Saving the oddly pretty flower that mostly calls South Jersey its home

Eager to be introduced to Helonias bullata, I hop on a little caravan of carts at the Shore Gate Golf Club in Cape May County.

Our party soon arrives at a swampy expanse of wilderness, where our feet sink deep into waterlogged sphagnum moss and the spring air carries the earthy aroma of skunk cabbage.

There, under a canopy of black maples and white cedars, protected by a deer-proof dome of wire mesh, rises a single, graceful green stalk capped with a brushlike burst of rosy color.

It’s my first-ever swamp pink -- an unusual lily that was designated as threatened under the  federal Endangered Species Act in 1988.

And it’s blooming in one of its favorite, and few remaining, habitats on earth.

“It’s beautiful, and it’s rare,” says the professional photographer, amateur naturalist, and avid swamp pink advocate Michael Hogan, who built many of the 150 wire enclosures that protect the plants from becoming what he calls “deer salad.”

The swamp pink’s other nemesis is development, particularly on or near the tree-shaded freshwater wetlands it loves.

“Most of the swamp pink population left in the world,” Hogan notes, “is in South Jersey.”

A  57-year-old Weymouth Township, Atlantic County, resident, Hogan is program director of the South Jersey Land and Water Trust and has been a swamp pink fan for decades.

He also stewards a five-acre, fenced-in habitat for the plants near Route 42 in Washington Township. There’s also a much larger population in an undisclosed Salem County location.

Hogan has invited me on this informal expedition along with fellow trust member and cage-builder  Philip Arsenault, a naturalist from Franklinville; Alicia Protus, a biologist with the New Jersey Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and a half-dozen AmeriCorps volunteers who serve as “watershed ambassadors” in various parts of the state and want to learn about protecting swamp pinks.

This wetlands portion of the golf course holds perhaps two dozen clusters of the blooming  evergreen plants,  which are difficult to see, let alone, reach, except by intrepid volunteers willing to crawl over fallen cedars and through muck and mud.

Although swamp pinks have no known medicinal or dollar value, “they’re pretty and they can’t run and hide” from people who want to pick or dig them up, Protus notes. And a swamp pink that gets picked or eaten loses a chance to go to seed and reproduce.

“Swamp pinks are the only species within its genus, so if we lose the species, we lose it all,” she adds. “We lose a plant that’s genetically very different from any other plant.”

Nationally, her agency leads the effort to protect swamp pinks, which are also found elsewhere in New Jersey and in smaller and less dense populations in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas.

New Jersey has records showing “a couple hundred distinct swamp pink populations,” few of which still exist, Bob Cartica, administrator of the New Jersey Forestry Service’s office of natural lands management, tells me during a later telephone interview.

Only a handful of these remaining populations “are considered to be of high quality,” he adds. “It was a cruel fate that most of these plants lived in areas that were developed long before the state had the ability to protect them.”

So the federal and state governments support efforts by private organizations and individuals to stave off the destruction of these lovely, if somewhat odd-looking, plants.

Education is part of the effort; like me, several of the AmeriCorps volunteers had never seen a swamp pink until they followed Hogan into the swamp.

“I’d never even heard of it before,” says Katie Harrison, 23, of Wrightstown.

And who knew that South Jersey, sometimes derided as a generic landscape of strip malls and sprawl, would be among the few places on the planet to enjoy the sight of these lovely flowers in bloom?

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Linwood resident Aysia Gandy, 23.

“There’s more than meets the eye here.”