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 Claudia Levy
This week Edwin Jellett is at his peripatetic best (or worst) as he ranges through the usual areas of interest: Germantown history, aprocrypha, geography, local characters, and above all, botany. He starts by reporting the destruction of a burying ground near the intersection of Germantown Avenue and High Street, which precipitates remembrances of Johannes Kelpius’ “Chapter of Perfection.”
Meandering between the lower Wissahickon and Main Street, Jellett details numerous and confusing relationships, property transactions, and observations by botanists to arrive at his “you can’t make this stuff up” moment. Jellett marvels that these one-time “Hermits of the Wissahickon” (1) had no descendants, (2) were all buried here in the shadow of a church constructed of Wissahickon schist, and (3) were the “earliest known botanical garden planters and experimenters in America.”
His personal connection to the burying ground site includes what else — ferns! — and other native plants collected from the Wissahickon at his direction to create a wild garden that flourished for many years before this recent obliteration. In all seriousness, it must have been lovely. Perhaps the creation of a new “Wissahickon Wild Garden” in the heart of 21st-century Germantown would not be a bad idea.
And now, an abrupt turn to botanizing and an extensive list of plants ranging from coleus to dog-fungus. Though this installment reads like our current weather, heavy and interminable (envy the “protracted rain and cool weather” in 1903), there should be something here for every reader of this blog: rock gardens, palms (large and small, good and bad), smart weed, viper’s bugloss, leafless plants, and hopeless endeavors.
I for one now want to return to Awbury Arboretum where the other day I saw a large stand of jewel weed along Cope Lane, because I definitely missed something. Read on, hang in there and enjoy! (And above all, eschew toadstools.)
Edwin C. Jellett – July 17, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
The recent obliteration of the “Warner Burying Ground” directs attention again to Dr. Witt and his gardens, and brings to the forefront a most interesting locality. For many years I lived on “Spook-Hill,” within a stone throw of the last resting place of Christopher Witt, and naturally the spot to me has been one of more than passing interest.
Long before the present widespread activity in “local history” prevailed, with the late rector of St. Michael’s Church, High street, I spent frequent summer nights walking about the building, studying the stars, and talking of the silent inmates of the little graveyard near. Dr. Murphy never doubted that John Kelpius was laid in this enclosure, for by old residents, who had it from old Germantown people before them, he was so informed. Exact data may never be presented, for one who goes over original colonial records soon discovers sufficient evidence to convince him that a majority of the early settlers were not a people likely to leave a concise diary of their doings, but notwithstanding this lack we have facts enough to warrant the inference stated.
The Warners, Daniel Geissler and Dr. Witt dwelt on the “Great Road,” all in the vicinity of what is now Main and High streets, and in houses which as units or in part are yet standing. The first Christian Warner in 1696 took land whereon “a three-story mansion is now erected” at what is now the corner of Main street and East Walnut lane, and afterwards bought of John Doeden adjoining land to the east, and in later life lived and died in a house which stood at the rear and immediately to the north of the Pastorius house.
In the early part of the 18th century Kelpius and Witt lived in the lower Wissahickon, both, however, at intervals stopping in Germantown, and Kelpius, who was consumptive and frequently sick, was taken during severe spells to Warners’, where he was nursed by Christiana Warner, for from the internal evidence Geissler, who was Kelpius’ closest friend, and a “single man,” was doubtless without means to give him proper accommodations.
Geissler, with whom Witt came to live, the year after his leader’s death, sold his place to Christian Warner, but reserving to himself certain privileges, among these being the possession of the place during the lives of himself and Witt and the right of burial from the same in the private burial lot which came to be known as the “Warner Ground,” and in which they doubtless desired to lie near their former master, Kelpius. By this contract Geissler and Witt long continued on the place, and it was here Witt had his first garden.
Notwithstanding much printed to the contrary, the Dilbeck-Geissler tract was never owned by Dr. Witt, but after the transfer to Warner was occupied as noted, until later developments necessitated other arrangements. Geissler’s interest in the place, as stated, was until he and Witt “their lives being also expired,” but Christian Warner, who died in 1731, left the tract and its improvements to his two daughters, and his daughter Christiana sold her share in 1741, four years before the death of Geissler.
