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
Edwin Jellett presents a challenge to the commenter who seeks to help the average reader appreciate his columns. He seems to have known everything and everybody, and was anxious for you to know that about him. As Nicole Juday, one of my fellow commenters, has pointed out, the Germantown Hisorical Society recently published a very useful biographical article about Jellett that provides some helpful background.
First we learn Jellett was in most matters self-taught — and it is immediately apparent to me, the most self-taught of armchair psychologists, that his desire to cram every available reference and tangential fact into his columns was the intellectual anxiety of the autodidact. Jellett came from a very modest family, his father died when he was quite young, and he lived with his mother most of his life. He worked at a flower shop, he worked in a steel mill and a boiler factory.
Yet Jellett also had that Victorian zeal for rigorous self-improvement. He was a member of a range of clubs and societies bent on cultivation of the mind as well as social striving. He read widely and voraciously. His diaries suggest he had few vices, so he had plenty of time to devote to his studies. His columns reflect an inquiring mind but also an anxious one; anxious to let you know he knows his history and his botany and his community. Indeed, Jellett simply can’t stop himself from comparing Wyck, the ancestral home of the Haines family in Germantown, to “Queen Elizabeth’s Lodge” in Kew Gardens, a reference dripping with snobby affectation and which Jellett probably got wrong. (As far as this author can determine there is no Queen Elizabeth’s Lodge at Kew, but there is a Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, which is similar in scale and lay out to Wyck.)
The first week of July in Germantown is predictably hot. And after nodding to the desire of many, your commenter among them, to depart for cooler places, Jellett, himself probably constrained to stay in Germantown by his finances, launches into a long discussion of the excellence of his community — taking the position we have anything you could possibly want — science, art, history, right here in Germantown.
For students of Awbury history he makes an interesting reference to Alfred Drinker Cope, one of America’s great 19th century paleontologists. As well as mentioning the persimmon trees at Stenton, which must surely be contemporaries of the very old collection of persimmons in the Margret Cope Garden at Awbury.
Edwin C. Jellett – July 10, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
I am often entertained, and sometimes irritated, by the shallowness of a certain cult, whose disciples by “hook or crook” flit from flower to flower for a few weeks in summer, and return to talk for an indefinite period of rare experiences, rich finds, of “lovely times,” to the discomfort and annoyance of less fortunate charitable friends, who stop at home bearing uncomplainingly the “heat and burden of the day,” and who patient with an obtuseness which never seems to dawn upon its owner’s scant “philosophy,” bear with fortitude the not infrequent egotism of a condescending complacency doomed to die before it grows to the light of its surroundings.
Fortunately this class is restricted, but a few I recently met suggested this, and reminded me of a remark of Charles B. Engle, who, when Dr. John K. Murphy asked him why he “did not go away like other folk,” replied, “Germantown is good enough for me.” True, and it is good enough for any one, but we rightly go away for change, to broaden our outlook, and to better appreciate what we have at home, for nowhere know I a town of like area so favored, and whether we travel for nature, history, science, art or literature, we leave a place whose possessions and contributions cannot be ignored in any important work concerning America.
If we travel for history, let us remember that no other settlement in America is as important as our own. If we travel for “nature,” let us not forget our bountiful blessings, for nowhere is there a stream more picturesque than our own Wissahickon, nowhere is there an outlook more beautiful than that of our own Whitemarsh Valley. Where we are able, travel we should, but let us keep in mind that among great travellers it was our own Cope who more than any other made known the prehistoric life of America, our own Lewis who made known the paths and progresses of the glacial periods, our own Kane who first made known the wonders of the Arctic Seas.
In every department of human knowledge we are represented, and in science, which now alone concerns us, our botanists, ornithologists and astronomers have done their full share in the development and encouragement of its offerings at their best. To Germantown on frequent visits came Audubon from “Millgrove” on the Perkiomen, and Wilson from his modest Milestown School, and among us following in their footsteps we have Gentry and Stone, two of the latest writers upon our native birds. Barton, Nuttall, Muhlenberg, De Schwenitz, Rafinesque, Darlington and other early botanical visitors have been followed by our own teachers and writers, Smith, Freas, Scott, Meehan and Dr. James Darrach, who wrote the latest “Flora of Philadelphia.”
