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
How intriguing that the four grand trees Edwin Jellett cites in the first several paragraphs of this week’s installment of “A Flora of Germantown” are exotics, that is, not native to eastern North America. One, the giant sequoia or Sequoiadendron giganteum (in current nomenclature), is of course a native American, but given that its natural range is a sliver of the West Coast, it does count as an exotic for Pennsylvania.
The three others hail from Japan (Cryptomeria japonica), Europe (Taxus baccata) and the eastern Mediterranean (Cedrus libani).
As Jellett reported in 1903, already the taxus, or yew, and the cedar of Lebanon were gone. There is now no giant sequoia at the Johnson House, nor a cryptomeria at Upsala, though a vast ginkgo and fine native trees survive at Upsala, of a size that suggests Jellett probably saw them.
For the record, here are the current state champions of these four, as recorded at www.pabigtrees.com, the database of Pennsylvania champion trees and runners-up:
- ● Cedar of Lebanon – Tyler Arboretum, height 87 feet, spread 93 feet.
- ● Cryptomeria – Longwood Gardens, height 62.5 feet, spread 38 feet.
- ● Giant sequoia – Tyler Arboretum, height 95.4 feet, spread 36 feet.
- ● Yew – Longwood Gardens, height 34.3 feet, spread 57 feet.
Perhaps Jellett simply had rare, exotic trees on his mind when writing this, for he does mention a few “worthy specimens” of native trees, without specifying their locations. But his comment about the removal of “several fine trees … I once knew” is a presumably unintentional reference to the increasingly tree-less condition of Pennsylvania through his lifetime.
The second half of the 19th century was when the state was essentially clear-cut, its vast forest of enormous old-growth trees felled for all manner of pre-modern industrialism. Since Europeans arrived, of course, land was continually being cleared for farming, leaving steep terrain forested until the full-scale harvest commenced. The very year that “A Flora of Germantown” was published, the Mont Alto Forestry School was established, the nation’s first such public institution, and now a part of Pennsylvania State University. It was created to help rescue and manage the vestiges of forest that remained and to replant vast tracts across the state. Those replanted forests are what we see today when traveling through “Penn’s Woods.”
Another example of the shortage of great native trees is in Jellett’s 1914 book, Germantown Gardens and Gardeners, a printing of one of his lectures before the Site and Relic Society of Germantown (it must have taken hours!). His single paragraph about Awbury, while laudatory, mentions not one notable tree. Small wonder. When the Cope family acquired the tract, it was being farmed. The trees Jellett would have seen at Awbury, while including rarities, were at most 50 years old, many much younger. (The little book can be acquired today in facsimile edition. Go to: books.google.com and enter “Jellett” in the search field.)
Edwin C. Jellett – August 21, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
Those of us living in Germantown 25 years ago will well remember Amos R. Little, and “Pomona Grove,” his dwelling place, then a select country seat extending from our Main street to Morton and for the greater part of its length reaching from Washington lane to what is now Duval street. Behind the wire fence surrounding it, open so that every passer-by might enjoy, were winding walks, flower beds numerous, shrubs and trees without number, the whole exhibiting the landscape gardener’s art at its best.
Often stood I on Washington lane feasting upon its offerings; often saw I boys with less conscience or more nerve than myself raid its fruit trees; often saw I intruders help themselves to gold-fish, with which its lake was stocked, but all have vanished.
In its closing days Pomona Grove was a busy place, the scene of many a social function, whose life and activity was reflected upon the community about. Here the Arion Singing Society, an important local organization, held a notable open-air concert; here many associated with the Centennial Exhibition, of which Mr. Little was a commissioner, came; and from here, after disposing of the place, Mr. and Mrs. Little started upon a journey round the world, an account of which is presented in “The World as We Saw It,” by Anna P. Little.
But it is not of the place nor of its many interesting associations I wish to write; my purpose is to record a notable tree once there, which had not an equal in Philadelphia, if indeed in America. This was a yew tree which stood on the line of Baynton street, immediately above present Pomona terrace, a tree, of its kind, I have never seen equaled in size and condition. In England, celebrated for its yew trees, I took special note, and these two yew trees I saw were conspicuous above all others. One stood in a churchyard, surrounding the oldest church in England, and shadowed the grave of a crusader. The other tree stood beside St. Nicholas Chapel, in the grounds of the Lepers’ Hospital, Canterbury, and although showing the effects of time, was yet vigorous, although the parish records showed that it had existed for over 1000 years.
