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 Denis Lucey
After days of heat, humidity, and the Democratic National Convention hoopla in Philadelphia, it is difficult to focus on a select few of the many notables, interesting places, and long list of plants worthy of Edwin Jellett’s attention for his August 14, 1903, issue.
However, Wister’s Woods still draws picnickers to its green shade, and the whiz of traffic substitutes for the clip-clop of horses’ hooves, but cicadas buzzing and children squealing and adults laughing still sound the same.
Awbury Arboretum’s Agricultural Village boasts stinging nettles (it’s too late in the season for soup, and I don’t know whether nettles are ready “to make good beer”).
Contemporary nurseries in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are offering a dazzling, not to say garish, array of marsh mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), including leaf and flower colors unknown to Jellett.
The America lotus flourished for many years in a pond off Stenton Avenue, just east of the busy intersection near Wing Field in Montgomery County. Alas, the pond has been drained, the lotus taken out, and it is now a reflecting pool. As Heraclitus said, “Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
Jellett bemoans the rarity of “variegated flowering grape.” I first saw this form of the dreaded porcelain berry vine, now called Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, used as an ornamental at a wedding in a Rhode Island Historical Society building. It is beautiful briefly, but not a good cut flower; it wilts rapidly. Several years ago, I saw an 18th-century Japanese screen painted with sprays of the straight species (Japan Society exhibition in New York City). Unfortunately, hot wet summers are an accelerant to the spread of this pernicious vine. Last July saw some of the variegated form in Germantown. This year, both forms are rampant in another section of the old German Township, that is, Chestnut Hill.
As years ago, Asclepias incarnata is flourishing in damp meadows along tributaries of the Wissahickon, e.g. Willow Run. Recently, I cut a spray of swamp milkweed for a table arrangement. Two days later, the arrangement was garnished with infant monarch butterfly caterpillars. This milkweed, riding a tide of anxiety about declining monarch populations, is widely available in the nursery trade today.
A few squares from the Francis Pastorius house, at the east end of Meade Street, stands an old Seckel pear. Another, more welcome exotic is showing handsome fruit clusters in the same neighborhood.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Editor’s note: Jellett calls Thomas Say a “noted concologist.” The modern spelling is “conchologist” and means one who studies shells.
Edwin C. Jellett – August 14, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
“Grumblethorpe” and its owners, past and present, are so well known that in a measure it may seem superfluous to present it and them for perhaps the 100th time. Whenever a Philadelphia newspaper is short of matter, I imagine I hear a driven editor to say, “What! Shy again? Well, there’s the Germantown files, they are good stand-bys,” and forthwith promptly appears a distorted though readable article upon Stenton, Solitude, Wakefield, Morris House, Pastorius House, Wyck, or one of the several Wister houses which the generous mine without protest immediately yields. Be this as it may, to consider Germantown’s flowers and its nature lovers without mention of “Grumblethorpe” and its associations would be much like Hamlet with its object silent and of none effect.
During the early part of the last century there was no more famous house in Philadelphia than that which stood at the southwest corner of Fourth and Locust streets, and presided over by Dr. Caspar Wistar. At this place he long dwelt, in season entertaining congenial friends and noted visitors to the city, and out of season living on School lane, Germantown, at a place near the bend, and now known as “Moses Brown’s.” Dr. Wistar was the founder of the “Wistar Parties,” an institution which has continued to our own day; a great surgeon and lecturer; a good “all-round” naturalist, whose merits were recognized by the dedication to him of the beautiful plant now generally known as wisteria.
As the worth and personal magnetism of Dr. Wistar made an invitation to his home a coveted privilege, so the attainments and popularity of his relative, Charles J. Wister, made “Grumblethorpe” a resort only less conspicuous because of its position.
Like its present owner, the late owner of “Grumblethorpe” was a man noted for his open manners and rare intellectual possessions, and there are yet living many who remember his friendly ways. Indeed, although he died before my advent here, I know so much of him that I sometimes feel I know him. Mr. Wister was the soul of generosity, a general favorite, and an especial one with children, whom it delighted him to please. He was a good mechanic, a scientist expert in several branches, and a writer of ability, whose work I should like more widely distributed than it now is. Mr. Wister was a keen botanist, a noted mineralogist and chemist, giving lectures upon the two latter branches at the Germantown Academy in 1816 and succeeding years. Parker Cleaveland, who published his mineralogy in 1816, constantly refers to Mr. Wister, and credits him for much.
