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
This week’s installment of Edwin Jellett’s “A Flora of Germantown” bursts with plant names, everything seeming to suddenly be in bloom. Most get nothing more than a mention before it’s off to the next species.
Among them is “American mandrake,” known to modern folk as mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). An intriguing plant this non-apple is.
It is perhaps the most easily recognized native wildflower, for nothing has such large leaves (the size of a generous saucer) so close to the ground, and they are peltate and deeply dissected to boot. “Peltate” is the botanical term for a leaf whose stem does not end at the base of the leaf – by far the most common arrangement in herbaceous plants – but in the middle of the leaf. Nasturtiums (not native to temperate America) also have peltate leaves. “Dissected” means lobed, in this case radiating from the center of the leaf.
Mayapple leaves hover a foot or so above the ground, suggesting somewhat flat parasols with slashes between the spokes. And almost always there are lots of them. For the gardener with space, a stand of mayapples should have a particular appeal. “Parasol,” after all, is derived from Latin words for “shield” and “sun,” and that’s just what the mayapple does – it shields the area underneath from the sun. Well enough that a healthy stand will shade out a fair amount of weeds. Nice trick.
A close look at the plant reveals that some of the leaves are on solitary stems, and some come in pairs, on Y-shape branching stems. Only the Y-shape stems produce flowers, one per plant, emerging at the fork. It sometimes takes lifting the leaves to get a good look at the flowers, which are white with yellow stamens, vaguely like a plain hellebore flower or a miniature single peony.
About that “apple”: It is poisonous when green (as is the rest of the plant), but when fully ripe is edible in small quantity. But not the seeds – also poisonous! Some have said the tropical aroma is quite alluring and the flavor “complex, slightly astringent and utterly delicious.”
Making jelly or preserves is probably a safer approach (the seeds get strained out) and here are recipe links (untested by Awbury Arboretum): http://www.grit.com/food/recipes/mayapple-jelly-recipe-zm0z14maztel.aspx http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/may-apple-preserves-recipe-zmaz77jazgoe.aspx.
Getting enough fruit may be a challenge, however. The mayapple devotes a lot more energy to multiplying by rhizomes than by setting seed.
Here are two more links to intriguing articles about mayapples: http://vnps.org/princewilliamwildflowersociety/botanizing-with-marion/mayapple-plant-profile/
Edwin C. Jellett – April 24, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
One who first takes up a “manual of botany,” if without previous instruction, is likely to be disappointed and discouraged, for it must be admitted that a majority of technical plant names appeal only to those familiar with other departments of “polite” knowledge, and one not versed in languages or literature is apt to be repelled. This is sad, but it is true, and it is to be regretted that much that is barren and confusing could without loss to the science be spared.
It is beyond our province to enter deeply into this branch of the subject, and I merely wish to refer to it. I remember how I was puzzled by abbreviations placed after technical names already bristling, which I did not understand and never thought of searching through prefaces to learn —such abbreviations as “Raf.,” “Muhl.,” “Darlingt.,” and an array of others, to me equally queer and meaningless — and though it is many years since I struggled with what I thought absurdities, and have come to know their value, I confess that for some reasons I do not yet take to them more kindly.
But if viewed from a certain standpoint, this marking is necessary, and when appreciated is extremely pleasurable, prompting a train of thought in harmony with the gentle, tender spirit which animates all who truly love nature — putting warm, active blood into cold, vacant verbiage and elevating it to a plane of human interest and human sympathy.
Now, owing to the widespread interest in botany, and to improved text books prepared to meet the demand, there need be no trouble, for we all know the abbreviations refer to collections or to persons honored, who had some association with the plant marked, or with science in general. Two of the men whose names are thus abbreviated we have previously considered, and two others, who were friends and associates, we shall briefly present as an introduction to the subject at hand.
William J. Baldwin, a native of Chester county, Pa., was a classmate of Dr. William Darlington at the University of Pennsylvania, both studying botany under Prof. Benjamin Smith Barton, whose mother we remember was the sister of David Rittenhouse. Dr. Baldwin became a surgeon in the Government service, and during leisure hours at stations where located he studied and collected plants, and became an active correspondent of G. Henry Ernest Muhlenberg, rector of the Lutheran Church at Lancaster, Pa., one of the best botanists this country has produced, and a gentleman whose genial manners and youthful interest attracted all who came within the radiance of his kindly nature. Henry Muhlenberg was the son of the “Patriarch Muhlenberg,” who is familiar to all acquainted with Eastern Pennsylvania history, and who for some time, in connection with his church in Philadelphia, served St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, Germantown.