While we should not “think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think,” we ought never to think less of our associates than they deserve. We live in a favored section for nature study, for in the “Philadelphia region” the floras of the North and South meet, and there are but few plants from Upper Canada to Southern Virginia which do not appear in our territory, so that a flora of Germantown and Philadelphia,” with a slight addendum, includes the flora of the entire eastern section of our country.
Now, while this is true of nature natural, it is also true of “nature artificial,” and nowhere are there more beautiful roads, lawns and gardens than those in our midst, such roads as parts of Walnut lane, Tulpehocken street, School lane, Manhelm street, portions of Mt. Airy, and almost the entire residence parts of Chestnut Hill, the whole area being covered with worthy gardens too numerous to name, and impossible to describe.
It is not my purpose to further enlarge upon a subject with merits so obvious, for I have gone thus far to mention “Wyck,” a survivor of the past, one of our most interesting historical sites, and to me beyond all comparison the quaintest, most beautiful place in our midst. When Francis Daniel Pastorius, the founder of Germantown, took “to himself a wife,” he located on the main road, directly opposite what is now “Wyck,” and facing a building yet standing, but which is connected with a later building erected between it and the road. In but one other place have I seen a building resembling “Wyck,” and this exception is “Queen Elizabeth’s Lodge,” located in Kew Gardens, near London. Those who now pass “Wyck” may see a rare combination of beauties, which no description can convey—a long, low building of purest white, shielded in parts with trailing vines, honeysuckle, trumpet climbers and darkest English ivy. About are spacious grounds with numerous shaded walks, flower and vegetable gardens, and hedges of osage orange and privet hiding in parts the street. To the rear fruit trees in variety flourish, and in front, like a woodland, magnolias, maples, ash, locust, Kentucky coffee, horse chestnut, with towering walnut and tulip-poplar trees make the place a miniature forest appear, more illusive because of a heavy growth of wild sarsaparilla, white weed and the numerous assemblage of apparently never-blooming plants, which one sees in woods seemingly ever green. In the midst of this unique garden, situated on our busiest thoroughfare, are lawns and gravelled walks, flower beds and borders box-edged, trellised arbors of grape and wisteria. Here in this select spot lived Reuben Haines, here now lives his daughter “no longer in Germantown, but at Wyck.”
But beyond its natural and architectural beauties, “Wyck” has other claims upon us. In addition to it, in part, being with perhaps one exception the oldest building standing in Germantown, beyond its Revolutionary history known to every student, beyond its “Lafayette reception,” whom our honored citizen, Joseph Murter, yet remembers, it is beyond this interesting from the variety and brilliancy of the company which met a genial host in its proprietor. Here Charles J. Wister, skilled in science and learned in many “polite” branches, was a frequent visitor; here Thomas Nuttall often called, and favored his friend with contributions from his valuable collections; here John D. Godman, a noted physician and natural history writer, was” a welcome guest; here John James Audubon, an honored friend, made many visits, and here his daughter, Maria R. Audubon, visits her friend, the daughter of his host. To properly present “Wyck” would require a volume, for it cannot be satisfactorily presented in an outline sketch.
This is the time of year when “boarders” appear upon lawns, and like other boarders, which often appear as pegs to fill holes, look strangely out of place. Vegetable boarders fit nowhere, and why disreputable looking bananas, orange trees, oleanders, rubber plants, red hibiscus, cactus and a score of other like plants are placed out to try a lawn is more than I am able to guess, unless it be to give the elements a chance to wash the dust out of their lungs.
Gardens continue to wear well and hold their charms. The old-time odorous walks of tan we miss, but the more substantial walks of gravel or crushed stone, though not as pleasant, are more healthful. Border beds are now brilliant with poppies gay of various hue; sweet Williams in clustered groups of variegated bloom; Canterbury bells, with erect, showy spikes of lilac pink or purplish flowers; feverfew, low or high, according to cultivation, with heads of white flowers; and cobea, a green-house production, now climbing porches and heavy with large, bell-shaped, greenish yellow flowers, in size out of all proportion to the vine which produces them. In kitchen gardens, corn this season oft planted is necessarily slow and late, but potatoes, peas, string and other beans are in flower. In waste places cockle-bur is high and dry and pushing for a place with burdock.