Charles J. Wister, the present owner of “Grumblethorpe,” told me his father and a standing offer with the Germantown Academy boys of 25 cents for every specimen of mineral brought him he could not name, and, of course, as the narrator concluded, “they never got it.” Mr. Wister was not only learned in the sciences, but as well enjoyed the friendship of its leading American devotees of his time. Among the guests of “Grumblethorpe” were Thomas Nuttall, the author of “Genera of North American Plants,” and “Manual of North American Ornithology;” Dr. W.S.W. Ruschenberger, the traveler, writer and author of numerous primers upon natural history; Prof. J Nicols and S.C. Walker, well known astronomers; Thomas Say, the noted concologist; Lewis David V. Schweinitz, the great cryptogamist; Isaiah Lukens, the celebrated builder of the State House and Germantown Academy clocks, a descendant of Jan Lucken, one of the original settlers of Germantown; and Louis Agassiz, of Harvard College, an ornament to American education, whose good work was so deeply sown that it continues to bear true fruit. For the information I am mainly indebted to Charles J. Wister, who was a friend of nearly all those named.
Mr. Wister was also an astronomer, and in his garden passers on Main street may yet see the spherical tower of his observatory, now sheltered by overgrowing trees. To the present day “Grumblethorpe” furnishes the earliest and the latest old-fashioned flowers to our Germantown Horticultural Society meetings, and its vegetable garden is not excelled by any in our midst.
Mrs. Agnes Morse Earle, in “Old Time Gardens,” has noted “Grumblethorpe,” and shows a pleasing picture of its garden arbors and centre walk, with its present owner standing in a bower of bloom. Here grows the early flowering Christmas rose, the winter aconite, the chimonanthes, all early bloomers, as well as a large number of other “old fashioned plants” rarely seen in new gardens, and here are several rare trees, among them a yellow wood, whose exquisite bloom gladdens the side entrance in early summer.
Mr. Wister was an admirer of trees, and it is said he loved to frequent the well-known wood which bears his name. No one who rides from Wister Station south can fail to note the beauty of this wood, and one who on early morn stands on Fisher’s lane bridge, facing the east, must be impressed by the beauty of the scene — its winding road with picturesque groups of buildings in the immediate foreground, with “Wakefield” beyond on the hill, the whole backed by rising mists fleeing before the growing day.
Here one morning I saw a most peculiar sunrise. The east was a luminous mass of crimson, bordered by an aggregation of cumulus darkness. There were two layer groups of clouds, the outer one inky black, the inner one golden yellow, the glow or reflection of which through numerous openings streamed outward through the confining envelope. As the sun rose higher and higher, but as yet below the horizon, his brightness could be seen behind the imbricated shields, leaping from cap to cap of the peaked inner layers of clouds. Soon a blood-red tip appeared and slowly crept into the dense darkness, and the volcanic crimson and yellow streamers gradually settled into a lurid deadness, which gave way to the ashy whiteness of dissipated force, and the rain clouds followed and for a time dampened and shadowed all.
The place is a delight, and it is no wonder when William E. S. Baker undertook to write a Germantown story he laid the scenes of the opening chapter in a wood and grove he knew so well. The “Widow Seymour,” like every novel of its kind, is not a great book, but it contains several pleasing descriptions of places about home, and altogether is interesting and valuable from a local standpoint.
In addition to stinging nettle, noted as we passed, its relatives and sometimes companions, slender nettle growing in moist ground, and rough nettle usually covering the ground about outbuildings, are in bloom. As you well know, all our nettles have green or light-colored flowers, and neither they nor the plants which bear them are attractive. Indeed, if it were not for useful properties they would be noticed only in so far as they themselves thrust upon us their attention. But nettles are said to make good beer, and this I doubt not is sufficient to insure their continuance, for it must be admitted that where home-brewed beer is to be had, even “Redles’ pump water” is a little flat.