After Muhlenberg and Baldwin had passed to their reward, Dr. Darlington collected their letters, presenting them as “Religuiae Baldwinianae,” a memorial every flower lover should read, which for simplicity, freshness of expression, magnetic enthusiasm, fineness of feeling, charming spontaneity, fills us with admiration and respect for the writers and biographer alike. On April 23, 1811, Henry Muhlenberg wrote to Baldwin, then stationed with his ship on the Delaware river, “I intend to make an excursion into the Jerseys when I come next to Philadelphia, i.e., the first and second week after Whitsuntide, when our synod meets at Philadelphia.” By following their correspondence, we find these friends looked forward with keen anticipation to their meeting, and we know that they met, for Dr. Baldwin wrote, “The following list was delivered by myself to Dr. Muhlenberg, in Philadelphia, on the 11th of June,” and he further writes, “I enjoyed in the company of this venerable, enlightened and benevolent man the sweetest intellectual pleasure, and had a short but interesting walk with Him on the morning of the 12th towards German town.”
At another time we shall endeavor to trace the objective point of these students, and in spite of the melancholy “picture” of Dr. James Mease published in this same year, which states, “German town is a summer retreat for a number of citizens, and excepting its airy and elevated situation, being on the first ridge after you leave Philadelphia, it has little to interest or detain strangers,” we shall press forward to opportunities which more immediately concern us.
Those who attended the April meeting of the Germantown Horticultural Society were shown a collection of wild flowers which may be taken as an index to a collection to be exhibited in May, and those who heard its secretary discourse, heard one whose intimate knowledge of our native plants is not equaled by any collector I know. This society has several botanists, and all interested in our native flora should attend its meetings. To it I am indebted beyond my power to credit, and to Joseph Meehan and George Redles, with whom I have long been associated, I am specially indebted, and desire to testify to their ability as botanists, which is only exceeded by their worth as friends.
Among other interesting plants displayed at this meeting were several from Clementon, New Jersey, which do not appear in our territory, among these being pixie, or flowering moss, a most beautiful plant when covered with its white star-like bloom, and stud-flower, or helonias, which may often be seen by city frequenters in “sidewalk markets.” Golden club collected at Clementon, and common enough in swampy places throughout Jersey, grows near home, I collecting it in a pool bordering on Blight’s woods, and later at a locality near Miles’ woods, made known to me by Joseph Meehan.
Now everywhere “deciduous evergreens” are breaking into leaf, horse chestnut, tulip poplar, Lombardy poplar are nearly in full leaf, and on Rabbit lane dogwood is in flower. Everywhere along fences, and the borders of woods, sassafras is yellow with heavy bloom. Through the Wissahickon woods Judas tree is conspicuous by its deep purple lines of massed flowers, and those who know it only as an ornamental tree never think of it as a native frequenter of our woods. In gardens, orchards and along roadsides peach, apricot, apple, cherry, crab-apple, pear, quince, plum and other early trees, both small and great, are now in their perfection.
Travelers through ancient “German-towne” have left record of flowering peach trees which lined parts of the main thoroughfare of the village, and I have often wondered why fruit trees are not oftener so used. The beauty of an apple tree in bloom, if approached, cannot be eclipsed, and I doubt if the fruit of any tree used for late effects surpasses its gorgeous display of color. Here truly
“Beauty and utility both of them combine,”
and to the list might be added double flowering cherry, several varieties of cultivated cherries, and in fact nearly all our sturdy fruit trees, which have been properly grown. Occasionally one sees an odd fruit tree planted for shade, and at Egg Harbor, N.J., a long row of chestnut trees may be seen planted along a main avenue of the town, but this is an exception, and the practice might be extended with advantage.
On April 11 the first shad of the reason was caught in the Delaware river, and the showy mespilus, commonly known as shad bush, was in bloom in the lower Wissahickon. Throughout Rabbit lane wood, Miles’ wood, Wister wood, and sections of the Wissahickon woods, May-flower, horse-tail, ground ivy, huckleberry, winter cress, Quaker-lady, mandrake, panax, sweet fern, and nearly all the flowers previously noted, are in bloom and at their best. Mandrake is a common plant in both Wister and the Wissahickon woods, and is celebrated for its medicinal properties. It has large white, prominent flowers, which are followed, by fruit in form and taste not unlike a lime, and known to boys everywhere as “May-apple.”
May-flower is one of our choicest native plants, resembling a lily of the valley upon “its own stems,” and with panax, whose clustered heads of small white flowers in their native habitat are a treat to behold, may often be seen growing together in both Miles’ and the Wissahickon woods.
Sweet fern, which is now in leaf, is not a fern at all, and bakes its name from its odorous foliage, and the fancied resemblance of its leaves to fronds of ferns.
Along banks of roadside gardens tansy is heavily stocking the ground, crown imperials, flowering almonds and cowslips are loaded with bloom, and bridal wreath, white and purple lilacs are bending with their weight of increase. In cultivated grounds corn-gromwell, usually one of our earliest plants to bloom, is now getting ready to seed.
