The Country in the City: Natural History in Northwest Philadelphia
In 1903, regular newspaper readers in Germantown enjoyed a weekly series of articles titled, “A Flora of Germantown.” Written by Edwin Jellett, they ran every Friday for almost 40 weeks and covered Jellet’s wanderings throughout Northwest Philadelphia as he recorded plants in bloom, noted changes in the flora from previous decades, and referenced local history. To celebrate its centennial year in 2016, Awbury Arboretum republished Jellett’s articles in sequence, re-creating for the 21st century electronic reader what the newspaper consumer of 1903 enjoyed – a vicarious Friday jaunt through Germantown.
Traipse along with us each week as Awbury Arboretum revives the remarkable peregrinations of Edwin Jellett, offering a series of virtual tours of the flora of the Germantown of 1903. Eleven decades later, what remains and what is only memory? Are Jellett’s meticulous observations key evidence as we in the 21st Century confront climate change?
by Mark Sellers, Awbury Arboretum Board Member and Neighbor
In 1903, regular newspaper readers in Germantown could partake of a remarkable weekly series of articles under the title “A Flora of Germantown.” Written by Edwin Jellett, they ran every Friday for almost 40 weeks. Jellett, who lived from 1874 to 1931, wandered throughout Northwest Philadelphia and recounted what was coming into bloom, where large populations of particular plants might be found, with constant references to changes in the flora from previous decades and large doses of local history. Each installment concluded with a comprehensive list of all the plants Jellett mentioned in the main text, with both Latin and common names.
This online series will weekly republish Jellett’s articles in sequence, re-creating for the 21st century electronic reader what the newspaper consumer of 1903 enjoyed – a vicarious Friday jaunt through Germantown. With each installment will come a 21st-century mini-essay on one topic or another inspired by Jellett’s observations. Over time, there will also be a growing list of place names that Jellettused and their current names, so the reader can know exactly where he spied a clump of spleenwort or “day-breaker.” For instance, he mentions Thorp’s Lane frequently, but where is that? (It was the name for parts of Bell’s Mill Road and Chew Avenue in Jellett’s day.)
Jellett’s plant lists are fascinating – and frustrating. A great deal of the nomenclature is obsolete, as decades of taxonomists have revised official names of many a genus and species. Common names as well have changed. Today, star of Bethlehem is the name for Jellett’s day-breaker. The modern horticulturalist is advised to be amused, or to consult electronic databases of taxonomic changes.
Edwin C. Jellett – April 10, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
From year to year it is difficult to remember enough to fairly compare one season with another, and in consequence we frequently hear of extremes and vagaries so different from that to which we are accustomed that we are at a loss, and generally accept without question all variations, either because we are not interested, or else are unable to disprove; but a reference to “Peirce’s Statistics,” in which from January 1, 1790, to January 1, 1847, temperatures were accurately kept, will convince us that there is a mean beyond which an excess is met by a deficiency, and that the result for a number of years is nearly equal. By Pierce’s tables, we find the average temperature for 56 years was between 52 and 54 degrees. Only in one year was there a difference of five degrees, and that was in 1816, in which there was ice in every month. In twenty of the other years the temperature did not vary one degree.
I was reminded of this by the remark of an old inhabitant, who pronounced this the earliest spring in 40 years, a statement one without data would be ready to accept, and perhaps credit to volcanic disturbances of recent occurrence, but our records are against it, for we find that on February 23, 1890, the weeping willow was in leaf, and many plants came early to bloom. As we find a mean in atmospheric conditions with a certain variation, so we find a periodic difference in the appearance and succession of the flowers. Early plants, like the skunk cabbage, which develop below a frost temperature, are constant, but other plants more sensitive, and therefore more easily influenced, are not.
For this reason every one who has attempted to construct a “floral clock” has failed, for the flowers selected ignored all restrictions of time, reserving to themselves the right to appear at their own good pleasure. One who endeavored to construct such a “clock” was C. S. Rafinesque, a noted naturalist of the early part of the last century, and who, of course, succeeded like the rest. Rafinesque was a strange man, whom his contemporaries could not understand or place, and I wonder not, for he was unlike other men, and was insane in pursuit of his work, sacrificing everything in his mad desire to add to the knowledge of his day. There was no botanist of his time who knew plants as he did, but his weakness lay in an inordinate desire for sub-division and multiplication of varieties, which he described and recorded to an absurd degree, a disease which seems to have taken possession of many of our present-day botanists. I have introduced Rafinesque here because he was acquainted with our territory, and made frequent visits here.
William Kite, whom many of us affectionately remember, was a pupil of Rafinesque, and for my knowledge of Rafinesque’s personal characteristics I am indebted to our good old friend. Among Rafinesque’s most faithful friends was Dr. James Mears, whose son married Miss Kemble and lived at Branchtown, and Dr. Thomas Forrest Betton, who lived at “White Cottage” on Manheim street. It was Dr. James Mears and Robert Bringhurst, father of the late Rev. George Bringhurst, known to most of us, who saved Rafinesque from the dissecting table and a pauper’s grave, and it was Thomas Meehan, who never in this world will get the credit his due, who collected the facts, and in 1877 first published them to the world, directing attention to our opportunity and Rafinesque’s work.
