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, marched into Trenton, New Jersey, the next morning and won a critical battle.)
Through the years, the Preserve has come to be acknowledged as the State Wildflower Preserve of Pennsylvania.
In addition, beginning during the Great Depression, a picturesque stone bridge crossing Pidcock Creek, a roadway, trails and a log cabin were constructed. 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 Preserve’s physical layout was established.
Early on, 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 contributions as a botanical institution. It now is home to nearly 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, 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.
The Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve Association, Inc. (BHWPA), the non-profit corporation that manages 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 includes mounted birds, nests and eggs.
The Preserve hired its first educator. The propagation area expanded, providing plants for the public spring and fall plant sales.
The Preserve was awarded the distinction of American Association of Museum (AAM) accreditation in 1989. In the interim, enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers and the Board of Trustees continued to contribute. The staff grew in numbers, bringing a new complement of talents to the Preserve.
State budget cuts to the Pennsylvania and Museum Commission (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, the non-profit volunteer group – the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve Association Inc., (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.
With a new management agreement in place the Preserve began to fully blossom. New staff were added including a communications coordinator and a development officer, and 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 Preserve received 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 educational 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 change behavior, both inside and outside its fence. Key projects within the Preserve during this time include the enhancement of the Audubon Birding trail with a 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 has been improved and 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 2016 the Preserve adopted the Native Plants in the Landscape Conference at Millersville University as a way to expand its audience and reach nearly 300 attendees.
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 us in the preservation of native plants of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware and a commitment to a healthy and diverse natural world.