In the meantime John Doeden, who had sold the greater part of his land to Christian Warner, died, and 2½ acres or more on the Main road, with the improvements thereon, were in 1726 purchased by Christopher Witt. In the building adjoining Dr. Alexis Dupont Smith’s, to the north, Dr. Witt and Christian Warner No. 2 long lived, and in this building they died.
The ground to the rear was Dr. Witt’s second garden, and was the latest one visited by John Bartram in 1743, a fact in which I erred in a previous paper. It is beyond our present purpose to carry their narration to a conclusion, but it should be clear that Geissler, Witt and Witt’s man Robert, as has been thought, could not possibly have lived in the small original house to the rear of the Littell house, and to me it is beyond question that they lived in the older portion of the house now standing on the Geissler tract, for Dr. Witt’s tastes, wealth, position, and his possessions as enumerated by an inventory of his personal effects preserved, point to this, as does also his will, which states definitely where his goods in part were stored.
Christian Warner No. 2, to whom Witt in his life-time gave the Doeden property, and who later by will left him the bulk of his estate, was given as a part return by Warner the “full and free use of garden erbs growing on any part of my estate, also of sowing, planting such trees, quick-sets and erbs as he shall think proper and have occasion to use,” as well as other accommodations and care. It was a business arrangement at first, and that the first part was carried out satisfactorily is proved by the action of Witt in his last testament.
About 1760 Witt became blind, and John Bartram in 1761 wrote Peter Collinson, “Now, what with thine, Dr. Witt and others, I can challenge any garden in America for variety. Poor old man! He was lately in my garden, but could not distinguish a leaf from a flower.”
In course of time all passed, the last of the Warner name dying in 1793, and according to Elizabeth Drinker, of the yellow fever. If truth be ever stranger than fiction, surely we have an illustration here. Of all the parties concerned, none in descent survives, and Kelpius, Geissler, Warner, Witt, all connected with the Wissahickon experiment, in the “Warner Ground” doubtless rest. Shadowing their graves stands a church built of stone quarried from the Wissahickon hills, and while these slumberers never slept under its chancel, as often stated, they now undisturbed rest partly under a connecting building, which, though erected without warrant or justification, may, let us hope, hereafter keep intact the sanctity of the spot forever.
While standing in the Warner Ground a long time ago, Dr. Murphy said to me, “What can we do to make this place more attractive?” 1 suggested that ferns be planted, and with his consent these and other native plants were brought from the woods, and a wild garden was started, which, under the watchful care of the rector’s daughters, flourished for many years above the graves of the earliest known botanical garden planters and experimenters in America.
Protracted rains and cool weather have prevented heat loving plants from reaching the brilliancy of color which to them belong. Coleus and dracena beds, though bright, lack that “vigor vim” which “perfect trim” alone can never supply, and petunias, usually gay, now look as though they had ventured forth too soon. Morning-glories in variety and in many shaded colors are climbing fences and walls, and beautifying many an “eye-sore.” Palms, large and small, good or bad, according to previous “condition of servitude,” are appearing in public places. Plants taken care of at home are usually fair, but why persons desire “creatures” they cannot take care of, and why they persist in thrusting sorry specimens, subjects fit for the action of a humane society, upon a patient florist who has neither the space nor the time to give them, is as much beyond me as why some persons spend a good portion of their lives in a hopeless endeavor to make others believe them more than they are.
Rock gardens continue to look as happy as ever, and I do not know anything calculated to give greater or more constant returns. These are yet bright with flags of many hues, flowering vetch, purple aster, yellow coryopsis, pink palmer’s onion, foxgloves, purple or yellow robed, according to variety lobelia; and browallias blue, and numerous other blooms of standing worth.
