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 Nicole Juday
I ♥ Germantown
Having lived in the neighborhood for twenty years I realize there’s a rhythm to this place, faint but steady. Every time there’s a lull and I start to take Germantown for granted, I’m yanked out of complacency, often by a vignette observed from the sidewalk, a train, or the window of a car.
Most recently it was a scene captured as a snapshot. A young man was spotted driving an electric wheelchair down the center of Coulter Street as if it were a licensed motor vehicle, with an older woman perched on his lap as if in a royal procession. Moving at the speed of traffic, they were gone before I could get a good look. But it served as a drumbeat, a reminder of the joy I get from living here.
I’m not alone. Like many before us and, optimistically, after us, readers of this blog love Germantown. We love it for its antiquity, for its combination of grandeur and decay, for its cast of characters we wish we knew more personally. Whether conscious or not, we also appreciate its natural beauty, now layered over by the thick paint of hundreds of years of human intervention until in some cases it’s completely obliterated.
Edgar Allan Poe spent time in his short, impoverished, and unhappy life in Germantown and wrote about the Wissahickon in a strange essay, “Morning on the Wissahickon” from 1844, in which he describes our neighborhood park in evocative tones: “Now the Wissahickon is of so remarkable a loveliness that, were it flowing in England, it would be the theme of every bard, and the common topic of every tongue.”
Edwin Jellet loved this area too. In the introduction of this installment he writes “I love Germantown because . . . it was not built yesterday, it has a history, and though ‘mossed with age’. . . it is exceedingly alive, and its people have no superiors anywhere.”
Edwin, you are high on my list of remarkable Germantowners I wish I could have known, and even though we will never meet, I couldn’t agree with your statement more.
Edwin C. Jellett – August 28, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
I often wonder how many of us who have spent all or most of our days in Germantown adequately value what we have on its main avenues from Stenton and “Turnpike Bridge” to Wissahickon creek, and the site of William Dewees’ mill. Because it is a familiar highway we have become so accustomed to it that I sometimes fear we lack that fineness of appreciation which should possess us every one. Go where we may in our spacious country, there is not one other settlement which will at all rank with it in interest or importance, and, with, the possible exception of Quebec there is in North America no other place I know so quaint.
Several years ago, while showing this street to a visiting Armagh relative of mine, I said, “Helene, how do you like this?” She replied, “I don’t like it at all, it is too much like home. In America I like the new and strange.”
Here you have a story in a “nutshell,” for I love Germantown because, in addition to its favored position, it was not built yesterday, has a history, and, though “mossed with age,” its “high top” is not yet “bald with dry antiquity,” for it is exceedingly alive, and its people have no superiors anywhere.
But in this direction we may not venture far, nor stop long for while the subject is rich, and hard to leave, it shortly, I confidently expect, will be fully and satisfactorily presented by Dr. N.H. Keyser and his associates, so that my reference and purpose is to do no more than connect the avenue with a few of the numerous gardens, which, wherever a chance is offered, mark it in its passage through our territory.
We have mentioned the famous botanical garden of John T. Morris on the Wissahickon, and since it is impossible within our limits to properly present any, or even superficially to present all the “old time gardens” which Mrs. Earle overlooked, I wish to point a few which for their merits should not be forgotten.
Henry Troth told me he never came to a “box-bordered garden without going in to have a look at it,” and the observance of this rule no doubt accounts for his fine photographs showing the greenhouse, box-borders and hardy perennials of a portion of the garden of William M. Bayard pictured in the “Ladies Home Journal” of last year. The Bayard or George Hesser house stands upon Main street, immediately above the “old horse-car depot,” and directly opposite Phil-Ellena, the one-time notable estate of George W. Carpenter. After the Revolution “Hesser’s” was a well-known stopping place, a favorite resort for select visitors, and here during the yellow fever scourge of l793 Elizabeth Drinker lived, and wrote a portion of her celebrated “Journal.” Here also Leonard Stone Burner stopped while on his way from “Whitemarsh Church,” and Jacob Hiltzheimer, the genial friend of both, occasionally called.
The Hesser house, notwithstanding its encroaching environment, is yet a prominent one, which attracts the attention of every passer-by – its immense pine tree, wisteria-covered shrubs, dropping festoons of Virginia creeper, forming a most pleasing picture, and its well stocked greenhouse, with its variety of hardy shrubs, together contribute a lavishness of foliage and bloom to make it one of the “pleasure spots” of “Main street.”