Many places elsewhere in England I saw yew trees, but not one I saw was equal to the tree which grew at “Pomona Grove.” Why this was I do not know, but that it was a magnificent specimen was testified to by many Englishmen who had greater opportunity than I do make comparison, Thomas Meehan himself telling me the Pomona yew was the finest one he had ever seen. When the change came the Germantown Horticultural Society, which for may years had charge of Market Square, endeavored to secure the gem for that place, but a callous contractor lacking its public spirit, and under-estimating its moral individuality, demanded a price which it refused, and the tree was destroyed.
Another Germantown rare tree meeting a similar fate was a fine cedar of Lebanon, which stood on the grounds of Galloway C. Morris on East Tulpehocken street. This tree was about 20 feet high, and in perfect growing condition, but was cut down to make way for “improvements.” Col. Morris had many rare plants, but it is useless to enumerate more, for the place is now a common quarry, as drear and bleak as a Greenland mountain. But although these rare trees have perished, we have others, and fortunately in a place they will not be disturbed. When John Jay Smith, following the example of Dr. Jacob Bigelow, of Boston, organized for Philadelphia a “garden Cemetery,” and purchased for its site “Laurel,” the beautiful country seat of Joseph Simms located on the Schuylkill river, immediately south of the “Falls,” he secured a place rich in nature’s bounties, and among these some of the rare plants which now make Laurel Hill attractive. Care also was taken that there new planting should, so far as plants go, be of a permanent character, and it is to this decision and care that the finest yews and cedar of Lebanon trees in or near Philadelphia stand in North Laurel Hill.
A rare tree which we noted growing at Peter Keiffer’s, we are pleased to record, grows near home, and is represented by a specimen equally as good. Whenever I pass any of our Germantown homesteads I wish their owners unbounded prosperity, and in this world “life forever-more,” for had they these then we should dread no change in the hallowed places they possess, and the woful destruction of the little “Jansen House,” which I witnessed, could not be paralleled.
Upsala, when I first knew it, was owned by Norton Johnson, a nature nobleman, whose considerate ways will not soon be forgotten, a lover of flowers, a vice president of our Horticultural Society, one of its most regular attendants and earnest supporters. No stranger may pass Upsala and not be impressed by it, for it stands with a dignity possessed by no other building in Germantown. In Scribner’s Magazine several years ago a writer described this house as the finest type of “colonial architecture in America,” but art we shall not discuss, for we have stopped at Upsala not for this, nor to enter one of the richest gardens in our midst, but simply to note a few interesting plants, and among them a fine specimen of the rare Japan cedar or cryptomeria, which stands near Dr. Johnson’s house, Main and Upsal streets.
There may be other Japan cedars about, but this is the finest one I know short of North Laurel Hill. Through age and decay several fine trees and shrubs I once knew here have been removed, but there yet continue worthy specimens of pin oak, paulownia, ailanthus, silver maple, tulip poplar and white pine, and in front of the Johnson house, between it and the street, is, so far as I know, the only specimen of red-wood or “California big tree” growing naturally in Philadelphia. This is a tree perhaps 25 feet high, which, though small and comparatively young, may, let us hope, attain the proportions of its famous progenitors.
Gardens have taken a bound and have greatly brightened. One should never commit himself in nature writing, for the usual and expected is often deflected, and what we sometimes count upon as a surety never occurs. So recent rains have revived vegetation, and flowers we did not look for are now in bloom. On many a lawn corchorus is bearing a second crop of flowers, and wisteria, although not as heavy as at first, has now a goodly showing of smaller, but more intensely colored, and if it be possible, more beautiful flowers. Agapanthus in tubs, which long have been spreading recurved leaves in obscurity, is now in a conspicuous place and displaying its handsome blue flowers; orange lily, well known and always a welcome visitor, with nodding blooming heads, borders many a side fence walk; day lily, differing from orange lily in form and habit, spreads its wide shielding leaves, and with sturdy stems erect exhibits its tubular white flowers, furnishing a pleasing contrast.
Flower beds were never more bright, nor was there ever a more brilliant display of phloxes than those in varied colors which now bloom. Begonias in variety, bordered by “blue flowering” ageratum; cultivated asters in several colors, and scarlet-sage, always intense and vivid, are in bloom and in their degree contribute to form a pleasing whole. Marantas, dracenas and crotons, all “stove plants,” beautify many a shady garden spot, where flowering plants would fail. So the procession moves, and though in the nature of things it must soon pass, it is for our pleasure while in sight. In waste places, in fields, swamps and woods the march continues, and although there are no noisy, vulgar advertisement wagons to be encountered at the rear nor anything objectionable to offend, it is with a feeling of procrastination that we view the waning year, the signs of which are beginning to appear.