In pools in meadows or in woods false mermaid shows its small lilac flowers; arrow head, an interesting plant with arrow-shaped leaves, and knotted spikes of pure white, yellow-centered flowers; brookline, a strong growing, vigorous blooming water plant, with pale blue flowers; bur-reed, with stout spikes and with green flowering heads; calamus or sweet flag, with smooth, green, straplike leaves and a projection covered with small, yellowish green flowers, are all blooming in Logan meadow, Miles meadow and in the upper Wissahickon.
Along the banks of streams, and in damp and swampy places elsewhere, button bush is conspicuous by its spherical heads of green unopened bloom, and here and there an orange flowering jewel weed shows its attractive drooping flowers. Jewel weed is generally known to children as silver leaf on account of its silvery appearance when placed under water, but this quality is common to many other plants. Just now jewel weed is very beautiful with its fresh green clean leaves, and delicately tinted stem, which near the ground is high in color, with projecting vermilion rootlets. The smart weeds, a persistent and by comparison an unattractive group of plants, are struggling for the supremacy, and common smart weed, with lance-shaped leaves and pinkish flowers; knot-grass, a slender growing variety with small green or pink flowers, and lady’s thumb, with rough leaves and reddish flowers, are in bloom along roadsides and in damp places almost everywhere in our territory.
One who goes to nearby “out of way” country places may now see fields of buckwheat white with flowers. Here, like many other introduced or escaped plants, we occasionally come upon specimens, and before the wizard of Germantown transformed unused fields of western Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill into the garden country it is, buckwheat was common enough there. In places to which it has escaped and become established, live-forever shows its dull red flowers; viper’s-bugloss, a rough plant and rare with us, shows its blue flowers, and purslane, a well-known succulent plant with yellow flowers, a relative of the showy prolific portulaca, a onetime garden favorite, are in bloom. On dry sunny hillsides blackberry lily, a flag-like plant with stems supporting clusters of coral red spotted orchid flowers, which give place to seeded fruit which collectively resemble a blackberry, is blooming near the Wissahickon; stag-horn sumach, growing with smooth sumach, shows on hillsides everywhere its panicled heads of yellowish bloom; catalpas, previously noted, continue in their vigor, and seem to dress the fields and woods for our natal celebration.
In cultivated grounds or lots, and in waste places generally, Indian chickweed, a slender branching plant with small white pointed flowers; thorn-apple or Jamestown weed, a vile intruder with large coarse leaves and with trumpet-shaped white or violet colored flowers, sickly odorous; worm-seed, equally vile and exceedingly offensive, having light green leaves and small white flowers, is in bloom, and too common to need designation. On Rabbit lane, and in many other places near, dogbane is showing its clusters of white flowers on roadside banks and in open woods. Cockspur thorn, a shrubby plant with clean glossy leaves, with branches studded with thorny spines, and with small clusters of white flowers, is blooming in like places, though from its nature is not as common as dogbane. Specimens may be viewed near Thorp’s lane bridge, Wissahickon. Near the same place panicled cornel, a shrub 6 to 8 feet in height, with cymes composed of numerous small white flowers, resembling in miniature only the well known early dogwood, is in full bloom.
The woods never lose their interest, and I always feel sorry for those who through force of circumstances do not know them, or through lack of opportunity cannot enjoy them. I was a country boy, and I never knew a boy raised on a farm who did not take as naturally to the woods as a “duck to water,” and who did not enjoy them as exuberantly as a novice green from a city. This love of nature is inherent, and can only be altered by a development under an unfavorable environment, or by the unnatural development of other interests.
Jersey tea, a shrub of low growth with plain flowers, and rare with us, is in bloom in Wister’s woods. At one time this wood was one of our best collecting grounds, and here yet are many interesting plants, but civilization is a huge feeder not easily satisfied, and in time strips everything before it.
In the light wooded part of the upper Wissahickon several plants worthy our attention are now appearing. On bushes and undergrowth near Thorp’s lane a matted, sinewy, long-reaching, leafless plant is extending its tenacious yellow runners, completely enveloping and hiding other plants. This is the ubiquitous waterside plant known as dodder or love-vine, and by other names less pleasing, and though not yet in bloom it will be shortly. Near is shrubby cinquefoil, with strawberry-like leaves and with yellow flowers; Indian strawberry, with small, round, highly-colored vermilion fruit; and above is the white flowering heads of spotted cowbane or water-hemlock.
