Meadow at Bowman's Hill in Bucks is an entire universe to explore

Posted: August 19, 2011

A meadow in August is a splendid thing.

This one, at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve, shivers with life - not just elegant grasses and sprightly wildflowers, but bees and indigo buntings and swallowtail butterflies that buzz and float along in summer's high heat.

A recent walk through this busy place a few miles south of New Hope took two hours and could've taken way more, as in all day and night, 24/7. A meadow, no kidding, is an entire universe to explore.

And the cicadas aren't background noise here, as they are in civilization. They're loud and proud - males, says our naturalist guide Nancy Putnam, sending out endless, urgent mating calls, bolstered by crickets, likely courting, too.

Who knew a meadow was so full of libido?

Or bees. Twenty species were identified in a study of the meadow five years ago, including the humble bumble bee, whose fuzzy behind we recognize right away.

Bumble bees, and their cousins, are everywhere - head first in the eight-foot cup plants and zigging and zagging through the mountain mint, a native plant they love and deer hate, and whose soft minty scent we inhale passing by.

The bees are drinking dew from the flower "cups" and collecting pollen from the mint, storing it in near-invisible sacs on the backs of their legs before heading home for lunch with the larvae.

Imagine. Every day, drivers barrel past the preserve on River Road, barely glancing at the five-acre meadow out front. It's just a blur of grass and flowers, on the way to somewhere else.

Originally, this was a sheep pasture, then a mowed lawn. The idea to convert it to a meadow first surfaced in 1997, around the time that day-to-day management at the preserve shifted from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to the nonprofit Bowman's Hill Wildlife Preserve Association.

With that change "came the chance to make some decisions on our own about how we'd like to present the property," says Paul Teese, the preserve's recently retired curator, who was executive director at the time.

"We're talking about what was right at the front entrance, and it seemed only logical that we should make a statement of what we're about and what people could come and see and enjoy at the preserve," he says.

The "statement" took a few years to plan, plant, and get established. And the turf was not removed; that would have encouraged bullyboy brambles and multiflora rose to move in.

Instead, for the first time in a decade, mowing stopped. Starting in 2000, six-inch plugs of native plants, mostly wildflowers and ornamental grasses, were inserted right into the turf, in broad swaths, like a painting. Nothing was babied; whatever failed to thrive was ripped out and replaced.

"It's a lot of work because you're always fighting the trees wanting to come back," recalls Putnam, a retired college librarian, who began volunteering in 2000 and helped with the meadow's planting.

Historically, the East Coast was a deciduous forest, she explains, "and you didn't see a lot of meadows unless a hurricane or forest fire opened up the tree canopy and allowed the sun to come in and seedlings to pop up."

By 2005, enough seedlings had popped up that a good-looking meadow was taking shape. All the more interesting, when you consider this: It grew without ever being watered, not even during initial planting, always a delicate time.

No hoses, sprinklers, or irrigation systems. Just rain.

"Sounds like a recipe for death," Putnam says.

Would be in most gardens. But the 134-acre preserve - founded in 1934 and owned by the state - is all about Pennsylvania native plants, which have evolved here and are well-adapted to the region's climate, soil, and wildlife.

The meadow's grasses are a mix of cool- and warm-season varieties. The cool ones, such as red top, are left over from sheep-grazing days; they sprout in April, forming mats that hinder drainage, then go to seed and turn brown by August, just like lawns.

Warm-season grasses, such as big bluestem, Indian grass, and switch grass, are there by design. They come to life in June, flower in August, and go to seed in September, providing food for birds and wildlife through winter. They also form clumps with deep roots that promote good drainage and withstand drought.

"You won't see the meadow turning brown, like your lawn does," Putnam says.

Actually, the meadow is quite colorful.

There are stands of native hibiscus, with bonnetlike pink and white blooms; pale pink bee balm, with quirky square stems; white hyssop-leaved boneset; and the architectural New York ironweed, which sports purple flower-dots.

And common milkweed, the ugly duckling often shunned in ornamental gardens. (Pssst . . . it's a superstar in the insect world.)

See those holes in the milkweed leaves? "They're a good indication that an egg has hatched into a caterpillar and the caterpillar is moving up and down the plant eating the leaves," Putnam says, which is a good thing. A chemical in the milkweed leaf makes the caterpillar unappetizing to birds.

Here's to life as a butterfly!

But this life-affirming meadow needs human intervention if it's to keep that old-world forest at bay. So it's mowed every year at the end of February and, every five years or so, when conditions are right, it's burned - to rejuvenate it.

"Burning puts a chemical in the soil that many seeds are enthusiastic about," says Putnam, "and ash makes the ground more fertile."

Occasionally, if the invasives get too unruly, they're pulled out. But they can be tougher than natives, as evidenced by the occasional patches of brambles, Japanese stiltgrass, the dreaded multiflora rose, or thistle.

You'll also see quite a bit of poison ivy - watch your ankles - which Putnam reminds is a native plant. Birds eat the white berries and take cover in the leaves, while we run the other way.

But not today.


Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/philly/

blogs/gardening


Meadow Walks

Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve offers vigorous, one-hour meadow walks at 10 a.m. every Wednesday through Sept. 14. Preregistration suggested. Not recommended for children younger

than 10.

Wildflower walks, which usually include the meadow in summer, take place from 2-3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, through Oct. 30. All ages. Registration on arrival.

Walks included

with admission.

Meet at Visitor Center, minimum two visitors needed for each walk, weather permitting.

Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve is

at 1635 River Rd., New Hope.

Information:

215 -862-2924 or http://www.bhwp.org/


See naturalist Nancy Putnam discuss big bluestem, a meadow grass also known as

turkey foot, at

www.philly.com/putnam


Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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