As you well know, Phil-Ellena is no more, its broad far-reaching fields of teeming beauty being now occupied by “Pelham,” and “when changes come, as come they must,” I do not know that we may ever hope for a less objectionable one. At one time, and that time within my memory, “Carpenter’s” was the one great attraction of Germantown, and strangers were always taken to view its stately mansion, its imposing approaches, the “whale jaw” carriage arch, its gravelled walks and terraces, its unique clock tower beautifully situated, its abundant wealth of nature’s charms, and one acquainted with William Joyce, its gardener, was enabled to view its floral treasures, which, unknown to many a passer, were housed within the lower entrance gate. Now the very lines have disappeared, but on its one-time garden front there yet remains as a reminder of glories past, not great, but respectable, specimens of paulownia, tulip-poplar and white-pine, locust, horse-chestnut and copper beech, pin oak, chestnut and juniper, and towering silver maple, ailanthus and button wood trees.
The rare plants once here have gone, no vestige of the mansion remains, its natural history collections have been distributed, part now resting in the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and the Carpenter Library has been scattered to the “four corners of the earth.” Only in “old book stores” may an occasional reminder of it be found, and once in a great while George W. Carpenter’s book, “Essays on Some of the Most Important Articles of the Materia Medica,” published in 1831, with his autograph inscribed, maybe “stumbled” on. George W. Carpenter was a chemist and druggist, and it is said that his taste for natural history was developed by his acquaintance with Thomas Nuttall.
So changes come, and so we must become accustomed to them, and as we leave to move up Main street there comes to mind “The Germantown Social,” a very creditable journal illustrating Germantown, which was published by Colin and “Sam” Cooper; who lived in the quaint old house at corner of Gorgas street, and who also published a neat and interesting volume upon Germantown legends, entitled “Coquannock.” At this place now lives Robert S. Newhall, whom in my “cricket days” we all knew familiarly as “Rob,” and who every one of us thought a bigger man than President Hayes, because he “got away with the demon bowler.”
But this, though of interest to me, may not be to you, and I have stopped only to ask you to look at the “box walks” in geometrical design, which serve to remind us of records closed, for “precious feet” its paths have trod, there gentle fingers once flowers did pluck, there was happiness engendered by the constant forms we look upon.
Garrett’s place, on Garrett’s Hill, to me is always like a peaceful dream, so restful and quiet is it, and though changes have altered the hill, the place within its fence is just the same. In our territory I know nothing more charming than its stuccoed, ivy-covered front, in season further enriched by lilac blooming wisteria.
Another interesting place at which we may only glance is James E. Gowen’s, at corner of Gowen avenue, where a large hawthorne bush spreads over the Main street wall; where a specially fine magnolia may be seen, and where close by a group of lofty pine trees hold high their heads.
Schaeffer’s, next, was a well-known place in its day, and was celebrated for its chestnuts. Like Phil-Ellena, “as real as though it lived indeed,” it is but a memory, and its area is now occupied in part by the State Deaf and Dumb Asylum.
William Lehman Schaeffer was a familiar personage in Mt. Airy some 20 years ago as he drove about in his two-horse closed carriage, resembling the well-known rig of Dr. Earsner, of Germantown, he, like Dr. Earsner, being known to every one. From the entrance to his place a double row of high maples, one row of which yet remains, extended to the house, which stood about where the boiler house of the asylum now is.
William L. Schaeffer was an important man in his day. For many years he was one of the most active and Important members of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society; for 16 continuous years he was its president, and to him and his sister this society is indebted for its commodious and beautiful building in Philadelphia, for which Frank Miles Day, one of our best botanists and flower growers, was the architect. During the incumbency of William L. Schaeffer, A.W. Harrison, whom many of us remember, was long its secretary, and I mention the fact only to show where the “sinews of war” came from, for from our territory came also Caleb Cope, who was one of the founders of this same society and long its president, at whose place, “Spring Brook,” at Holmesburg, Thomas Meehan for the first time in North America succeeded in flowering the victoria regia, and whose garden after his removal to Chestnut Hill became noted for its extent, its variety and its public character, for on Rex avenue there were prominent signs giving notice that these grounds were “open to the public,” and inviting public use.
Now throughout our woods mosses, liverworts and lichens are developing and have reached many stages of maturity. While to an enthusiastic specialist they are of interest, to me they do not specially appeal, because belonging to inferior orders, bearing no attractive flowers, and in the lower orders of most irregular form, they at their best possess neither the beauty nor the interest which higher orders constantly hold for us, and where one studies and grows flowers for their simple rewards, to give to fungi time which might be more pleasurably used is too much like grubbing in sewers for moulds, when in the free pure air above we may more profitably study stars.
In popular floras these classes of plants are usually ignored, and as in a general sense they are unknown, I shall merely outline them as we pass. From ferns we pass to the pteroides, which properly include the moon-worts, to the club moss family, composed of small herbaceous plants with single or branching stems, numerous narrow leaves, and which include among its members our sturdy club moss, growing in the Wissahickon near the “Devil’s Pool,” the ground pine, growing in many parts of the Wissahickon, and the wall feather moss, common to green banks, shelving rocks and stone walls everywhere.