Bladder ketmia, a small low-growing member of the hibiscus family, is displaying its light yellow interesting flowers. This plant is not common, though it may be found sometimes in old gardens and along fences infields. At one time I was always sure of specimens on the lane which runs west of Dr. Betton’s place on Manheim street.
Marsh-mallow, a swamp hibiscus, is blooming in swampy places throughout Southern New Jersey, and with us in places to which it has been transplanted. It is a gorgeous bloomer, and is so generally known as not to need other mention.
One of our most magnificent native plants now blooming is the sacred bean, known as yellow nelumbo or water chinquapin, or, more locally, as Woodstown lily. This plant is the American lotus, which grows at Woodstown and elsewhere in New Jersey, and in adjacent States, but appears in our territory only under cultivation. The plant has large floating leaves with long round stems, and other upright standing leaves which rise above the water. The flowers are large, yellow, and truly “Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” The seed vessel mature, lotus like, is shaped like the rose of a watering pot. The plant grows in but few places near us, but where it appears it is very plenty. One who has never seen the mill-dam at Woodstown should visit it at the first opportunity. I have often thought that if the nelumbo were introduced to Dewees’ Dam on the Wissahickon, east of the Convent, it would there flourish as freely as the present spatterdocks, and prove a pleasing and permanent attraction.
Gardens now have little new to furnish us, and beyond zinnias, with dense heads of yellow flowers conyopsis, with dark-centered yellow-spreading flowers; Indian-shot plants, with flowers red and yellow, and gladiolus of every hue; castor-oil plant, tropical in appearance and robust in habit, and flowering grape on fences, are about all that recently have crept into notice.
At one time there was a variegated flowering grape with delicately marked leaves, with flowers which were followed by highly decorative berries, a plant quite popular with those possessing trellised porches, which now is rarely seen, although of unquestioned merit.
Meadows are like a dream infused with reality, and with plants in bud and plants in bloom bask luxuriantly in the life-giving sun.
Moisture loving ferns never appeared better, frequent rains having furnished the stimulation needed. To wade through high-growing sweet-scented grass, over which Joe Pye weed raises high its regal flowering head, is a treat which none but those of nature kin are able to fully enjoy.
Now in moist ground where the grass low grows or is sparse is seed-box, a low plant with small yellow flowers, which are followed by well-filled, four-cornered vessels which gives the plant its name. Here also in bloom is boneset and several of the milk-weeds. Our earliest boneset is a common plant, and everywhere in meadows about home is now in bloom. It is a strong growing plain plant with dense heads of indifferent white bloom, with pointed rather rough leaves, perfoliate — that is clasping and united about the stem.
Boneset is well known for its medicinal properties, and many have been the reasons given for its name. All reasons I have read have been guesses, but the true source was given by William Kite at a meeting of the Germantown Horticultural Society, who said it was given him by his grandmother, familiar with the origin of the name. When the American Army was encamped at Valley Forge in 1778 it was greatly troubled by “chills and fever,” which, on account of its severe quaking, the soldiers named “break-bone fever.” Mr. Kite’s grandmother, who there served as a nurse, issued for the relief of the complaint a concoction of eupatorium, which, because it relieved them, the men dubbed bone-set tea.
Milk-weeds in bloom are swamp milk-weed, with rose or lilac flowers, a plant two to three feet high, and common in almost every swamp: purple milk-weed, with deep purple flowers, a slender grower from one to three feet in height, and growing along the Schuylkill river near Shawmont; red-milk weed, with dark-red flowers, and growing on Mermaid Jane, Chestnut Hill, near Spring Mill, and, as George Redles lately informed me, near Edge Hill; obtuse leaved milk-weed, with lilac-green flowers, a plant from two to three feet high, not common, and not as attractive as brighter flowering varieties; and slender milk-weed, with greenish-white flowers, a slender leafy plant growing in dry fields, which does not that I know appear in our territory, but which I have collected near Vineland and Millville, N.J.