Jerusalem cherry and deadly nightshade, somewhat alike in appearance, are in bloom, the first at Robinson’s Knoll and the last near St. Peter’s Church and in several places in the Wissahickon. Bur cucumber, a climbing vine with strange pointed leaves, with small green flowers, which are followed by queer hedgehog like rough burs, and common on shrubbery along banks of streams, is now blooming in the upper Wissahickon. On walls in many places, but to be specific, on “Magargee’s office” wall and on Meier’s wall on Thorp’s lane, kenilworth ivy continues to display a profusion of small lilac flowers. Other climbing vines in bud or in flower are virgin’s-bower, growing sparingly in the Wissahickon near Price’s Mill road, and bitter-sweet covering fences at Kitchen’s lane and Township line, both attractive plants, and beyond our borders in Montgomery county common enough.
Along roads and in waste places ragweed, a well-known plant which blooms in August, shows its finely dissected leaves. Wild carrot, with bird-nest like masses of white barren blooms, and small, almost hidden, purple fruitful ones, are in flower in open places everywhere. Garlic, an imported troublesome intruder, with no sense of self-respect, persists in occupying places it is not wanted, and like much worthlessness is prolific to a fault, for beyond its bulbs, which secure its succession, it produces a head of impatient flowers which rush to a growth before the seeds fall. Pepper grasses are in bloom along roads and elsewhere, and although they vary in form, all may readily be known by the similarity of their flowers. Those now in bloom are common pepper grass, with small light heads of white flowers, and cow or field cress, a, heavier grower, with white or yellowish flowers. Although the mustard family is composed largely of conspicuous plants, it is difficult to keep its members in their proper place because of their similarity, and one is enabled to do so only by constant effort. Most of the mustards are plain, and like plain people who do their work without noise or display, they excite neither admiration nor envy. Among those now blooming is sickle-pod, with greenish white flowers; marsh or yellow water cress, with finely cut leaves and yellow flowers, and creeping yellow water cress, growing in low grounds, and bearing yellow flowers.
In damp places, and along water courses, several varieties of pigweeds, plants usually with trailing stems and with green or mottled leaves, are now appearing, and tumble-weed, with greenish flowers, also common pig-weed, are in bloom. Nine-bark, a shrub growing along streams, and which may be readily known by its spiraea like white flowers, is also in bloom. In cultivated fields rye and wheat will soon be ready for the reaper, and quick growing tender oat, not strong enough to bear the frost of our latitude, is also in head.
Meadows and fields lose none of their interest to a naturalist, although the bright fresh youth of spring and early summer is slowly but surely giving place to the larger, coarser, more intense hued blooms of developing maturity.
St. John’s wort, which always blooms on or a few days before St. John’s Day, is displaying its beautiful yellow flowers, and if it were not so common it doubtless would be better appreciated. There are several varieties of St. John’s wort native to our territory, and these we hope to note in due season.
A most striking plant blooming in its fullness is the sulphur yellow, sweet-scented, dwarf primrose now appearing in open fields, a plant well worth a prominent place in every garden. Here and there we occasionally come upon a runaway flax with light pink or blue flowers. This plant with us is unstable and migratory, but up through our State it is cultivated, and many fields of it I have seen in bloom in the vicinity of Milton and Williamsport.
The small blue-curls growing among grass on lawns appear distinct, but it is only a variety of the larger, more vigorous blue-curl now standing erect, with compound heads of blue flowers, in woods. Camomile continues to bloom, and its bright-eyed flowers seem strangely out of place in wastes frequented by goats. Another plant with the same predilections, though it seems happy and contented anywhere, is mallow, or cheeses. Rocket or soap-wort now in bloom is to a degree of the same order, though is perhaps a little more discriminating. It is a plant with sweet-scented star-like flesh or white flowers, an escape from gardens, and now common enough in fields and public places. Along fences our common wild dog-rose is bright and gay, and there is no product of cultivation more pure and sweet. Near by in the high grass which the thorns of the dog-rose protects is sometimes shrubby cinque-foil with yellow flowers, quite distinct from the low trailing barren strawberry blooming in early spring. One who “looks up” the books will find this plant credited to wet or damp grounds, but like many plants so assigned, it seems to flourish regardless of location.