The liverworts known also as hepaticae, resemble the mosses, but differ mainly in having their stems bi-lateral-two-sided – its best known representative in our territory being marchantia, a flat, mottled, green, snake skin-like growth, appearing on rocks and in many damp places in the Wissahickon, an exceedingly odd and curious plant. Lichens comprise that miscellaneous group of dry growths, of gray, brown, green or other colors, appearing in patches on fences, on trunks or trees and in other numerous favorable situations. Dr. Muhlenberg, writing to his friend, William Baldwin, in 1811, stated: “The 23 of the month I sent you your favor packet back, and added 25 lichens. They are from Europe, but almost all also native of North America. I suspect the Jerseys contain a great many new species; if you look at your firewood you will find most of them.” Elsewhere Muhlenberg writes Baldwin that most of his lichen specimens were collected in this way.
Under the general heading fungi is grouped mushrooms and their allies, of which the terrestrial members develop from a mycellium or fibrous mass or spawn beneath the surface, the growth we see being in a certain sense a flower, although in another sense it is not, the process of development being the same as that touched upon for ferns. In Franklin wood edible hygrophorus, a small tawny colored fungus, is almost ever where observable, and throughout the same district both hard-skinned puff-ball, a large round coarse grower, and pear-shaped puff-ball, smaller and not so rank as the first, both varieties being known as blind man’s buff, are common. Now these are “green,” but soon the spores will ripen, the tension will burst the envelope, and the contents, like smoke, will be dissipated.
Throughout the “waterworks,” Wissahickon and other home woods, one may occasionally come upon geasters or earth-stars, though with us they are nowhere common. There are two varieties, one known as small earth-star, and the other as water measuring earth-star. In form they resemble each other, and the star pointed gelatin mass, atlas like, supporting a globe of spores, is known to all who frequent woods, as is also small cup-shaped bird’s nest, a simple receptacle containing a sac or sacs of spores. The waxy white, indented, many-ribbed edible morel is also present, as well as the golden flesh boletus, and “the destroying angel,” a toadstool deadly poisonous, and common. On fences and trunks of trees we have shades for “imps,” white leathery projections, which change from a creamy white to all the shades of color between it and black.
We have many fungi, but I have given enough to indicate which compasses my intention, and shall pass to mention diatoms, a class of microscopic plants of varied beautiful form infesting quiet pools and stagnant waters, of which the known varieties exceed 1500, and which, like algae or sea-weeds, the succeeding descending order, whose members are wholly cellular, are beyond our province.
In his valuable and interesting book, “The Botanists of Philadelphia,” Prof. John W. Harshberger states that Dr. George Rex, of Chestnut Hill, was the highest authority in the United States upon slime moulds, and Job B. Ellis, whose monumental contribution is the most complete work upon North America fungi, was a one-time resident of Germantown, both facts of general interest.
In addition to tick trefoil, previously noted, there is in bloom on the dry hills bordering the Wissahickon four other varieties of desmodiums, which are difficult to describe because all are known by one general common name. These plants incline to be rough, have either light or dark purple flowers, and all may be found on the dry hill bordering “Township line road,” above where it crosses Cresheim creek. The first is a smooth creeping plant, with small bean-like leaves; the second is a plant entirely prostrate, of soft texture, and entirely covered by small hairs; the third is an erect plant of slender growth, generously clothed, and the fourth has erect stems, scant of foliage, its few leaves being pale on the under surface. These plants are common in Southern New Jersey, but with us are rare, but so far as merit is concerned they cannot be compared with many other plants now in bloom.
A common and well-known weed in bloom before its time is ragweed, which with its greenish, yellow-stamined flowers shows itself along roadsides and in waste places everywhere. The plant usually blooms late, and to the nefarious influence of its pollen charging the atmosphere is credited hay fever, which usually appears about the 25th of August, a charge which, though disputed and a condition not fully comprehended, is hard to separate from the minds of those who have accepted a theory for a fact.
In gardens roses continue to bloom, and though there is no such thing as a “perpetual bloomer,” there are among “tea roses” a number of varieties which frequently flower, thereby giving rise to the name of “monthly roses.” At “Meier’s,” on Thorp’s lane, Japanese rose yet shows its red flowers, which when at their best make a gorgeous “show.”
Our early native and naturalized roses also show a straggling bloom, and a few of the later flowering varieties are now at their best. Common dwarf wild rose, which appears along roadsides, and swamp rose, a high growing specimen frequenting thickets near streams, continue their pink flowers, as does the naturalized dog-rose, a strong grower and heavy bloomer, and also sweet-briar or eglantine, an introduced plant known to all of us.
