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.
By Michael Martin Mills
Sometimes, the intrepid Edwin Jellett is remarkably ahead of his time. Here in the early 21st century, planting with natives is the new rage. Jellett was there in 1903, thank you very much.
Jellett’s reason for a “wild garden” composed of native species fits with his inquisitive nature – it is for becoming “acquainted” with natives, “learn[ing] their habits and differences.” We now know there are profoundly deeper reasons to plant natives: As explained by Douglas W. Tallamy in his groundbreaking 2007 book Bringing Nature Home, the entire native animal biosystem depends on it.
It’s really pretty simple when you think about it. Plants and insects evolve together, side by side, for many thousands of years. That evolution includes specialization – sometimes in the extreme – as insect larvae feed on very particular plants. Most everyone is aware of the monarch butterfly’s reliance on milkweed, Asclepias syriaca (plus other species in the genus, such as butterfly weed, A. tuberosa). Numerous other native American butterflies – and moths and beetles and dragonflies and on and on – are likewise picky.
If the landscape is predominantly composed of nonnatives – begonias, impatiens, pentas, epimedium, camellias, winter hazel, daphne – the native insect larvae don’t have enough to eat. Their populations plummet. Now think about the food chain. If there aren’t enough caterpillars around, birds suffer and their numbers decline. And then there’s the adult insect, seeking nectar. Without enough of their preferred nectar sources, these insects also decline. Without enough of these pollinating insects, food species have a harder time setting fruit. Bottom line: we need native plants in our gardens.
But let’s not go wild. As in: I’ll get rid of my lawn and have a meadow and sit back and read novels! It doesn’t work that way. In the Philadelphia of 2016, it is a complete fallacy to think you can just let nature take its course and the planet will be the better for it. Turn your back on a “wild garden” or “meadow” and it will become a mass of porcelain berry, stilt grass, lesser celandine, Asian bittersweet, English ivy, Norway maple, garlic mustard, and, native though it may be, poison ivy.
In this time of highly invasive exotics, planting with natives takes as much or more work as any form of gardening. Concentrating on native plants species is a fine approach to gardening – just don’t stop weeding. As Jellett said in 1903, this should be an exercise in “judgment and a right spirit.”
Edwin C. Jellett – April 17, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
To become acquainted with our native plants, and best learn their habits and differences, there is no method so fertile as that of a “wild garden.” By a wild garden we learn to properly collect, and by the interest developed plants collected and cared for acquire an individuality not otherwise attainable. We learn to select and note, and soon a novice who is bewildered by the seeming magnitude of the task before him, by slow and sure degrees is led to a mastery of the subject.
A wild garden is not, as many suppose, a miscellaneous collection of plants picked up everywhere; it is rather a collection selected with discretion, and with a definite object in view. There are many persons in this world who are eager to get something for nothing, who are liberal to excess when supplied with free privileges, and to such a wild garden would be “delusion,” and a “snare” to be avoided. But to all who desire to produce “two blades where one blade grew before,” and where judgment and a right spirit is exercised, to all who wish to learn – to such I say, start a wild garden at once. Of course, no plant lover would take plants where they are prohibited, or rare, and others need not, for there are many places where plants may be collected without infringing upon property or other rights.
But few plants are needed to commence, and the growth of a wild flower garden should be no greater than the capacity to benefit. A few of the advantages of a wild garden are these: If we are interested in wild flowers at all, we naturally desire to know something about them, and if we have a wild garden the plants which most interest us, being under our eye, may be observed throughout their entire development, and thereby a knowledge, which can be secured in no other way, becomes ours.
Now is the proper time to start a wild garden, and by noting soil, conditions under which a plant is found growing, and a little attention given after transplanting, success to one observing these simple rules will be the unfailing reward; and our success may do good service in preserving many beautiful wild flowers about homes, which, unaided, under present conditions must soon disappear.
A few years ago “Brush Dam woods,” on East Haines street, was a delightful spot, and for equal area I knew no place possessing a like number of plants. Lately a change has taken place, and soon, if the present progress continues, the scene of many a gladsome outing, like other scenes in nearby Germantown, will be changed, and become little more than a treasure of “happy memory.”
As I passed the John Haines gate upon a recent morning, the two magnificent elm trees guarding the way were in bloom, and along the dry bank of the Christopher Ludwig farm opposite, scarlet pimpernel, a somewhat rare plant, was starting on its annual round. Over the broad fields to the east the little spire of the Home of Prayer at Branchtown showed clearly, as of old, but the town to the south, octopus like, is reaching out upon it.
Brush Dam and its immediate vicinity not long ago was a rural “gem of purest ray serene.” The long meadows stretching eastward, through which a stream of pristine clearness flowed, from spring to fall was a “thing of beauty,” and northward the sparkling waters of the falls, which showed through the arches of the stone bridge, was a “joy forever.” The old frame bath-house sheltered by trees, and the spreading waters of the dam skirted by vegetation, appeared a picture of contented rest. Here in day-time I delighted to revel in a wealth of blessings, and here in darkness I sat upon the roof of the pump house, and in the stillness listened to the sharp snap of the water wheel crank, which “ever and anon” broke upon the night, until the place seemed haunted.
