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 Mark Sellers
Jellett started his August 7, 1903 column with a meditation on cicadas. Apparently, 1885 was a big year for cicadas in lower Germantown, and Jellett recalls there were places where the streets were slippery with their squashed carcasses. Let that sink in.
After being repelled by the thought of large, loud bugs being trampled in the street, I have the urge to turn away from the particulars of this week’s column and offer a long view of A Flora of Germantown. To state the obvious, A Flora of Germantown is a book, but only barely. At the turn of the 20th century the technology of printing and binding was relatively expensive, and there were lots of alternative strategies to overcome that problem. A Flora of Germantown might be best described as a scrapbook. While some parts of it were printed, in particular the dedication at the front, the articles themselves were carefully scissored out of the newspapers where they originally appeared and glued into the blank pages of what I suspect was a commercially available blank book intended for this purpose. That book, which was approximately four inches thick, had a hardback book cover and looks in all respects like a hefty library book of the time. This scrapbook approach permitted Jellett to cannibalize other books to curate his own. Indeed, interspersed among the pages of newspaper clippings are various other images relating to the topics under discussion; including wood cuts of notable Germantown houses and portraits of the people he mentions, all of which must have come from other publications. The last hundred pages or so of A Flora of Germantown are color plates of the various plants he discusses, scissored out of Thomas Meehan’s Flowers and Ferns of North America.
For the purpose of being scanned the copy of A Flora of Germantown at the Germantown Historical Society was taken apart and the individual sheets placed in acid free envelopes. While this is perfectly sound conservation practice it is a pity we cannot have the experience of pulling this large, imposing tome off the shelf and feeling its weight and seriousness—because that is surely what Jellett wanted us to do. Jellett’s endless references to figures in history and their accomplishments invites us to place him in that pantheon, and A Flora of Germantown was surely intended to be another stone in that edifice.
Jellett is always memorable when observing water and the plants that live in or around it. This week he takes the reader through what was blooming in various ponds and streams, including the Schulykill. Interestingly, for students of how common names for plants shift and mutate over time– Jellett mentions a water plant he calls “duck’s meat” and gives the Latin name as lemna minor. Today we refer to it as duck weed; Jellett’s usage, has, however, passed muster by our tireless editor, so we have every reason to believe it is not a typo.
Edwin C. Jellett – August 7, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
On bright mornings early the locusts now sing, but without their announcement we know that warm weather is here. Many times in the past have we listened to their trills, and long sultry days endured has prepared us for like days to come.
Last year from early summer to “fall,” those who frequented the country were from almost every grove and wood greeted by a peculiar hum which seemed to fill space, in pitch and volume resembling the “roar of London,” or the mellowed rumble of waves breaking on a distant shore, and, aeolian-like, bewitching and haunting us for weeks. As you are well aware, these wave sounds were set in motion by the cicada, or 17-year locust, an insect whose habits were first correctly reported to the world by Margaretta Hare Morris, a native and a life-long resident of Germantown.
Following the footsteps of Daniel Geissler and Dr. Witt, we, as they, shall leave the Wissahicbon for a time, and take ourselves to their retreat, the present southeast corner of Main and High streets, where stands the quaint, in part hip-roofed, latticed, red-curtained windowed house, in which they first, and afterwards in which Miss Morris dwelt, a house as familiar to us as the “Great Road” itself, and to the grounds whereon Miss Morris made her observations, the same which first serving Dr. Witt, later did a like favor for Elizabeth Carrington Morris, a botanist well-known to the last generation of plant students.
Last year, for an unknown reason, the cicada visitation was light, but those who remember that of the year 1885 will also remember the hordes which covered pavements, stone walls, and vegetation everywhere about home, and especially heavy in lower Germantown, one locality notably afflicted being “Cottage Row,” where the pavement was so slippery from trampled carcasses that pedestrians with difficulty were able to “keep their feet.”
Last year I endeavored to make a study of these insects, but I shall pass entomological consideration, and refer those interested to Miss Morris’ paper, which with other important contributions and discoveries appear in the “Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia.”
Elizabeth Carrington Morris was a correspondent of the leading botanical writers of her day, and one of her special friends was Dr. William Darlington, of West Chester, a famous botanist, to whom Dr. Torrey dedicated the genus Darlingtonia, which includes the celebrated California pitcher plant, a nature nobleman whom Thomas Meehan told me had befriended more young scientists than any other person of his day, and a gentleman whose kindly actions are yet had in remembrance.