Burdock, a plant which has gotten many of us in trouble, is showing its purple tufted bloom on nearly every “lot,” and as “stickers” or “burs” is known to every one of us. Butter and eggs and white-weed have taken a new lease of life, and several of our early spring flowers are more or less sparingly apparent.
In thus endeavoring to present our flora I have almost entirely avoided technical names, but it should be understood that where one desires to progress systematically an acquaintance with the “code” is necessary. For example, in England butter and eggs is generally known as toad-flax, while in parts of our country it is known as snap-dragon and ramsted, but the world over it is known botanically as linaria vulgaris; that is to say, the common linaria, a name quite as simple as any of the popular ones.
Much of the aversion to technical names is due to the fact that many attempt to memorize them without learning their meaning, and like fractions or algebra, which most of us dislike, we turn out of the path at the first gate.
Asters and goldenrods are developing strongly, and michaelmas daisy is already showing its buds, and near Mt. St. Joseph Convent rough stemmed golden-rod holds high its head of yellow bloom, the first of a brilliant following.
Along the Wissahickon, near Thorp’s lane bridge, green amaranth or pig-weed, a rather unattractive plant, is in bloom, and near it is tumble-weed, previously noted; also thorny amaranth, with reddish spiny stems, and another smooth, slender variety of green amaranth, with no popular name other than pig-weed, by which the whole family is known. Also at the same place is high ragweed, a sturdy grower, usually rising to a height of 8 feet, sometimes to many more feet, and bearing plain green flowers. In the same vicinity in bloom is slender pepper grass, differing from wild pepper grass in being more delicate in structure, and in producing flowers without petals.
Near Thorp’s dam is swamp beggar’s tick, a smooth plant 1 to 2 feet high, with small yellow flowers; also larger bur-marigold, sometimes low and spreading, and sometimes rising to a height of 2 feet, and displaying rich yellow chrysanthemum-like flowers, are blooming sparingly, but appear more plentifully along the Schuylkill river, below Shawmont water-works.
One who ventures into unbeaten woodland paths late in this month will collect most unwelcome “stickers” which he could well do without, and the Wissahickon woods is as full of them as is the “Trappe churchyard” of “jiggers.” The small crescent shaped sticker is the fruit or seed of tick-trefoil; the small round one, that of the agrimony; the short and long-hooked ones, the product of the several varieties of bur-marigold, or beggar’s ticks.
By Thorp’s dam, climbing over underbush, in bloom is hog-peanut, a slender bean-like vine, knotted with small bunches of light pink or white tubular flowers; cone-flower, yellow with bloom, and high above wild sunflower somewhat like it and blooming near the same place; cow-wheat, before noted, but yet as vigorous as ever; hedge nettle, a rough plant with whorls of slender tubular pink flowers, protected by prickly shields; and several other plants, principally of the large family named compositae in bud, and a few showing color, which later we hope to enumerate.
In its favorite resorts moss-pink continues to bloom, but its clothes appear as shabby as ever; in damp or in shaded parts, especially near streams, golden alexander is rich with yellow bloom, and in more than one way resembles meadow parsnip; in the Wissahickon, near Kitchen’s lane, hazel-nut is mature, and curiously grouped shows its crown exposed winged fruit.
Beech-drops, one of the strangest inhabitants of our woods, is beginning to appear. It is a leafless, yellowish plant, growing to a height of one or more feet, and producing along its bony stems at regular intervals brownish purple streaked flowers. It is classed as parasitic, and though it may be, it is not so to the extent that many claim. The plant takes its name from the fact that it usually appears under beech trees. Many times I have tried to ascertain definitely whether the plant is a true parasite, but so far have failed. My opinion is that it is not a parasite at all. The plant develops from a corn-like growth, whose rootlets spread in peat-like banks, and these I have never been able to connect with the roots of the beech, or those of any other plant, and I am confident that ordinarily it grows upon “its own roots.” While the plant prefers the vicinity of beech trees, it is by no means exclusive, for in the Wissahickon woods it may be found growing under hemlock trees, where beech trees are not in sight.
