Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve is perhaps best known for its springtime bounty. There is no better place for ephemerals – those fragile early flowers who lift merry faces toward frail sun. That is, until the tree canopy leafs out and turns out the light. So I apologized to the friend I asked to join me on one of Bowman’s daily guided wildflower walks on a recent warm summer day, cautioning her that, in late summer, there might be little in bloom. At least we’ll be walking through cool, shady woods, I offered. I turned out to be right about the woods – and wildly wrong about the flowers. Pages of nature notes later, I surrendered: this theater of bloom has no off-season.
Bowman’s is a botanical moveable feast, a natural smorgasbord almost any time of year. As a former Bucks County resident, I knew Bowman’s when winter revealed and enhanced sculptural beauty in towering trees and sheltering plants. Bowman’s is where I first heard the scree of a red-tailed hawk on a wintering hunt. Bowman’s autumn is Fauve-intense – Matisse seeming pale by comparison. Here, spring and fall migrant birds are lured by flyways such as the Delaware River to the east and the legendary Kitatinny Ridge not far to the west. Nothing, however, prepared me for the preserve’s late summer’s bounty.
A Bowman’s pamphlet invites: "Meander Through Our Meadow," a meadow recently permitted to grow wild and apparently random. Sedges, grasses, rushes, and what non-naturalists call "weeds" fling colors and textures to the four directions. Their bright hues and stunning profusion beggar the Cloister’s Unicorn Tapestry. Van-Gogh-vivid orange butterfly weed has popped into bloom – early. Old Wives’ insist that frost will arrive six weeks later. Butterflies sift and drift from bloom to bloom, gulping new nectars. Unseen within this wealth of stems and flower heads thrive red foxes and various sinuous snakes. There have been coyote reports.
Late summer’s meadow reveals a cache of golds, yellows, and umbers; coreopsis and goldenrod, brown-eyed Susans. Lavender Joe Pye Weed shakes fluffy pompoms – this plant is said to be named after an Indian medicine man. Ironweed’s dark purple exclamation points punctuate the sky. All are natives – some ‘doin’ what comes naturally’; others carefully planted to restore native flora.
Bowman’s has a unique definition of "native" – growing here prior to arrival of the Europeans. Its staff and volunteers put in yeoman service to remove non-natives, a.k.a. "invasive aliens" like the relentless "purple" loosestrife (which is actually magenta), spring’s ubiquitous garlic mustard, and the lovely but territorially voracious Japanese honeysuckle.
The Preserve is situated 2 1/2 miles south of New Hope. This haven extends beneath its eponymous landmark hill, rising 380 feet above sea level. The (climbable) 1930s tower commemorates the Battle of Trenton.
General Washington is said to have planned his startling campaign from a lookout high upon this hill. Sentries definitely watched by day and by night at Christmas, 1776, for possible enemy troops. We all know that Brits and Hessians and camp followers were all too busy celebrating to march, let alone conquer.
The anachronistic tower belongs in San Gimignano. The hill itself is named for Doctor John Bowman, surgeon in the 1696 English fleet commissioned to capture the rapacious Captain Kidd. The doctor is rumored to have become enchanted with pirate life, relinquishing the healing profession ashore. He requested burial atop the hill, acknowledging, "It’s the closest I’ll ever get to heaven." No one has discovered Dr. Bowman’s treasure chest.
Bowman’s true booty resides in the breadth and beauty of her natural riches. In October, 1934, 100 acres of Washington Crossing Park were set aside as refuge for the spirit, to celebrate and preserve Pennsylvania’s natural rarities. An enlightened duo masterminded this decision: Mrs. Henry C. Parry, chair of Bucks County’s Federation of Women’s Clubs, with W. Wilson Heinitsh, of the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters. Decades of pivotal input were provided by Edgar T. Wherry, a University of Pennsylvania professor of botany, and Penn State horticulturist, "Mr. Moss" (David Benner).
Bowman’s trails are mostly flat – well named and well tended, kept clear enough that blazes are not required. Its short walks circle the access road like petals of a daisy. Hiking boots are fine, especially after wet weather, but by no means essential. Anti-deer-tick garb is in order – hat, long sleeves, long pants tucked into socks, closed shoes. Water – a pint an hour under 90 degrees; quart an hour over: as the adage goes, "If you’re thirsty – it’s too late!" (The gift shop sells bottled water.)
Bowman’s can be shared with the less than ambulatory. Wheelchairs can travel the access road, which is closed to cars, as it is under construction, thanks to post-April’s Great Deluge. Woods Edge Walk, on the left after Marsh Marigold Trail, just before the exit gate, is paved for the handicapped. A small parking area adjoins that trail.
Our guided wildflower walk was led by Michigan native, now Pennsylvania summer intern, Joanna Smither. An expert focusing on native plants of use to local gardeners, her instruction extended well beyond names to blooming dates, growth habits, advantages, disadvantages (to wildlife/to gardeners), and folklore. She talked enthusiastically about Bowman’s wide range of ferns, whose spore arrangements provide identification clues.
For all their volunteers’ vigilance, "aliens" lurked at every turn. New to me is Japanese stilt grass, which has swept like green prairie wildfire on either side of the Violet Trail. This clever entity alters soil pH, effectively wiping out all competition, affecting tree growth for decades to come.
Joanna eloquently described plant succession – the genealogy of the forest. Spires of red cedar are in the process of dying back, since this pioneer tree requires full sun. We observed Bowman’s deciduous (leafed) forest’s actively destroying its coniferous ancestors.
At the pond we were treated to a cacophony of invisible frogs. Normally, painted turtles thread their serried way along the pond’s central angled log. This day’s searing heat may have been too much for cold-blooded creatures at the sun-drenched pond. One April, among fiddlehead ferns fringing this water, I watched a swirl of snakes awaken and stretch.
Our 2 o’clock group was informal, gathered at random. The Preserve also welcomes school classes, scout troops, garden clubs, senior organizations, even bus tours.
At the welcoming TwinLeaf Shop, the Preserve’s gift store, you can find books on everything you could ever want to know about plants, birds, gardens, Pennsylvania. Stunning wildflower postcards vie with well-designed floral t-shirts for customer attention. Knowledgeable volunteers staff the shop, providing trail maps, lists of what to find blooming where, and general all-around enthusiasm.
Inside the adjacent meeting room, a generous library holds answers to questions concerning green (and other hues of) growing things. Outside capacious windows, overflowing birdfeeders provide up close and personal glimpses of seasonal birds.
The bulletin boards outside the shop and at the wooded parking lot exit are regularly updated, featuring color portraits of current blossoms and wild creatures. Bowman’s volunteers and these bulletin boards have taught me everything I know about Pennsylvania wildflowers.
The Preserve’s dedicated staff "takes Bowman’s on the road" with slide presentations for outside locations and organizations. Topics include Landscaping with Native Plants, Gardening for Birds & Butterflies, and Bowman’s Through the Seasons. They will tailor presentations to specific interests.
Throughout our guided tour, the dedicated Joanna conveyed the interconnectedness of all life. This philosophy is Bowman’s raison d’etre: "The mission of Bowman’s Hills Wildflower Preserve is to lead people to a greater appreciation of native plants, to an understanding of their importance to all life, and to a commitment to the preservation of a healthy and diverse natural world."
Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve Guided Tours, daily, 2 p.m., 1635 Route 32, New Hope. Free with admission to the Preserve ($5 non-members; $3 seniors (62+) and full-time students; $2 children from 4 to 12; members and children under 4 free). Individual annual membership is $25; $15 senior and student, $15. The Preserve is open daily dawn to dusk. 215-862-2924 or www.bhwp.org.