In meadows and damp places in woods monkey-flower, an erect plant with lilac yellow-tipped flowers, is now blooming; poke, high and very leafy, is displaying, or rather hiding, numerous racemes of small white flowers; and in pools where previously noted, cattails, with spear-like leaves, show cigar-like heads of bloom. At one time cattails were scarce near Germantown, but now they have become quite common. On the borders of woods, along stone walls, and on shelving rocky banks, dew-berry, which is earlier than the black-berry, is covered with black sweet fruit, and mulberry trees, more rare, are heavy with ripe fruit, black or white, according to variety. Bush honeysuckle, a rare Wissahickon plant growing near Livezey’s lane, is now covered with small yellowish flowers. F. Schuyler Mathews is much concerned about the inaccuracy of color descriptions, and I feel quite sure those given if met, would meet his hearty approval, but I have avoided technical exactness, preferring to conform to the common every-day vernacular.
Two of our prettiest wood plants are now in flower, and for an unaccountable reason they are sometimes confused. These plants are partridge-berry and wintergreen. Partridge-berry has long streamers lined with small bright green leaves, known better, in the “fall” by the bright red leaves which cling to the runners, but which are now studded by sweet-scented white flowers, to me as beautiful and as sweet as those of our arbutus. Wintergreen is a small plant, not as trailing as partridge-berry, more erect in habit, with larger dark green aromatic leaves, and with small white cup-shaped flowers. Both plants are very attractive, and both grow in the upper Wissahickon, near Megargee’s dam, and elsewhere.
Now in bloom on lawns and in woods is chestnut tree, showing conspicuously its long streamers of staminate yellow flowers, a plant which will serve as a good illustration of sex in vegetation. Many are surprised when told that sex exists among plants, and not a few are credulous when informed that it not only exists, but that it is almost as distinct as in the animal kingdom.
We have no desire, nor do we propose here to discuss physiological questions, but we cannot avoid considering it superficially. As is well known, sex in lower forms of animal life is not distinguishable, so in the lower forms of vegetable life sex plays no important part. As we, however, approach higher forms of development, we find in both kingdoms two elements emerge, both distinct, and each necessary to the other for reproduction.
Now, in the vegetable kingdom we have several forms of growth, such as lichens, mosses and the like up to ferns, and these produce spores analagous to seed, but without the germ of life. These spores, common to orders lower than ferns, produce a cellular mass which in time develop distinctive organs, and in the ultimate a perfect plant. Other plants like the begonia produce pistillate or female flowers and staminate or male flowers in separate blooms on the same plant, and the pollen of one flower is necessary for the fertilization of another flower. Seed become perfect by this means, or else by cross fertilization, that is by the pollen of one plant being used for the quickening of the product of another plant. Cross fertilization is accomplished by several means, sometimes artificially, sometimes by winds, but largely by insects which visit the flower for honey. The most advanced type is where the sexes are distinct, and confined to separate individuals as in ailanthus, gingo, persimmon and other like plants whose apparent barrenness is sometimes misunderstood.
The persimmon trees at Stenton, and also the one in the middle Wissahickon, are male trees, and of course never bear fruit, but female trees far from staminate trees are also barren in so far that their fruit is incapable of reproduction. A good illustration of a composite sexual plant is common corn, now attempting to force its way against great odds. This plant, as you will remember, produces near the middle height of the plant an ear from which protrudes a mass of silky threads. These threads are pistillate projections from the hidden grain beneath. On top of the stalk is produced a spreading tassel of pollen- bearing flowers, which when mature fall as dust upon the receptacles beneath, and the grain thus fertilized is able with the “seed within itself” to reproduce itself “after its kind.”