Along streams meadow sweet, with light pink flowers, and hard-hack or steeple-bush, with deep pink flowers, both sturdy shrubs, are laden with bloom. In appearance these plants are much alike, but hard-back may be distinguished by its wooly stems. The first at one time grew in Chew’s wood, the latter is common to Hammonton, Hospitality and throughout Southern New Jersey.
Ash-leaved spiraea, a distinct shrub, should be showing its heads of white bloom at the corner of Carpenter lane and Wissahickon avenue, where it has taken possession, but lately it has lost its flowering buds. It, of course, is an introduced plant, but at this point it seems quite at home. Roadsides and fields are now covered by plain plants, usually not showy enough to attract attention. Those of this character in bloom are upright spotted spurge, a plain plant from one to two feet in height, with small white or sometimes red-tinged flowers; and potted spurge or wart weed, a creeping plant with small dark-lined leaves, also with minute white bloom, both plants common, and may be found on the edges of the Wissahickon woods.
Horse-weed or butter-weed, a rank grower from four to eight or more feet high, is now in neglected fields, topped by a branching head of plain white flowers; evening primrose shows a profusion of light yellow sweet-scented flowers; and in open damp places in fields and woods starry campion shows its bright green foliage, and white, star-shaped, dianthus-like flowers.
In abandoned fields clammy cuphea covers the earth with gum-dropped foliage as adhesive as mucilage, and is weighted with small deep-set dark purple flowers. On dry hills near the Wissahickon, and especially in the vicinity of Valley Green, pin-weed may rarely be found, though it is a common plant in nearby New Jersey. It is a small bush-like plant, usually about one foot high, with linear minute leaves, and the whole plant covered by small green or brown tinted bloom. Also on dry ground, both in the open and in the woods, is wild bergamot, a plant with slender downy stems, growing from one to three feet in height, having a strong mint odor and bearing light purple flowers.
Along the borders of woods and in low thickets is wild bean, a climbing plant with runners extending ten feet or more, with the familiar three-parted leaf, and with independent stems of light purple flowers. In like positions is spikenard, a strong grower with compound leaves and a spreading head of greenish white flowers, resembling wild sarsaparilla, growing in the Wissahickon, and in Chew’s wood once was ginsing, a low plant growing with a single stem from a heavy root, having a five-pointed leaf and a flowering tuft of yellowish green. Also mad-dog skull-cap, a heart-shaped narrow-leafed plant, one to two feet in height, the tips of the branches being lined with small light purple flowers. Common almost everywhere in most places and throughout woods is beggar’s tick, or stick-tight, a high plant with purplish stems, and covered with plain green flowers; bur-marigold, a plant one to three feet high, with rough-toothed lance-shaped leaves, and fairly covered with fierce little yellow flowers; and two hawk-weeds, both growing one to three feet in height, and producing yellow flowers, hairy hawk-weed of slender habit and growing near the spring in Wister’s wood, and panicled hawk-weed, growing near Penn monument in the Wissahickon. Everywhere In open woods is tick-trefoil, a plant raising its leaves from a root to a height of from one to two feet, having bean-like leaves, and with a stem or streamer covered with small lilac or pale purple bloom.
Pears are now ripe, and to me the most Interesting tree in Germantown is the pear tree, 150 years old, which grows in the garden at “Grumblethorpe” and which yet bears an annual crop, specimens of which Mr. Wister has frequently exhibited at our Horticultural Society meetings. It is not generally known that several of the most noted pears were produced in Philadelphia. There the well-known Catherine pear, named in honor of Catherine Gardette, was raised; Frankford begot the Frankford, a variety now unknown; and on the Seckel Farm, near “Rope Ferry Bridge,” the Seckel, the acknowledged peer of pears, was produced. The Chancellor pear was a Germantown contribution and was raised on the Chancellor property, adjoining on School lane the Germantown Academy, and now occupied by John Alburger. The Keiffer pear, a most prolific bearer, which raised many discussions in its day, was grown by Peter Keiffer, whose place was on Shawmont avenue, a short distance west of the Wissahickon.