Among my books I have several of interest in connection with the “Morris-Littell corner.” One is a botanical text-book once belonging to Susan S. Littell, several I have from the library of Dr. Darlington, and one is the rare “Florula Cestrica,” published in 1826, and presented to “Miss Elizabeth C. Morris with the respects of the author.”
Though exceedingly scarce, this book I prize on account of its associations. As you will remember, Dr. Darlington collected the letters of Muhlenberg and Baldwin, and issued them in book form as “Reliquiae Baldwinianae.” Baldwin and Darlington were friends and students together, and “Florula Cestrica” is dedicated to “Rev. Lewis D. V. Schweinitz, of Bethlehem, Pa.,” and also “as a tribute of affection to the memory of my early and estimable friend, William Baldwin, M.D.”
Beneath this Dr. Darlington wrote for Miss Morris:
“Handfuls of fresh and fragrant lilies bring,
Mixed with the purple roses of the spring;
Let me with funeral flowers his lovely body strew;
This mournful duty to my friend I owe —
This unavailing gift, at least, I may bestow.
— Imitated from Dryden’s translation.
Vegetable gardens have reached their prime, and will soon pass into decline. With “new potatoes” present, and tomatoes and corn near to hand; onions in flower, ockra or gumbo, and squash and pumpkin on the way, the “common round” is surely winding to a close.
Have you ever thought how strange it is that potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, deadly night-shade and several other plants of opposite qualities belong to the same family? I have long thought the person who first made use of a tomato possessed the courage of a martyr, for, belonging to a poisonous group, it displays all the characteristics of its class.
Corn, now in tassel, is an exceedingly interesting plant, and it is our one national distinctive “flower,” which neither aster, golden-rod, rhododendron, nor any other foster creation, is able to supplant. Corn is of interest to us because of its association with James Logan, and also because its worth gave name to a poem, and this poem, recognized by a fellow-townsman, first introduced to the world one of the very few Americans who may be classed as a poet.
In the year 1874 Sidney Lanier was a musician, playing a flute in a Baltimore orchestra. In this same year he wrote a poem named “Corn,” which he sent to John Foster Kirk, the editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, who then lived at the southeast corner of High and Morton streets, a place which later Lanier several times visited. The poem was accepted and published, and under Mr. Kirk’s sponsorship this new “star” appeared. While Lanier was living in Philadelphia on Walnut street and Powelton avenue, and calling on Mr. Kirk, I was familiar with the incidents, being then living at the southwest corner of the cross streets named, and in a house, which, after being purchased and improved by Charles W. Chandler, was occupied by Mr. Kirk, where he did much of his best work, and where also Ellen Olney Kirk wrote several of her novels. Mrs. Kirk is a charming woman and an enthusiastic flower lover, who now dwells in a sylvan retreat on East Graver’s lane, Chestnut Hill, where those who best know her most wish her an unending continuation of the happiness she enjoys.
With this digression we shall pass from corn and “garden sass” to brilliant red-topped Oswego tea, and the rakish light-headed lilac-flowering spider plant now blooming in gardens, and from these to the independent bloom of the fields and woods.
Now along the edges of pools or slow streams the little blue forget me-not, which delighted us in the spring, is displaying a later growth of bloom. Bartonia, one of the gentian family, and an odd small low plant with white flowers, named in honor of Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, a nephew of David Rittenhouse, is blooming near Edge Hill, the nearest locality I know for it, and in a spot first discovered by George Redles, who with his “divining rod” seems able to locate rare plants wherever situated. Bartonia with us is extremely rare, but in the “New Jersey barrens” it is common enough, and in that region now blooming with it is yellow-eyed grass, a beautiful grass-like plant with light yellow flowers, in many points resembling our common blue-eyed grass, but so far as I know not appearing in our territory at all.
Warm weather brings our water plants to bloom and several are now sporting in the heat and light. In the upper Wissahickon and also near “Falls of Schuylkill,” pickerel weed, a plant with large, thick, heavy leaves standing out of the water, now shows numerous spikes of light blue, or sometimes white flowers with a cast of yellow. Along the river, near Flat-rock Dam, mud-plantain, a rare water plant with us, shows its round leaves and very small white, or sometimes light blue flowers, growing in the mud, and blooming sometimes above water and sometimes under water, according to rainfalls and resultant levels.