Native and cultivated hardy roses bring us naturally to “forced roses,” for which Germantown has long been favorably known, and from Louis Clapier Baumann, its first professional rose grower, to Edwin Lonsdale, John Burton, Albert Woltemate, John Welsh Young and others, with Joseph Heacock just beyond our borders, we have long had a production of select blooms which are nowhere excelled and rarely equalled, and at the same time we have had amateur growers, whose output differs only in quantity.
Among amateur rose culturists was Charles S. Pancoast, who at “Nutwold,” on East Johnson street, cultivated a large variety of hardy roses, which he grew in “frames,” and at the proper season “plunged” in beds. These roses were rich in rewards, and were Mr. Pancoast’s pride and delight, occupying his leisure, and at all times contributing to his pleasure and happiness.
William Morris Davis, at whose place on York road Lucretia Mott lived and died, was also a rose culturist, and his greenhouse, under the care of William Beatty, produced blooms equal to any grown elsewhere.
Perhaps the most prominent of the semi-professional class was William Cochrane, who on East Price street grew the models for George C. Lambdin’s celebrated pictures. William Cochrane held several important positions, among others that of gardener to Frederick Brown the father of Henry Armitt Brown, who is well remembered in Germantown, whose place occupied a prominent position on the “Green banks” at Burlington, N.J., which place he left to “start for himself” in Germantown, and in this connection serving Mr. Lambdin.
George C. Lambdin was ranked the “first flower painter in America,” and his “roses” became famous. The Lambdin family was a remarkable one, James R. Lambdin, its head, being a noted portrait painter, an associate of Sully and Peale, and whose work, with theirs, adorns the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. George C. Lambdin was the first secretary of our home Horticultural Society, an enthusiastic flower lover as well as an artist, a painter whose portraits were famed second only to his “roses.”
Alfred C. Lambdin was a practicing physician, who abandoned his profession to become editor of the Germantown Chronicle, a daily conducted by George Wharton Hamersly; who wrote the best account of the battle of Germantown; who later became an editor of the Philadelphia Times, and is now associate editor of the Public Ledger.
With all I had a more or less intimate acquaintance, and to those no more with us it is not only a pleasure, but always a duty, to testify to their nobility of character, their high sense of honor, their unfailing self-devotion. They indeed were “gems of purest ray serene,” whom the Creator permits upon this earth for a time to illumine the way, a light to “guide our feet into the way of peace.”
So may we follow their righteous paths, that “ensamples furnished for our learning” may not have been “in vain.”
Box. Buxus Sempervirens, var. Nana.
Pine. Pinus Strobus.
Wisteria. Wisteria Speciosa.
Virginia creeper. Ampelopsis Quinquefolia.
Paulownia. Paulownia Imperialis.
Tulip poplar. Liriodendron Tulipifera.
Locust. Robinia Pseudacacia.
Horse chestnut. Aesculus Hippocastanum.
Coffee-beech. Fagus Sylvatica, var. Purpurea.
Pin oak. Quercus Palustris.
Chestnut. Castanea Sativa, var. Americana.
Juniper. Juniperus Virginiana.
Silver Maple. Acer Dasycarpum.
Ailanthus. Ailanthus Glanduolsus.
Buttonwood. Platanus Occidentalis.
Hawthorn. Crataegus Oxyacantha.
Magnolia. Mangolia Acuminata.
Victoria regia. Victoria Regia.
Amazon water lily. Victoria Regia.
Club moss. Lycopodium Clavatum.
Gound pine. Lycopodium Compinatum.
Wall feather moss. Hypnum Murale.
Marchantia. Marchantia Polymorpha.
Edible hygrophorus. Hygrophorus Miniatus.
Hard skinned puff hall. Scleroderma Vulgare.
Pear shaped puff ball. Lycoperdon Pyriforme.
Small earth star. Geaster Minimus.
Water measuring earth star. Geaster Hygometricus.
Small cup shaped bird’s nest. Cyathus Vernicosus.
Edible morel. Morchella Deliciosa.
Golden flesh boletus. Bolebus Chrysenteron.
The destroying angel. Amanite Phalloides.
Imp covers. Lenzites Betulina.
Tick trefoil. Desmodium Nudiflorum.
Creeping desmodium. Desmodium Humifusum.
Postrate desmodium. Desmodium Rotundifolium.
Slender desmodium. Desmodium Paniculatum.
Erect desmodium. Desmodium Pauciflorum.
Rag-weed. Ambrosia Artemisiaefolia.
Japanese rose. Rosa Bugosa.
Dwarf wild rose. Rosa Lucida.
Swamp-rose. Rosa Carolina.
Dog-rose. Rosa Canina.
Sweet-brier. Rosa Rubiginosa.
Eglantine. Rosa Rubiginosa.
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.”