A Sense of Place
History of the Preserve
At a chance meeting in a wooded area on state park land in Bucks County, two conservation-minded people struck up a conversation, sharing their mutual appreciation for the peaceful, natural setting that surrounded them. It was autumn 1933, and richly colored wildflowers shone against a backdrop of trees cloaked in brilliant fall hues. Inspired by the quiet beauty of the woods and the tranquil creek flowing nearby, they imagined a sanctuary for Pennsylvania native plants with nature trails winding through wildflower plantings—a place where visitors could enjoy this natural splendor year-round. Both firmly believed that this area was far too beautiful to be turned into the ordinary picnic grounds proposed for the site.
These two visionary individuals were Mary K. Parry, then the chairman of the Bucks County Federation of Women's Clubs, and W. Wilson Heinitsh, employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Forest and Waters as a consultant for Washington Crossing Historic Park—the parkland where Parry and Heinitsh met.
As the saying goes, the two didn't let any grass grow under their feet—unless perhaps it was a Pennsylvania native! They rallied support for their vision from the Federation of Garden Clubs of Pennsylvania, W.E. Montgomery of the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters and the Council for the Preservation of Natural Beauty in Pennsylvania.
A gift from the council to the Washington Crossing Park Commission made Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve (BHWP) a reality. In October 1934, the Commission set aside 100 acres in a portion of Washington Crossing Historic Park north of Bowman's Hill Tower as a living memorial to the patriots of George Washington's army who camped in the area during the American Revolutionary War. Just 5 miles south of what is now the Preserve, shortly before midnight on Dec. 25, 1776, Washington and his men successfully crossed the icy Delaware in a blinding snowstorm and the next morning marched into Trenton, New Jersey, and won a critical battle.
During the Great Depression, construction of a picturesque stone bridge crossing Pidcock Creek, a roadway, trails and a log cabin began. The work was overseen by the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters and the Washington Crossing Park Commission with the assistance of workers from two federal programs: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Within 10 years of its inception, the physical layout of the site was finalized and Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve came to be acknowledged as the state wildflower preserve of Pennsylvania.
Early on, Dr. Edgar T. Wherry, a professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, marveled at the variety of habitats within the relatively modest acreage of the Preserve. Modest, that is, compared to that of the entire state. Under Wherry's leadership, volunteers planted as many Pennsylvania native species as could be successfully grown. Planting records maintained from the outset set the course for the Preserve's significance as a botanical institution. It now is home to over 700 of the 2,000 plant species native to Pennsylvania.
Penn's Woods arboretum, the first state memorial reforestation project, was established in 1944 by an act of the Pennsylvania State Legislature to celebrate William Penn's 300th birthday.
The Preserve received the distinguished Founders Fund award from the Garden Club of America, designating it as "the most worthwhile conservation or horticultural project in the U.S." Volunteers began to provide visitor orientation and tours, which today has expanded to a full menu of outstanding educational programs.
The Preserve created a modest propagation area and opened its Visitor Center. The internship program, which continues today as a critical component of our education and outreach initiatives, began.
Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve Association, Inc. (BHWPA), the non-profit corporation that managed the Preserve in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC), became a membership-supported organization. The Visitor Center was expanded to house more office space and the gift of the Platt Collection, which included mounted birds, nests and eggs.
The Preserve hired its first educator. The propagation area expanded, providing more locally grown and sourced plants for the public spring and fall plant sales. The Preserve was awarded the distinction of American Association of Museum (AAM) accreditation in 1989. Enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers and the board of trustees increasingly continued to contribute in all areas of Preserve activities and functioning. The staff grew in numbers, bringing a new complement of talents to the Preserve.
State budget cuts to PHMC directly affected the Preserve, and operational support by the Commonwealth dwindled. During this time the infrastructure began to deteriorate despite the best efforts of the volunteers. In order to stem the tide of benign neglect and disrepair, BHWPA reached a “Placed Property” management agreement with PHMC in 1997 which placed the daily care and maintenance of the Preserve in the hands of BHWPA while outlining the responsibilities of the State for major infrastructure upkeep and improvements. With this new agreement, BHWPA hired its first executive director and began fundraising for the Preserve.
In 1993, a 100-acre exclosure of deer fencing was constructed at the Preserve in an effort to ensure the survival of many species of native flowers, shrubs and trees.