So I loved to sit and dream until I imagined it “Sleepy Hollow,” with the “headless-horseman” dashing down the hill from Kulp’s graveyard, and disappearing in the wood beyond the bridge. Somehow, I know not why, I always associated Ichabod Crane, the ubiquitous schoolmaster of Irving’s genius, with Alexander Wilson, the gifted master of Milestown School. The “long snipe nose” of Ichabod, which looked “like a weather-cock to tell which way the wind blew,” always reminded me of Wilson, as I pictured him, ignorant of the dangers which might befall him, traveling this very road from Oak Lane School, to call upon his fair Katterina, who dwelt near centre Germantown.
Now the charms have taken wing, the graveyard has disappeared, and many of the features changed to stunt “imagination lofty and refined.” Now the dam looks as though it did not know itself, and the old familiar building is replaced by a repulsive one of iron. The back dam under the trees, where we used to swim, has lost its identity, and the old tree where the ’possums used to hide is rapidly falling into decay. At one time the largest frogs were to be found here, but since the draining of the dam these have left for other parts. On the hill to the left the bracken is now pushing up its vigorous stems as of old, and before a great while large, wide-spreading fronds will shield the nestlings beneath.
In Brush Dam woods the three so-called “flowering ferns” grow, and these are now beginning to start. The earliest and most handsome of these ferns is the royal flowering, or king fern. This may be known by its light, graceful, symmetrical fronds, tipped with spikes of “fruit.” The second to appear is usually Clayton’s fern, known sometimes as the “interrupted fern.” This fern, like others of the group, has both barren and fertile fronds, and it is the fertile fronds which are “interrupted” by fruit pinnules, which develop midway in the frond. The third member is cinnamon fern, which usually grows in swampy places. This fern, unlike the other two, sends up a number of central fronds, entirely fertile, which in course of time wither and disappear. To those familiar with botanical terms, fronds and leaves have different meanings, because they are different, but for our present purpose fronds are the leaves of ferns, and there is no need to otherwise distinguish them.
Near here that very rare evergreen, walling fern, grows, and also the little evergreen, spleenwort. Along the streams blackberry and raspberry bushes are now in full leaf, and elderberry bushes are nearly so. On rocks and shelving banks the white odorous flower of early saxifrage fills the air with its delicate refreshing perfume, and inodorous meadow-rue, with green flowers and projecting stamens of golden hue, hides beneath a bush not quick enough to leaf. Along the water edge goose-grass or cleavers are crowding each other, water buttercups are pushing to a head, and on a projecting branch above bell-wort will soon be in flower. Now beech and alder are weighted with catkins, which soon will disappear, and the leaves now briskly budding will obstruct the view from “Bummers’ Cave.” There are few Germantown boys, I imagine, who do not know the “whereabouts” of Bummers’ Cave, but not many, I think, know what a choice place the hill above it is for flowers. At one time there were a number of rare ferns growing in the cave, but the smoke of repeated fires by passing itinerants has done its work, and now, there, not one is to be found. On the rocky ledge above the cave alum root is in leaf, wild geranium is ready to bloom, and columbine will soon be in flower. The wood about is
“Twinkling with a thousand eyes
And by harmonious shading reconciled
With that low-lying atmosphere of stars,”
and blood-root, spring beauty, “anemones,” in number numberless, vie with each other to deck the way.
Of the small “woods” about Germantown, I have sometimes thought none equal to Thomas’ wood. But each wood is different, and appeals to us differently. Woods also vary, and a wood which impresses us one way in the spring may not touch us in the same way in the fall. So I have come to believe the most enjoyable wood is always the wood we are in at the time we are in it.
Thomas’ wood, if not the best, is at least a most attractive one, and is well worth a visit. It is situated on Stenton avenue immediately north of Washington lane. The road through this wood is very beautiful, and is a favorite driving way. Here I often met the late William Wynne Wister, a well-known botanist, who seemed to have a special liking for a drive here. Thomas’ wood is small, but it has a rare combination of thickets, pools and streams, and is admirably suited to an outing. Here now the cat-bird may be seen softly flitting from branch to branch, making no sound, while red-winged swamp black-birds, noisy and obtrusive, forage in bordering thickets. Here also the sweet song of the meadow lark swells the chorus of benediction. The stream which from the sunny slopes of Nolen’s meadow meanders to the wood is stocked with minnows, and on its banks turtles and snappers may occasionally be seen basking in the sun. I say occasionally, because years ago turtles were common enough here, while now they are rare; but only two years ago I saw a 25-pound “snapper” caught in the creek above the wood. Through the wood skunk cabbage, wind flower and mandrake flower, though none be nigh, and the bright yellow flowers of spice-wood gladden the way, though there be none to note. ’Tis true—
“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,”
but not true, that it was born to
“Waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
Here sweet vernal grass is everywhere in bloom, and so is whitlow grass. Wood betony is springing up, and before long will be in flower. In adjoining fields “old-man-in-the-spring” and meadow saxifrage are pushing, and Quaker lady, Indian tobacco, chick-weed, blue-bells and hen-bit are at their best; also nonnea, an escape from Meehans’ nurseries. This nonnea is a native of Germany, and was introduced here about twenty years ago by Thomas Meehan. Being hardy and migratory, it has passed beyond its original confines, and may be found in parts adjacent to the nurseries. The plant is a rough grower, and may be known by its dark red pinnula-like flowers. Everywhere now deutzia, bridal wreath and many of garden flowering shrubs are in bud, and cherry, apple and plum trees are in bloom.
