haug was hired to find the rare orchids by the California-based Anden Group, which is proposing a 1,600-acre office and residential development in Cherry Hill. It had been pressed by environmental groups to survey the area before construction was to begin.

In calling the project "dead in the water" last week, the president of Anden Group said the county and the developer were unable to resolve differences, one of which dealt with the uncertainty of the project's environmental impact.

"If found, the developer might want to make a park of where the plants are found," said Haug, who has until July to file a report with the developer. But the developer has the right to do whatever it wants with the plants, Haug added.

Unlike a 1986 case in James City County in which the discovery of a colony of the small whorled pogonias caused an interstate highway to be slightly rerouted, neither the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 nor the Virginia Endangered Plant and Insect Species Act of 1979 would apply to private property, Ware said.

But Ware added that private developers have been more aware of laws protecting endangered species and that a compromise could be reached to save the small whorled pogonias if they are found in the Cherry Hill area. "Hopefully some responsible compromise could be reached," he said.

Much of the threat to the orchid is the inadvertent destruction of populations through de-Private developers have been more aware of laws protecting endangered species and a compromise could be reached to save the small whorled pogonias if they are found in the Cherry Hill area, Ware said.

velopment and construction near sites where the plants are found, according to a brochure distributed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"They are relatively inconspicuous and not all that pretty," said Mary Pockman, president of the Virginia Wildflower Preservation Society. Hence they are easily overlooked by individuals as well as major developers, she added.

The small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeoloides) is a solitary orchid with grayish-green, waxy stems. It will grow to about 10 inches high when flowered and 14 inches when it bears fruit. A whorl of five or six leaves near the top of the stem and beneath the flower gives it its name.

"They've come out of the ground about two weeks ago. They'll be out until October," Haug said. "I would have like to have had more than just two months to look for them."

Because the orchid, which has an irregular sprouting time -- sometimes it won't come out of the ground for two or three years -- botanists have had a difficult time locating a population.

Nevertheless, many wildflower preservationists believe there are many more small whorled pogonias to be found in Virginia.

The idea that more could exist in Virginia, particularly in Prince William, has some farmers and pesticide companies concerned as the Environmental Protection Agency considers a new program to protect endangered species.

"EPA has been holding a number of meetings throughout the country trying to get various ideas on how to institute a pesticide program, so that it is in compliance with the endangered species law," said Larry Thomas, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We would require some pesticides regulated in areas where endangered species inhabit."

But Thomas noted that although "any herbicide endangers the small whorled pogonias," it shouldn't have any impact on farmers.

Farmers such as Tom House, who owns a 300-cow dairy farm in western Prince William, are nevertheless worried that an all-encompassing pesticide regulation could be instituted.

"We don't know what it looks like or exactly what it is, but it concerns us," House said recently about the discovery of the rare orchid. House also is president of the Prince William Farm Bureau.