Frequenters of woods cannot fail to notice that flowers in the open and those of the same kind in woods in color are different, as, for example, white weed in the fields is white, but those growing in woods are lilac. This difference is due to a well-known organic law, and where the struggle for existence is greatest there the offerings are most “rich and rare.” In this same neighborhood thimble-berry is in bloom, and a bright flower it is resembling in shape and color the spring flowering anemone, but unlike it produced high upon a leafy stem. Common near it is agrimony, a leafy plant, with spikes of small yellow flowers.
Cow-vetch, a climbing plant, is also here, and though rare may be known by its pea-like lilac flowers. Here also in bloom is common beggar tick or stick tight, a pernicious weed with greenish flowers, and also tick-trefoil, a running plant with spikes of small lilac flowers, which develop to most annoying adhering seed vessels. Other more attractive plants in bloom in the upper Wissahickon are prince’s pine or green pipsissewa, and spotted wintergreen, or common pipsissewa, two low-growing, marvellously beautiful plants, one with plain, smooth, green leaves, the other with variegated markings of graduated shades, and both with pure white, waxy, camelia-like flowers.
Carrion flower, so named from the odor of its small yellowish flowers, is climbing over bushes in bloom, and its beautiful leaves may readily be mistaken for those of the smilax or green-brier, climbing and blooming beside it. Carrion flower, however, is smooth, while green-brier, as its name implies, is thorny. Towering high above is wild lettuce, a vigorous growing plant rising to a height of 10 feet, and surmounted by a group of saffron-colored flowers, which appear ridiculously small when compared with the stem which supports them, and like many a rake who has only his stature for his boast, is great in promise, but small in tangible results.
Indian pipe, and its near relation, false beech-drops, are now flowering in the Wissahickon woods. These are uncanny plants which from June to late summer appear sparingly in our woods, and usually during damp weather. Although proceeding from a spawn or mycelium, these plants are different from “fungus” in that they produce perfect flowers. False beech-drops, also known as pine sap, is a downy tawny white, 6 to 10 inches in height, with flowers more erect than Indian pipe. Indian pipe is sometimes known as ghost flower, and is a white silvery plant 6 to 8 inches in height, with bracts but no leaves, and with a solitary drooping head, the whole plant in appearance being of immaculate purity, but as cold as an icicle, with a flower no one would think of scenting, for its whole appearance shows a lack of warmth and a dearth of those sympathetic qualities which appeal to tender human nature.
Occasionally Indian pipe appears pink, but this is rare. White or pink, however, the plant possesses a beauty which defies every effort to preserve it, for in spite of every care its glistening covering changes to a disgusting black as if to typify its nature. One may come upon these plants almost anywhere in oak or pine woods, which they prefer, and elsewhere, but while their distribution is general the plants nowhere are common. In Thomas’ wood on Stenton avenue, and throughout the Wissahickon, these plants appear.
Another plant somewhat resembling these is one-flowered cancer root, which appears in May, but which yet in places is in flower. This is a small plant, with a single light-colored stem, surrounded by a tubular flower, parted and yellow tipped, and may be found in the upper Wissahickon, near the water-falls above Price’s or Thomas’ Mill road.
Many forms of vegetation classed as fungus are now appearing. These plants develop and appear throughout the growing portions of the year, and particularly after rains or continued damp weather is their presence noticeable. While some of these plants are thick and leathery, others are watery and exceedingly fragile, evanescent, and most of them at best are transitory. These plants are without true flowers, and produce spores which develop a spawn from which perfect plants grow. Now dog-fungus, a brilliant vermilion colored tube, with a noxious odor, is standing in places near Waterworks woods. Toad-stools in variety may be found in fields and woods, and with dull heavy faces, look like criminals not to be trusted. Mushrooms may always be known by their pearly white structure, which readily “skins,” buff-colored heads, and flesh-colored gills when fresh. The plant becomes buff throughout and the gills black when old. The class is large, and as its members appeal only to a specialist, I shall not attempt to present other than the most common representatives which appear from time to time. Moreover, by a novice they had best be left alone. Charles McIlvaine describes in his book “one thousand American fungi toadstools and mushrooms—edible and poisonous,” and this is but a portion of the whole. Or this number, Captain McIlvaine “has eaten meals of over 800 species,” which is good evidence that his epicurean taste is subject to his caution, and that he must be an exceedingly careful man. So if we eschew toadstools, and with like evil things use the same care, we may prosper healthily, “live long and die happy.”