Recent frosts, I believe, have done no harm to blossoms, for the petals protect the important part of the flower, and the frosts here were not long enough nor heavy enough to do damage. In fields and along the borders of woods the common blue violet is plentifully in flower, as is also the small white violet, known technically as viola blanda. The latter is said to be the only one of our native violets odorous, but this I question, for I think several varieties fragrant, though not to the strength possessed by this little denizen of damp shady woods. The violets are an exceedingly interesting group of plants, and later we shall endeavor to present them more fully.
There is now in bloom in several localities along the middle Wissahickon a small yellow violet, appearing sometimes solitary, sometimes in groups, sometimes with short leaves and sometimes with no leaves at all, which is very odd and rare, and of special interest. This violet is conspicuous because of its position, and though the flowers soon disappear, the plant may be known by its large, round, distinct flat leaves, resting upon the ground, which develop after the flowers have gone. Dr. William P. C. Barton, who first recorded the plant in our territory, was a professor of botany in the University of Pennsylvania, succeeding his uncle, Benjamin Smith Barton, who was a nephew of David Rittenhouse. Dr. Barton was an enthusiastic teacher, who frequently took classes abroad for study, and although the Wissahickon was as noted then as now for the richness of its flora, I doubt not he was also interested in it on account of his family connection with it.
Dr. Barton wrote several books, but in one, “Compendium Florae Philadelphiacae,” published in 1818, he thus describes our plant: “This very rare species grows on the dark, hilly borders of the Wissahickon creek, north side, not far from Germantown. It is found generally on the roots of, and under the shade of, abies canadensis (hemlock), so abundant on that secluded and romantic part of the creek.”
This description, written long ago, describes perfectly the predilections of the plant to-day, and though it has moved up the stream, its habits continue the same, furnishing a proof, if proof be needed, of the irresistlessness of hereditary tendencies, and testifying to the wisdom, constancy and omnipotence of the Creator.
White elm. Ulmus Americana.
Scarlet-pimpernel. Anagallis arvensis.
Bracken. Pteris aquilina.
Flowering fern. Osmunda Regalis.
Royal fern. Osmunda Regalis.
King-fern. Osmunda Regalis.
Clayton-fern. Osmunda Claytoniana.
Interrupted fern. Osmunda Claytoniana.
Cinnamon fern. Osmunda Cinnamomea.
Walking fern. Camptosorus Rhizophyllus.
Spleen wort. Asplenium Trichomanes.
Blackberry. Rubus Villosus.
Raspberry. Rubus occidentatis.
Elder-berry. Sambucus Canadensis.
Early Saxifrage. Saxifraga virginiensis.
Meadow-rue. Thalictrum Dioicum.
Goose-grass. Galium Aparine.
Cleavers. Galium Aparine.
Water-buttercup. Ranuculus Multifidus.
Bell-wort. Uvularia Perfoliata.
Beech. Fagus Ferruginea.
Alder. Alnus Serrulata.
Alum root. Heuchera Americana.
Wild Geranium. Geranium Maculatum.
Columbine. Aquilegia Canadensis.
Blood-root. Sanguinaria Canadensis.
Spring-beauty. Claytonia Virginiana.
Anemone. Anemone Nemorosa.
Skunk Cabbage. Symplocarpus Foetidus.
Wind-flower. Anemonella Thalictroides.
Mandrake. Podophyllum Peltatum.
Spice-wood. Lindera Benzoin.
Sweet vernal grass. Anthoxanthum odoratum.
Whitlow grass. Draba verna.
Wood betony. Pedicularis Canadensis.
Old-man-in-the-spring Erigeron Belildifolius.
Meadow Saxifrage. Saxifrage Pennsylvanica.
Quaker lady. Houstonia Caerulea.
Indian Tobacco. Antennaria Plantagineafolia.
Chick-wood. Stellaria Media.
Blue-bell. Muscari Botryoides.
Henbit. Lamium Purpureum.
Nonnea. Nonnea Versicolor.
Deutzia. Deutzia Gracilis.
Bridal-wreath. Spirea Prunifolia, Flore-pleno.
Cherry. Prunus Serotina.
Apple. Pyrus Malus.
Plum. Prunus Domestica.
Common violet. Viola Palmata, var. Cucullata.
Sweet-white violet. Viola Blanda.
Yellow violet. Viola Rotundifolia.
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.”