In 1816 Rafinesque published a, journal of plants noted in and near Philadelphia, and in the spring of that year we find that he made several trips along the Schuylkill river. We also find that he visited the Wissahickon, and under date of April 3 and April 4, and several times later, he “botanized” in the vicinity of the “Falls.”
Now the Falls of Schuylkill, including lower Wissahickon, is one of the richest sections I know for a nature lover. Often have I stood on the heights of Chamoniux, overlooked the varying prospect, pictured the shad fishing of more than local renown, imagined Fort St. Davids in the foreground, with Governor Mifflin’s house on the terrace, backed by heavy woods extending to the hills beyond, lost in reverie, until loudly recalled by a locomotive shriek, and have felt inclined with Rip Van Winkle to ask, “Is this the village of Falling Water?” The “falls” indeed have gone, and the village has “fallen from grace,” but the magnificent gorge, the quiet river, the verdured hills, the bridges, furnaces, glare and smoke, form a picture which for picturesqueness and strength I think cannot be equalled in Pennsylvania, which for rugged beauty is acknowledged unsurpassed.
Here in this section, and along the river, vegetation is advancing with irresistless tread, and soon many trees and shrubs will be fully clothed. Already in favored spots silver maples are showing leaves, and in sheltered positions meadow-sweet is almost fully developed. Houses in sunny positions display the bright bronze-colored leaves of Japan ivy. In gardens crown imperial, autumn crocus and peonies are up above ground from two to six inches. Pansies, tulips, bleeding heart are in bloom, and a number of other plants are heavy with swelling buds. In orchards peach buds are resting, but the pear has advanced, and now shows the color in its flowers. On lawns kilmarnock willow and hawthorne are pressing into leaf, and in the near-by fields and woods, white mulberry, Norway maple, sassafras, cottonwood poplar and Carolina poplar are in bloom. Along dry banks and in grassy places tufted heads of horsetail have come up to breathe, and the thick, peculiar, tail-like “brush” soon will follow. Near Riverside spiderwort is pushing, and “Dutchman’s breeches” is in flower. The Dutchman’s breeches is one of the most interesting plants in this district, and although it grows elsewhere in the Wissahickon, it is plentiful only here. The plant takes its name from the shape of the flowers, and might readily be more appropriately named. The flowers are two-forked, white, tipped with yellow, suspended by slender filaments from sturdy stems which rise from a bed of delicate, finely cut, distinct foliage. The plant is bulbous, and for this reason and that of its favored position it is able to hold its own on the rocky shelving bank it inhabits.
In bloom in open, dry, sunny spots is pearly everlasting, or Indian tobacco, which thrusts itself upon us by its white wooly stems and fluffy heads. With new leaves, but not yet in flower, is broad-leafed and lance-leafed plantain, and near them strong, sturdy shoots of soap-wort are pushing for supremacy. Now frog spawn lines the borders of the pools, and soon stupid looking “tadpoles” will own the place. Already mosquitoes are about, seeking “whom they may devour,” and a bat which has lost its bearings is wabbling through the trees. Several moths and butterflies are about, one a small one with light blue wings, one larger than the first, a sulphur yellow, which has just left its cocoon on the arbor vitae bushes, and another larger one, the common cabbage fly.
The birds also have been reinforced, and blue jay, Baltimore oriole and scarlet tanager, a trio of gorgeous color combinations, are about, and making a din not at all in harmony with their striking beauty. The prim little house wren now is looking for a place to open house, tom-tit or song sparrow has settled for the season, and the English sparrows have eggs in their nests. From over a hill the peculiar, mournful cry of a cow-bird was heard, a sound generally accepted as a sure sign of approaching rain. Above a wood, and but a short distance above the trees, a pigeon hawk, in search of game, pressed quickly forward. Wading in the shallow water of the Wissahickon was a yellow-legged crane.
While the ground is yet comparatively bare, it is a good time to search for puff balls and earth stars. These may be found on dry banks, and usually under trees. Although present finds will most likely be of last year’s growth, and of themselves valueless, yet their position will do good service as a guide to new growths when these are desired. Now up, and in flower in our section, and throughout the Wissahickon, is Indian turnip. In favored places in flower is also Quaker lady, tooth-wort, mitre-wort and the anemone or wind flower. The wind flower is an exceedingly delicate and beautiful flower, and is a most worthy member of a family distinguished for its worth and beauty. Those who are familiar with the flora of the Middle West, and have collected the pasque flower, which is now blooming on the high banks bordering on the upper Mississippi river, will recognize the relationship, and be pleased with the reminder.
The wind flower is not to be confused with the anemone, which is now also in flower. I have found that with some the distinctions are not clear, but the slightest comparison, or a reference to one of the many popular wild flower books, will show the difference and dissipate the trouble, if trouble there be.