Peter Keiffer was a nurseryman of the old school, and a type of man like the “Doctor” of “The Bonnie Briar Bush” — a rare character, whose kindly face and genial ways were an inspiration and a benediction. For the privilege of his acquaintance I shall always be indebted to Joseph Meehan, with whom I made several visits to his place. Among Peter Keiffer’s treasures was the original Keiffer pear tree, which pleased us to have him show us; a cryptomeria or Japan cedar, a rare and beautiful “evergreen;” a cedar of Lebanon, a rare tree about Philadelphia; and a very fine specimen of the exceedingly rare Gordonia or Franklin tree.
When we last called, Peter Keiffer’s working days were over, and there amidst “his bees and his flowers” his sun was serenely setting. Now he has reached the goal we struggle towards, and with “saints triumphant” and “spirits blest” is forever one.
Wisteria. Wisteria Speciosa.
Christmas rose. Helleborus Niger.
Winter aconite. Eranthis Hyemalis.
Chimonanthes. Chimonanthus Fragrans.
Yellow wood. Cladrastis Tinctoria.
Stinging nettle. Urtica Dioica
Slender nettle. Urtica Gracilis.
Rough nettle. Urtica Urens.
Bladder ketmia. Hibiscus Trionum.
Marsh-mallow. Hibiscus Moscheutos.
Rose Mallow. Hibiscus Moscheutos.
Swamp hibiscus. Hibicsus Moscheutos.
Sacred bean. Nelumbo Lutea.
Yellow nelumbo. Nelumbo Lutea.
Water chinquapin. Nelumbo Lutea.
Woodstown lily. Nelumbo Lutea.
American lotus. Nelumbo Lutea.
Lotus. Nelumbo Speciosa.
Spatterdock. Nuphar Advena
Zinnia. Zinnia Elegans.
Coreopsis. Coreopsis Laceolata.
Indian shot plant. Canna Indica.
Gladiolus. Gladiolus Gaudavensis.
Castor oil plant. Ricinus Communis.
Flowering grape. Vitis Heterohpylla.
Variegated grape. Vitis Heterophylla.
Joe pye weed. Eupatorium Purpureum.
Seed box. Ludwigia Alternifolia.
Bone-set. Eupatorium Perfoliatum.
Swamp milkweed. Asclepias Incarnata.
Purple milkweed. Asclepias Purpurascens.
Red milkweed. Asclepias Rubra.
Obtuse leaved milkweed. Asclepias Obtusifolia.
Slender milkweed. Asclepias Verticillata.
Meadow sweet. Spiraea Salicifolla.
Hardhack. Spiraea Tomentosa.
Steeple bush Spiraea Tomentosa.
Ash-leaved spiraea. Spiraea Sorbifolia.
Upright spotted spurge. Euphorbia Preslii.
Spotted spurge. Euphorbia Maculata.
Wart weed. Euphorbia Maculata.
Horse-weed. Erigeron Canadensis.
Butter weed. Erigeron Canadensis.
Evening primrose. Oenothera Biennis.
Starry campion. Silene Stellata.
Dianthus. Dianthus Caryophyllus.
Clammy cuphea. Cuphea Viscosissima.
Pin weed. Lechea Minor.
Wild bergamot. Monarda Fistulosa.
Wild bean. Phaseolus Perennis.
Spikenard. Aralia Raemosa.
Wild sarsaparilla. Aralia Nudicaulis.
Ginseng. Aralia Quinquefolia.
Mad-dog skull cap. Scutellaria Lateriflora.
Beggars tick. Bidens Frondosa.
Stick tight. Bidens Frondosa.
Bur marigold. Bidens cernua.
Hawk weed (hairy). Hieracium Gronovii.
Hawk weed (panicled). Hieracium Paniculata.
Tick trefoil. Desmodium Nudiflorum.
Pear. Pyrus Communis.
Catherine pear. Pyrus Communis.
Frankford pear. Pyrus Communis.
Seckel pear. Pyrus Communis.
Chancellor pear. Pyrus Communis.
Keiffer pear. Pyrus Communis.
Cryptomeria. Cryptomeria Japonica.
Japan Cedar. Cryptomeria Japonica.
Cedar of Lebanon. Cedrus Libani.
Gordonia. Gordonia pubescens.
Franklin tree. Gordonia pubescens.
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.”