Although some years ago the moss pink grew near Carpenter’s woods, I do not at present within our territory know a native “locality,” but it is now flowering in many gardens and in other cultivated grounds, and may be known by its glowing masses of showy flowers.
Lily of the valley is also in flower, and the native lily of the valley may be searched for in the Cresheim Valley; near the Wissahickon woods. The native lily of the valley differs from the imported one grown in our gardens in the slenderness of its leaves and flowers, the plants in other respects being the same.
Along shady hanks of the Wissahickon closed gentian, which always very early starts, is now up, although it will not bloom until late September. The small flowering buttercup, common on the edges of damp woods and along streams, is everywhere in flowers and the early crowfoot, or buttercup, is blooming near the “Hermitage” in the lower Wissahickon. This latter crowfoot is low and compact, and has bright sunny flowers, closely resembling those of the marsh marigold, a near relative, which is now blooming in New Jersey swamps.
There is now in bloom obolaria, one of the rarest plants in the vicinity or German town. It grows in the Wissahickon woods, Rabbit lane woods, near County line, and in other woods near to home, but nowhere is it common. In woods bordering the northeast branch of Perkiomen creek, near Tylersport, the conditions seem to favor it, and here it grows more plentiful than I have elsewhere seen it. Miss Haines bold me that at one time she collected it and the painted-cup near the “Waterworks dam,” and at the same spot I collected arbutus, but from this place these plants have entirely disappeared.
The obolaria early pushes up through the dry covering of leaves which protect it, is solitary, com-pact, topped with a cluster of small lilac flowers, and is generally, on account of the flatness of its color, inconspicuous. The plant rapidly passes through its various stages of development, perfects and drops its numerous small yellow seeds, and sometimes within two weeks disappears, to not again appear before another year. It is a member of the noted gentian family, and the only native one blooming early in spring.
Dr. Darlington, in 1826, published in his “Florula Cestrica” a plate of this rare and curious plant, which was the first, and is yet the most satisfactory one I know.
As we opened with the work of this enthusiastic nature nobleman, so we shall close with it, and be thankful for his work and for the worthy labor of all “gone before” which available survives, which, like a beacon, stands to light our way.
Pyxie. Pyxidanthera Barbulata.
Flowering moss. Pyridanthera Barbulata.
Stud-flower. Helonias Bullata.
Helonias. Helonias Bullata.
Golden Club. Orontium Aquatieum.
Horse Chestnut. Aesculus Hippocastanum.
Tulip Poplar. Liriodendron Tulipifera.
Lombardy Poplar. Populus Dilatata.
Dog-wood. Cornus Florida.
Sassafras. Sassafras Officinale.
Judas Tree. Cercis Canadesis.
Peach. Prunus Persica.
Apricot. Prunus Armeniaca.
Apple. Pyrus Malus.
Cherry. Prunus Serotina.
Crab-apple. Pyrus Coronaria.
Pear. Pyrus Communis.
Quince. Cydonia Vulgaris.
Plum. Prunus Domestica.
Double-flowering cherry. Prunus Ranunculiflora.
Chestnut. Castanea satina, var. Americana.
Showy Mespilus. Amelanchier Canadenis.
Shad-Bush. Amelanchier Canadensis.
May-flower. Maianthemum Canadense.
Horse-tail. Equisetum arvense.
Ground Ivy. Nepeta Glechoma.
Huckleberry. Gaylussacia Resinosa.
Winter cress. Barbarea Vulgaris.
Quaker Lady. Houstonia Caerulea.
Mandrake. Podphyllum Peltatum.
Panax. Aralia Trifolia.
Sweet-fern. Myrica Asplenifolia.
Lily-of-the-valley. Convallaria Majalis.
Sweet-fern. Myrica Asplenifolia.
Tansy. Tanacetum Vulgare.
Crown imperial. Fritilaria Imperialis.
Flowering almond. Prunus Nana.
Cowslip. Primula Officinalis.
Bridal-wreath. Spiraea Prunifolia, Flore-pleno.
White Lilac. Syringa Persica.
Purple Lilac. Syringa Vulgaris.
Corn-gromwell. Lithospermum arvense.
Moss-pink. Phlox Subulata.
Lily-of-the-valley. Convallaria Majalis.
Closed gentian. Gentiana andrewsii.
Small-buttercup. Ranunculus abortivus.
Early Crowfoot. Rancunculus Fascicularis.
Buttercup. Ranunculus Fascicularis.
Marshmarigold. Caltha Paustris.
Obolaria. Obolaria Virginica.
Painted cup. Castilleia Coccinea.
Arbutus. Epigaea Repens.
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.”