Another delicate little plant now spreading its tender leaves is chervil. Although it may be common in other sections, I have found it nowhere near Germantown, save in this one spot along the river near the “Falls,” and when I first exhibited it at our Horticultural Society several years ago Thomas Meehan thought it new to Philadelphia county. It, however, was collected by Rafinesque, who recorded it in bloom at Falls of Schuylkill May 3, 1816, and when I pass the spot I am always glad to think of him in connection with it.
For a hundred years and more the Ridge road and Falls had been a favorite resort for lovers of outdoor life. Here came dining parties from the city to spend a few hours, dine on “cat-fish and waffles,” and then pass on to Manayunk, and by the west road return to the city by “Faire-mount.” Here was the site of the old camp of 1777, and here yet, though somewhat changed, is the “Vandeerin” mansion, now surrounded by a group of beautiful, newly-dressed weeping willows. As it is now, so was it then, though more perfect in its simplicity. Here, under date of December 30, 1832, Fanny Kemble writes: “We remounted and proceeded on to Manayunk, under the bright, warm, blessed sunshine which came down like a still shining shower upon the earth. The beautiful water courses had all broken from their diamond chains, and came dancing and singing down the hills, between cedar bushes, and the masses of gray granite, like merry children laughing as they run. After crossing the bridge at Flat Rock I took the van, riding by myself much faster than my companions, whom I left to entertain each other. Several times as I looked down at the delicious fresh water, all rosy with the rosy light of the clouds, and gushing round the masses of rock that intercepted their channel, I longed to jump off my horse, and go down among their shallow brilliant eddies. The whole land was mellow with warm sunset, the sky soft, and bright, and golden, like a dream. I stopped for a long time opposite the Wissahickon creek. The stone bridge, with its grey arch, mingled with the rough blocks of rock on which it rested, the sheet of foaming water falling like a curtain of gold over the dam among the dark stones below, on whose brown sides the ruddy sunlight and glittering water fell like splinters of light. The thick, bright, rich, tufted cedars basking in the warm amber glow, the picturesque mill, the smooth open field, along whose side the river waters, after receiving this child of the mountains into their bosom, wound deep, and bright, and still, the whole radiant with the softest light I ever beheld, forming a most enchanting and serene subject of contemplation.”
There is no mistaking this description, and there can be no question of locality. When Fanny Kemble wrote this she was on a visit to this country with her father, and was then in the height of her fame and success, full of life, and sensitive to all its pleasures. When last I saw her she was an old woman, who had passed through many of the “changes and chances of this mortal life,” and was about to go home to die.
So may we pause to “contemplate.” The shifting scene and passing cloud may change, nature renews herself, but we pass on. The heavens continue fast, and the hills fill the streams, “men may come and men may go,” but the river, unconscious of the mystery and pathos of life, flows “on forever.”
Weeping willow. Salix Babylonica.
Skunk cabbage. Symplocarpus Foetidus.
Silver maple. Acer Dasycarpum.
Meadow-sweet. Spiraea Lanceolata.
Japan Ivy. Ampelopsis veitchii.
Crown Imperial. Fritillaria Imperialis.
Autumn Crocus. Colchicum autumnale.
Paeonia. Paeonia officinalis.
Pansy. Viola Tricolor.
Tulip. Tulipa Gesneriana.
Bleeding-heart. Dicentra Spectabilis.
Peacb. Prunus Persica.
Pear. Pyrus Communis.
Kilmarnock willow. Salix caprea, var. Pendula.
Hawthorn. Crataegus oxyacantha.
White mulberry. Morus alba.
Norway maple. Acer Platanoides.
Sassafras. Sassafras officinalis.
Cottonwood poplar. Populus monilifera.
Carolina poplar. Populus Heterophylla.
Horse tail. Equisetum arvense.
Spiderwort. Tradescantia virginica.
Dutchman’s breeches. Dicentra Cucullaria.
Pearly everlasting. Antennaria Plantaginifolia.
Indian Tobacco. Antennaria Plantaginifolia.
Broad-leaved Plantain. Plantago Major.
Lance-leaved Plantain. Plantago Lanceolata.
Soap-wort. Saponaria officinalis.
Arbor-vitae. Thuja occidentalis.
Puff-ball. Lycoperdon Pyriforme.
Earth-star. Geaster Hygrometricus.
Indian turnip. Arisae Triphyllum.
Quaker-lady. Houstonia Caerulea.
Tooth-wort. Dentaria Laciniata.
Mitre-wort. Mitella Diphylla.
Wind-flower. Anemone nemorosa.
Anemone. Anemone nemorosa.
Pasque-flower. Anemone Patens, var. nuttalllana.
Rue anemone. Anemonella Thalictroides.
Chervil. Chaerophyllum Procumbens.
All botanical illustrations, unless otherwise noted, are by Alois Lunzer, from Thomas Meehan’s “The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States,” first published in 1878. Plates from this book were clipped and included in Jellett’s scrapbook/manuscript “The Flora of Germantown.”