With a new management agreement in place, the Preserve began to fully blossom. The 2nd executive director was hired along with a communications coordinator and a development officer. Their coordinated efforts saw membership grow from 500 households to over 1,800. The Land Ethics Symposium was started in 2002 as a way to reach a growing professional audience. The Naturalist Training Program was started in 2006 to inspire the appreciation and understanding of the benefits of native plants by teaching volunteers about the wonders of nature. The signature Winter Lecture Series was also launched in the early 2000s to share the importance of native plants with our program attendees.
The Preserve received its AAM reaccreditation in 2001 and completed a visionary master plan in 2006.
The first Spring Wildflower Gala was held on-site in 2004 and served to introduce local residents to the wonders of the Preserve while raising funds critical to the mission. The Plant Stewardship Index (PSI) was created in 2007 as a tool to help land conservation organizations determine the quality of plant communities and monitor the effectiveness of land management techniques over time. Today the Preserve’s PSI is part of a larger national Floristic Quality Assessment database.
The Preserve continued to inspire action and increase awareness, both inside and outside its fence. Key projects within the Preserve during this time included the enhancement of the Audubon Birding Trail with its gathering platform and related interpretation, the butterfly trail that includes a self-guided tour, and the creation of a beautiful new pond that serves as both an educational focal point and a venue for special events. The Native Plant Nursery underwent improvement and was elevated to a new role at the center of the Preserve’s mission and volunteer experience. The Pocket Habitat Program was launched in 2015 and has brought a piece of the Preserve into over 20 schoolyards throughout the region.
In 2018, Founders’ Pond underwent total restoration. Existing plants such as royal fern and numerous carex species were dug up and overwintered so that the pond could be dredged, and the feeder creek that provides the water supply was returned to working operation. Founders’ Pond is now once again a serene woodland pond with many beautiful aquatic and emergent plants. The habitat is managed as a skunk cabbage/golden saxifrage wetland plant community (a designated Pennsylvania Natural Heritage plant community) that provides diverse habitat suitable for the many frogs, turtles, fish, dragonflies and many other beneficial insects that live there.
A new section of meadow, the Aquetong Meadow, was installed at the front of the Preserve following a microburst storm which took out a large area of woodland on the corner of River and Aquetong Roads. The area was cleared of debris and seeded in the spring of 2019 by the meadow design team at Larry Weaner Associates LLC. Many important meadow species are currently establishing that will serve as food host plants for caterpillars, and as nectar and pollen sources for native bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
Our Native Plant Nursery continues to grow and extend its reach into the community as visitors recognize the importance of including native plants in their home landscapes. In 2019, a new greenhouse opened and improvements to the prop house were completed. Outreach efforts include the launch of Plant Grants, which provides funds for native plantings across the region, and an annual native plant garden tour in collaboration with the Woman's National Farm & Garden Association.
In October 2018, the Preserve received a generous grant to fund the Visitor Interpretive Experience. Working together with a cross-functional team, the VIEP was finalized in December of 2019 and has identified numerous opportunities to introduce the health benefits of nature and enhance ecological awareness across our community of members and visitors.
In an ongoing effort to increase accessibility to all persons, much-needed trail enhancements were made in 2019 to the Penn’s Woods Trail, which winds through the scenic Penn’s Woods section of the Preserve, ending at the Pond.
Twenty-seven years after its construction, the 100-acre deer exclosure surrounding the Preserve continues to protect one of the largest intact and deer-minimized forests in our area. The significance of this exclosure is becoming increasingly critical as the deer population in our region continues to expand, ensuring the survival of many species of native flowers, shrubs and trees that have all but disappeared elsewhere.
A new era of leadership began at the Preserve in June 2020 with the arrival of the Preserve’s 3rd executive director. Today, the Preserve welcomes 70,000 visitors annually from all across the region, making it a vital and relevant destination in our rapidly changing and environmentally challenged world.
Since its serendipitous beginnings in the minds and hearts of two wildflower enthusiasts, the Preserve has emerged as a vibrant and dynamic institution. The Preserve remains flexible enough to meet changing needs, but firmly focused on encouraging people to join in the conservation and stewardship of native plants in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, and committed to a healthy and diverse natural world.