Coleus. Coleus Blumeri.
Dracena. Dracena Indivisa.
Petunia. Petunia Violaeea.
Morning glory. Ipomoea Purpurea.
Palm. Cycas Bevoluta.
Palm. Latania Borbonica.
Flag. Iris Laevigata.
Flowering vetch. Vicia Oroboides.
Purple aster. Aster Alpinus.
Coreopsis. Coreopsis Lanceolata.
Palmers onion. Allium Palmeri.
Fox-glove. Delphinium Elatum.
Lobelia. Lobelia Erinus.
Browallia. Browallia Demissa.
False mermaid. Floerkea Proserpinacoides.
Arrow-head. Sagittaria Variabilis.
Brook lime. Veronica Americana.
Bur-reed. Sparganium Simplex.
Calamus. Acorus Calamus.
Button-ball bush. Cephalanthus Occidentalis.
Jewel-weed. Impatiens Fulva.
Silver leaf. Impatiens Fulva.
Jewel leaf. Impatiens Fulva.
Common smart weed. Polygonum Pennsylvanicum.
Knot-grass. Polygonum aviculare.
Lady’s thumb. Polygonum Persicaria.
Buck-wheat. Fagopyrum Esculentum.
Live-for-ever. Sedum Telphium.
Viper’s bugloss. Echium Vulgare.
Purslane. Portulaca Oleraccea.
Portulaca. Portulaca Oleraccea.
Blackberry lily. Pardenthus Chinensis.
Blackberry. Rubus Villosus.
Stag-horn sumach. Rhus Typhina.
Catalpa. Catalpa Bignoniodies.
Indian chickweed. Mollugo Verticilata.
Thorn-apple. Datura Stramonium.
Jamestown weed. Datura Stramonium.
Worm seed. Chenopodium Anthilminticum.
Dog-bane. Apocynum Androsemifolium.
Cockspur-thorn. Crataegus Crus-galli.
Panicled cornel. Cornus Paniculata.
New Jersey tea. Ceanothus Americanus.
Dodder. Cuscuta Gronovii.
Love-vine. Cuscuta Gronovii.
Shrubby cinquefoil. Potentilla Fruticosa.
Indian strawberry. Fragaria Indica.
Spotted cowbane. Cicuta Maculata.
Water-hemlock. Cicuta Maculata.
White-weed. Erigeron Annuus.
Thimble-berry. Anemone Virginiana.
Anemone. Anemone Nemorosa.
Agrimony. Agrimonia Eupatoria, var. Hirsuta
Cow vetch. Vicia cracca.
Beggars-tick. Bidens Frondosa.
Stick tight. Bidens Frondosa.
Tick-trefoil. Desmodium Rotundifolium.
Prince’s pine. Chimaphila Umbellata.
Green pipissewa. Chimaphila Umbellata.
Spotted wintergreen. Chimaphila Maculata.
Pipsissewa. Chimaphila Maculata.
Camellia. Camellia Japonica.
Carrion flower. Smilax Herbacea.
Smilax. Smilax Rotundifolia.
Green brier. Smilax Rotundifoila.
Wild lettuce. Lactuca Canadensis.
Indian-pipe. Monotropa Oniflora.
False beech drops. Monotropa Hypopitys.
Pine sap. Monotropa Hypopitys.
Ghost flower. Monotropa Uniflora.
One flowered cancer-root. Aphyllon Uniflorum.
Dog-fungus. Mutinus Caninus.
Toad stool. Amanita Phalloides.
Mushroom. Agaricus campestris.
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.”