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Happy to Be Here: Visionaries built a natural treasure


One of my sons texted a photo of a plant this week. “Do you know what this is?” he asked. It had shown up in his garden for the first time this spring. He sensed it was more than a weed – I think I gave it to him.

Couldn’t give an instant answer but I knew that I knew the name of that yellow flower – then it came to me. It was a wood poppy, a wonderfully prolific plant that blooms in spring and through summer. Officially known as the celandine wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) it drops its seed pods and spreads, often pushing out plants of less stamina.

Thomas Jefferson grew it on his estate at Monticello, where the museum shop describes it: Unlike the rank and weedy European or greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), this eastern North American native is very desirable in the shade garden. It was first introduced into cultivation in 1854 and was recommended in “The English Flower Garden (1883)” by the British landscape designer and garden writer William Robinson.

New Jersey garden writer and nurseryman Peter Henderson cited Robinson in his “Handbook of Plants (1890)” and noted that the native species was as showy as the other found in India and Japan (Stylophorum japonicum). The yellow sap in the stems was used as a dye by Native American Indians.

It’s a hardy native plant that grows well from south to north in eastern United States. You can buy it online from the shop at Monticello.

Or, you can buy it, as I did, at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, which today is awash in bluebells, wood poppies, ferns, more than 700 species of plants that are native to Pennsylvania. The preserve is the nation’s only living museum specifically devoted to native plants.

A chance meeting of two visionaries in 1933 inspired the preserve’s creation. They were Mary K. Parry, chairman of the Bucks County Federation of Women’s Clubs, and W. Wilson Heinitsh, a Pennsylvania Department of Forest and Waters, a consultant for Washington Crossing Historic Park – the wooded area where Parry and Heinitsh met. The woods had grown in an area clear-cut by Colonial farmers.

According to the Bowman’s Hill website, Parry and Heinitsh “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. Garden clubs from around the state joined in support of the preserved land.

The land, it was recognized, had been blessed with soil and orientation, created over millions of years of geologic action. The area was ideal for growing native trees and shrubs.

“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,” the website says.

During the Great Depression, workers from two federal programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) laid out the roadway and trails for the preserve. They built a log cabin and a stone bridge across the Pidcock Creek.

In the next decade, Edgar T. Wherry, a professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, led volunteers who planted as many Pennsylvania native species as they could grow. In 1944, to celebrate William Penn’s 300th birthday, the Pennsylvania Legislature established the Penn’s Woods arboretum at Bowman’s Hill.

Soon volunteers were leading tours of the preserve and in the 1960s, the preserve created a propagation area and opened a visitor center.

The Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve Association Inc. became a membership-supported organization. Now the nonprofit corporation managed the preserve in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC).

By the end of the last century, state budget cuts to the Pennsylvania and Museum Commission (PHMC) affected the state support. Volunteers alone could not maintain the infrastructure. The Preserve Association reached a “Placed Property” management agreement with PHMC in 1997 which placed the daily care and maintenance of the preserve in its hands.

With the new agreement, the preserve hired its first executive director and began fundraising.

By the turn of the 21st century, things were looking up.

New staff were added and membership grew from 500 households to over 1,800. The Land Ethics Symposium was started in 2002 as a way to reach a growing professional audience is the region. The symposium has continued as an annual event.

The preserve completed a visionary master plan in 2006. It has since built a fence to keep deer out and protect its valuable gardens. It has expanded growing areas with its greenhouse and hoop houses, planted a wildflower meadow to attract butterflies, enlarged its plant sales and welcomed visitors.

This weekend, the preserve expects around 400 guests to attend the annual “black tie and muck boots” spring gala, “Wild About Flowers.” A large tent is waiting with tables set and plant-related auction items displayed in anticipation of the celebration. Part of the evening will be devoted to walks through the masses of Virginia bluebells.

The park will be showing off its spring ephemerals, plants that bloom, then disappear. Conditions are just right for growing bluebells, trillium, twinleaf, Jacob’s ladder and the longer lasting wood poppies.

You can buy them all at the nursery from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day through June and Tuesday through Sunday from July 1 to Oct. 31.