Water-plantain, with dark green variable oval-shaped leaves rising to a height of two to three feet from a common base, and producing a stalk branching into a numerous divided head bearing small white or tinted pink flowers, is in bloom in a pool near Fisher’s lane bridge. In the same pool is duck’s meat, a curious floating plant, with small round leaves, with curious rootlets projecting from the under side, and with very small flowers, which appear on the edge or on the upper surface of the leaf. The bloom is rare, and to discover it at all one must look closely. Near the same locality in bloom is halbert leaved tear-thumb, with neither conscience nor good manners, and, like all the polygamous, may readily be known by its flowers. In this same neighborhood and also at Shawmont grows water pennywort, a small creeping pale round-leaved plant, bearing minute white flowers at the axils of the leaves.
In fields and along the borders of woods nearly all our native mints are blooming. Those now in bloom are peppermint, with smooth leaves, and growing near the pool above Thorp’s lane bridge; horse-mint, white and hairy, growing in Franklin wood; wild mint and spear mint, both growing in damp places almost everywhere in fields. These have the characteristic odor, and all have lilac or pale purple flowers.
Also in bloom, and belonging to the same family group, is wild marjoram, a thick grower near Allen’s lane on the Wissahickon, with deep purple flowers; dittany, an erect hard-wooded plant, with gritty leaves crisply odorous, and with small purple flowers, common throughout the Wissahickon; and American pennyroyal, a plant, like the mints, with light purple or blue flowers, and appearing everywhere on poor soli, and not infrequently on rich land, a guide to many a German farmer in the selection of a home, and a plant too generally known to need further mention.
In Franklin wood is basil, or mountain mint, and there the small narrow-leafed and the lance-leafed varieties alike show the color of their white or lilac bloom, and differing but little in appearance, dwell upon the high bank overlooking “New Wayne street.”
Common now in the open is day flower, a tradescantia, with plain green leaves on awkward stalks, and with an abundance of small delicate sky-blue flowers. This plant seems to flourish best on damp ground, but dry ground is no hindrance to it. Harper’s Hollow and the beautiful lane beyond, which the trolley demon destroyed, was a favorite resort for it.
In fields black-eyed Susan, or bachelor button, continues to bloom, and now its plain yellow-flowering sister or brother, I know not which, is blooming beside it, both being sometimes known as cone flower.
A plant closely resembling the yellow cone flower, though not as high a grower, is woodland sunflower, a slender growing sunflower with a small disc and long yellow rays, and now blooming in Logan’s meadow and along the edges of Wister’s wood.
Elecampane, another yellow-flowered, and a vigorous growing plant, inclined to be a little rough, is blooming in the lower Wissahickon, near the “Old Log Cabin grounds.”
Among our finest summer blooming plans are the gerardias and several representatives of the family appear in Franklin wood. All the gerardias have flowers shaped like those of a foxglove, and in fact several are known as false fox-gloves, and all known to me have delicate attractive foliage. In bloom is slender gerardia, a small plant with finely cut leaves and with small open, very beautiful pink flowers. One not familiar with Franklin wood should become acquainted, for it is one of our most valuable floral “reserves.”
Before the creation of Pelham, and the destruction of a part of Franklin street, the lane leading from the “milk farm” east of Greene street to Township line was one of the most charming places I knew, and I am not satisfied that what we have received is equal to the loss. The lane; the creek, with the wooden bridge spanning it; Glick’s white-coated stone house, with its spring and milk cans, its garden crowded with a wealth of produce, its willows and shelving meadow land retreating to the wood; a gem of rural restful peace which would have satisfied the contemplative minds of gentle Isaak Walton and Gilbert White, all altered or obliterated to make way for a common though attractive drive, where “wheelers” race; where engines hiss and puff, discharging steam and noxious odors, and like an inflated “bag-pipe” ever charged, snort their pestiferous noises upon the least provocation; an obtrusive, assertive, offensive vulgarity in objectionable hands – a combination we could well do without, where sordid drivers, less intelligent seeming than the beast they control, cut and urge a willing but overwrought, defenseless animal, whom it should be their province to protect; and though we have some compensations to off-set the loss, I am not sure that we have not surrendered to mammon.
In the Wissahickon, climbing over shrubbery and low vegetation, is bindweed, a member of the convolvulus or morning glory family, and showing its open white trumpet-shaped flowers, a common plant and blooming throughout the summer season.