In the Wissahickon, near Springfield avenue, ladies’ tresses is in bloom, and near Logan Station slender ladies’ tresses, not to be outdone, is also in flower. The peculiar spiral, waxy white floral spikes are known, I think, to most of us, and the plants differ only in the character of their growth, one being more delicate than the other.
Huckleberries, which ordinarily ripen late with us, are now “mellow” in Franklin wood, and this reminds me of a trip George Redles, Albert G. Wertsner and myself made to “Quaker Bridge” in search of rare plants, but as well met with rare experiences, one of which was this, which will serve to illustrate the fatuity of misused humanity. Mark Twain has told us a story where the inhabitants of a certain settlement made a living by taking in each “other’s washing,” but surrounded by Jersey woods we came upon a man, who, like the one J. Whitcomb Riley versifies, has planted himself in a “desert wild,” and, contrary to our prophets’ predictions, is growing rich. As we halted in front of our “wide awake man’s” castle, a wagon loaded with huckleberries appeared, and a sun-bonneted old woman, whose form showed the effects of heavy labor, was in it seated. As she pulled to our enterprising merchant stepped out and said, “Good afternoon, Mrs. McCormick, warm day.” “Yes, kind of warm,” was the reply. “Buying berries to-day?” said the newcomer. “Sorry to say, Mrs. McCormick, berries is down;” then lifting a box and running his band through it, said, “Well, I will give you 3 cents a box, or a dollar a crate,” and with the acceptance of the offer, after a demur, the ownership passed from one to the other, and to a waiting customer the berries were disposed of at once for 5 cents a box. Now, as a shallow man says, “business is business,” but here was a worker who earned 3 cents, and here in miniature was a monopolist, who, without a just equivalent, obtained upon his investment 66 per cent. Moral: Happy is he who loves work for its own sake, for while others uneasy scheme for gain, he, satisfied, shall want nothing.
On warm days, when the air is sultry, the sun high, when leaves hang low, and all nature seems drowsy, who is there among us who does not love to “go a fishing?” The practical rewards we know are few, but if it be only to sit on a shady bank and watch the cork float with the stream, there is a quiet satisfaction, much like that which I imagine a smoker finds in the lazy rising rings of his fragrant “Havana.” Now of all places to fish I know the Wissahickon is the poorest, for if the truth be told I there seldom caught more than a cold and a good lecture on reaching home, but as all our good and bad qualities are to a certain extent inherited, I suppose that for a questionable streak I am indebted to an ancestor of mine, of whom love-sporting Isaak Walton wrote, “I mean to try it, for to-morrow morning we shall meet a pack of other dogs of noble Mr. Sadler’s upon Amwell Hill, who will be there so early that they intend to prevent the sun rising.” But whether or not there is much to get, men and boys will fish, and although the brook trout, which William E. Meehan, our present State Fish Commissioner, had placed, have almost, if not entirely, disappeared, there are yet in the Wissahickon suckers, perch, sun-fish, cat-fish, eels, minnows, a few bass, which if your days are long enough and your enthusiasm constant, you may occasionally beguile.
Several years ago I spent a week’s vacation in the upper Wissahickon, studying its floral and making a map, and while there I met a fisherman with his rods, his can and his dog. This nimrod plied Thorp’s dam until “patience” had ceased to be a “virtue,” and yet he “fished,” catching nothing. My usual morning salutation was, “What’s the luck to-day?” “No luck, fish not bitin’,” was the invariable reply, as he removed his pipe, and to kill “two birds with one stone” spat into the creek. This continued all week until Friday, when he surrendered. I had left him at 8 o’clock in the morning, and moved down the stream taking measurements, and about 4 o’clock in the afternoon I saw him following the bridle path at a point below Rex avenue. His lines were folded, his can empty, his manner crestfallen, and, like his shadow, his dog, dejected, followed behind, a solitary mourner. “What’s the luck?” said I. “No luck, fish not bitin’,” said he. Slowly he plodded along the winding hemlock bordered path, disappearing in the “gloaming,” and I never saw him after, a phantom, which, though “lost to sight,” is yet to “memory dear.”
My beloved old fried, Abraham H. Cassel, told me that when Peter Becker left Ephrata, following the Biblical injunction, “he went a fishing,” and, coming to Germantown, he, among others, caught in his net John Pettkoffer and the wife of Christopher Saur. Now, as I pass neglected or deserted churches, I wonder if all have gone “a-fishing,” or whether all have strayed the “fold,” and I marvel that a great church is lax, while an insignificant business is energetic, and that of times pastors and shepherds may be readier spared than grocers’ clerks.