Sex in the vegetable kingdom has long been known, but little attention was given it until the time of Linneus. James Logan, of Stenton, one of the most learned men in the early colonies, was among the first to give to this branch of botany his particular attention, and among his several papers upon scientific subjects is one upon sex in maize or Indian corn, entitled “Experimenta et Meletemata de Plantarum Generatione, ect.,” published in 1735. This contribution won the praise of Linneus, and secured for Logan the dedication to him of a genus of plants as a fitting recognition of his labors in the development of natural science.
James Logan was a greater man than his immediate contemporaries, and it is to be hoped that when worth finds its proper level, that all sorts of diverse inferiority will like objects of various density, find their specific gravity, and that transcendent merit will lift James Logan to the place he fittingly belongs.
Osage orange. Maclura Auratiaca.
Privet. Ligustrum Vulgare.
Silver maple. Acer Dasycarpum.
Common ash. Fraxinus Americana.
Locust. Robinia Psuedacacia.
Kentucky coffee. Gymnocladus Canadensis.
Horse chestnut. Aesculus Hippocastnum.
Walnut. Juglans Nigra.
Tulip-poplar. Liriodendron Tulipifera.
Wild sarsaparilla. Aralia Nudicaulis.
White-weed. Erigeron Annuus.
Box. Buxus Sempervirens, var. Nana
Grape. Vitis Labrusca.
Wisteria. Wisteria Speciosa.
Banana. Musa Sapientum.
Orange. Citrus Aruantium
Oleander. Nerium Oleander.
Red flowering hibiscus. Hibiscus Rosa-Sinensis.
Cactus. Cereus Nycticaulis.
Poppy. Papaver Orientale.
Sweet William. Dianthus Barbatus.
Canterberry-bell. Campanula Medium.
Fever few. Chrysanthemum Parthenium.
Cobea. Cobea Scandens.
Corn. Zea Mays.
Potato. Solanum Tuberosum.
Pea. Pisum Sativum.
String-bean. Phaseolus Lunatus.
Cockle-bur. Xanthium Strumarium.
Budrock. Arctium Lappa, var. Major.
Jerusalem cherry Solanum Pseudo-capsicum.
Deadly nightshade. Solanus Nigrum.
Bur cucumber. Sicyos Angulatus.
Kenilworth ivy. Linaria Cymbalaria.
Virgin bower. Clematis Virginiana.
Bittersweet. Celastrus Scandens.
Ragweed. Ambrosia Artemisifolia.
Wild carrot. Daucus Carota.
Garlic. Allium Vineale.
Peppergrass. Lepidium Virginicum.
Cow cress. Lepidium Campestre.
Field cress Lepidium Campestre.
Sicklepod. Arrabis Canadensis.
Marsh cress. Nasturtium Palustre.
Yellow water cress. Nasturtium Palustre.
Creeping water cress. Nasturtium Sylvestre.
Tumble-weed. Amarantus Albus.
Common pig-weed. Amarantus Retroflexus.
Ninebark. Physocarpus Opulifolius.
Rye. Secale Cereale.
Wheat. Triticum Vulgare.
Oat. Avena Sativa.
St. John’s wort. Hypericum Perforatum.
Dwarf primrose. Oenothera Sinuata.
Flax. Linum Usitatissimum.
Blue curl. Trichostema Dichotomum.
Camomile. Anthemis Cotula.
Mallow. Malva Rotundifolia.
Cheeses. Malva Rotundifolia.
Rocket. Saponaria Officinalis.
Soap-wort. Saponaria Officinalis.
Dog-rose. Rosa Canina.
Shrubby cinque-foil. Potentilla Fruticosa.
Barren strawberry. Potentilla Canadensis.
Monkey flower. Mimulus Ringens
Poke. Phytolacca Decandra.
Cattail. Typha Latifolia.
Dew-berry. Rubus Villosus.
Mulberry (black). Morus Rubra.
Mulberry (white). Morus Alba.
Bush honeysuckle. Diervilla Trifida.
Partridge-berry. Michella Repens.
Wintergreen. Gautheria Procumbens.
Chestnut. Castanea Sativa, var. Americana.
Ailanthus. Ailanthus Glandulosus.
Gingo. Salisburia Adiantifolia.
Persimmon. Diospyros Virginiana.
Corn. Zea Mays.
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.”