A plant rare with us is wild potato or man of the earth, belonging to the same family, a vigorous grower, sometimes trailing, sometimes climbing, and clothed with large white purple-striped flowers. This plant is common to parts of New Jersey, but I have collected it in the low ground along the stream south of Allen’s lane, Wissahickon.
Dodder, a twining plant previously noted, is now in bloom, and shows matted knots of small yellowish white flowers. This plant is entirely distinct, and should never be confused with any other plant of our territory.
Everywhere in woods, and along fences and stone walls, our common Virginia creeper is in full bloom, and from the walls of houses the flowers of the Japan ivy mature, cast their rejected petals.
Our few late milk-weeds are either in bloom or in bud, bud these I shall present later.
I am fond of referring to Thomas Nuttall because of his modest worth, for “he was a man, take him all in all, we shall not” soon “look upon his like again.” Those who knew him best loved him best, and his unselfish, conscientious work, carried on under great difficulty through many years, testifies to his stability of character, and lives a monument to his ability and patient thoroughness.
Along roads red berries, of a few weeks ago have become blackberries, and this brings again to mind a “Memoir of Thomas Nuttall,” written by our beloved townsman, Charles J. Wister, for the Germantown Horticultural Society, of which he is the oldest, and one or its most active members. Thomas Nuttall was a frequent visitor to “Grumblethorpe,” the well-known home of Mr. Wister, and with the announcement of a visit and walk, I shall retire, and with you will let Mr. Wister, who distinctly remembers Nuttall, proceed and conclude:
“In walking around the garden with him and my father in one of his visits, stopping to remark upon every flower or bush, he shortly came upon a wild blackberry bush. ‘Ah!’ exclaimed Nuttall, ‘that’s an incorrigible rascal, you’ll never do anything with it.’ However sagacious we may be, it is always hazardous to adopt the role of a prophet, for had Nuttall lived to the present day he would have found blackberries almost as large as hen’s eggs, and as abundant as currants in every fruiterer’s shop.”
California pitcher plant. Darlingtonia Californica.
Potato. Solanum Tuberosum.
Tomato. Lycopersicum Esculentum.
Corn. Zea Mays.
Onion. Allium Cepa.
Okre. Hibiscus Esculentus.
Gumbo. Hibiscus Esculentus.
Squash. Cucurbita Moschata.
Pumpkin. Cucurbita Pepo.
Tobacco. Nicotiana Tabacum.
Deadly night shade. Solanum Nigrum.
Oswego tea. Monarda Didyma.
Spider plant. Cleome Pungens.
Forget-me-not. Myosotis Palustris.
Bartonia. Bartonia Tenella.
Yellow eyed grass. Xyris Flexuosa.
Blue-eyed grass. Sisyrinchium Bermudiana.
Pickeral weed. Pontederia Cordata.
Mud-plantain. Herternathera Graminea.
Water planbain. Alisma Plantago.
Duck’s meat. Lemna minor.
Halberd leaved bear-thumb. Polygonum arifolium.
Water pennyroyal. Hydrocotyle Americana.
Pepper-mint. Mentha Piperita.
Horse-mint. Mentha Sylvestris.
Wild mint. Mentha Canadensis.
Spear mint. Mentha Viridis.
Wild marjorum. Origanum Vulgare.
Dittany. Cunila Mariana.
American pennyroyal. Hedeoma Pulegoides.
Pennyroyal. Hedeoma Pulegoides.
Basil. Pycanthemum Lilifolium.
Mountain mint. Pycanthemum Lanceolabum.
Mountain mint (linear leaved). Pycantbemum Linifolium.
Day-flower. Commelyna Virginiea.
Tradescantia. Commelyna Virginiea.
Black-eyed Susan. Rudbeckia Hirta.
Bachelor button. Rudbeckia Hirta.
Cone-flower. Rudbeckia Laciniata.
Woodland sun-flower. Helianthus Divaricatus.
Elecampane. Inula Helenium.
Fox-glove. Digitalis Purpurea.
Downy false foxglove. Gerardia Flava.
Slender gerardia. Gerardia Tenuifolia.
Bind weed. Convolvulus Sepium.
Morning glory. Ipomea Purpurea.
Wild potato vine. Ipomea Pandurata.
Man-of-the-earth. Ipomea Pandurata.
Dodder. Cuscuti Gronovii.
Virginia creeper. Ampelopsis Quinquefolia.
Japan Ivy. Ampelopsis Veitchii.
Blackberry. Rubus villosus.
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.”