This brings to us Enos Springer, the plain-spoken philosophic keeper of the Rittenhouse street toll-gate. Enos, in addition to turnpike duties, was a manufacturer and merchant in a small way, and among his commodities were chickens, which he retailed to whoever had the “wherewithal to buy.” One day the Rev. J. Pinckney Hammond, rector of St. Michael’s Protestant Episcopal Church, became a customer, and in giving his name and place of delivery for the birds Enos stood off, looked at him and said, “What! A great big man like you a preacher? Why don’t you go work for a living?” No one more enjoyed telling this story than Dr. Hammond himself, and although Enos betrayed his weakness, who shall say he had not “a foundation in fact,” though doubtless an insufficient one, for his conclusions?
By a devious route I have reached the mark, for without work, or an earned rest, we have no excuse for living, and whatever our work or our pleasure is, be true, never neglecting one to serve the other.
So whether we are a fisherman living on a “pension” and loafing along a stream, or a “preacher,” who, having married “where money is,” annually tours “Europe for his health,” or a gambling official, who is as affable as “a big sun-flower” in fancied security, and nervously “prostrated” upon discovery, or a Croesus successfully reveling in “ill-gotten gains,” remember this – that in this world all shams come to an end, and that whatever is false is by the mass of workers, who have little nor desire much, gauged to its particular degree of contempt, for the admiration for, an honest man is yet supreme.
English yew. Taxus Bacata.
Cedar of lebanon. Cedrus Libani.
Japan cedar. Cryptomeria Japonica.
Cryptomeria. Cryptomeria Japonica.
Pin oak. Quercus Palustris.
Paulownia. Paulownia Imperialis.
Ailanthus. Ailanthus Glandulosus.
Silver maple. Acer Dasyarpum.
White pine. Pinus Strobus.
Tulip poplar. Liriodendron Tulipifera.
Red-wood. Sequoia Gigantea.
California big tree. Sequoia Gigantea.
Corchorus. Kerria Japonica.
Wisteria. Wisteria Speciosa.
Agapanthus. Agapanthus Umbelatus.
Orange lily. Lilium Tigrinum.
Day lily. Funkia Subcordata.
Phlox. Phlox Drummondii.
Ageratum. Ageratum Conyzoides, var. Mexicanum.
China aster. Callistephus Chinensis.
Scarlet sage. Salvia Splendens.
Maranta. Maranta Zebrina.
Dracena. Dracena Indivisa.
Croton. Codiaeum Aucubaefolium.
Burdock. Arcium Lappa.
Butter and eggs. Linaria Vulgaris.
White weed. Erigeron Annuus.
Toad flax. Linaria Vulgaris.
Snap dragon. Linaria Vulgaris.
Ramsted. Linaria Vulgaris.
Linaria. Linaria Vulgaris.
Michaelmas daisy. Aster Ericoides.
Rough stemmed golden-rod. Solidago Rugosa.
Green Amaranth. Amaranthus Retroflexus.
Pig weed. Amaranthus Retroflexus.
Tumble-weed. Amaranthus Albus.
Thorny amaranth. Amaranthus Spinosus.
Slender green amaranth. Amarantus Chlorostachys.
High rag-weed. Ambrosia Trifida.
Slender grass. Lepidium Ruderale.
Wild pepper-grass. Lepidium Virginicum.
Swamp beggar’s tick. Bidens Connata.
Large bur-marigold. Bidens Chrysanthemoides.
Tick trefoil. Desmodium Nudiflorum.
Agrimonia. Agrimonia Eupatoria.
Bur-marigold. Bidens Frondosa.
Beggars tick. Bidens Frondosa.
Hog-peanut. Amphicarpaea Monoica.
Cone-flower. Rudbeckia Laciniata.
Wild sun-flower. Helianthus Divaricatus.
Cow wheat. Meampyrum Americanumela.
Hedge nettle. Stachys Arvensis.
Wound-wort. Stachys Arvensis.
Moss pink. Phlox Subulata.
Golden Alexander. Zizia Aurea.
Meadow parsnip. Thaspium Aureum.
Wild hazelnut. Corylus Americana.
Beech drops. Epiphegus Virginiana.
Beech. Fagus Ferruginea.
Hemlock. Tsuga Canadensis.
Ladies’ tresses. Spiranthes Cernua.
Ladies’ tresses (slender). Spiranthes Gracilis.
Huckleberry. Gaylussacia Frondosa.
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.”