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
Not for the first time in his weekly column, Edwin Jellett zigs and zags. Quirky, one might say, and this week I go with his flow, zagging a bit as well.
Jellett opens with a reverie for the Whitemarsh Valley, distinctly not Germantown, even if he surveyed it from Chestnut Hill, the northwest corner of the old German Township. Citing one of his long-dead teachers, Henry Carvill Lewis, Jellett teases his readers with geologic factoids about the difference between the Wissahickon Gorge of the city and the Whitemarsh Valley, through which the creek flows.
An excellent elaboration of this geology (and resulting geography) may be found in the essential 2010 four-volume book Metropolitan Paradise by David Contosta and Carol Franklin (Saint Joseph’s University Press). In Volume 1, there is a revelatory explanation of the geologies through which the Wissahickon flows, with helpful maps and numerous images. It’s almost as if Jellett’s few paragraphs are an introduction to the Contosta-Franklin treatment. (Metropolitan Paradise is must reading for those interested in and concerned about the past, present and future of the Wissahickon.)
Now it’s time for Jellett to zig, and we get a dose of songbirds. But what is the “wood robin” he cites? Nowadays, this producer of “the sweetest music I know” is known as the wood thrush. A comprehensive list of olden names for American birds was compiled by Richard C. Banks and published in 1988 and may be found at http://pubs.usgs.gov/rp/0174/report.pdf.
And next a zag from birds to ferns, clearly one of Jellett’s loves. He cites his “discovery” of 35 species “about Germantown.” It turns out that over the next 11 years he found three more, for in a 1914 he gave an address to the Philadelphia Fern Society in which he cited 38.
Hold on, folks, time for one last zig.
This is not the first time in this 1903 series of articles that Jellett has mentioned the plant scarlet pimpernel. What – it’s a plant? What about Leslie Howard in those florid outfits saving the aristocracy during the French Revolution?
How odd that a somewhat poisonous weed with a dinky salmon-red flower morphed into a literary and celluloid hero. Emma Orczy’s play and novel The Scarlett Pimpernel came out in London in 1905 and was a swashbuckling success, spawning numerous movie and television adaptations and 15 Pimpernel sequels and prequels by Orczy. (There was also a series of spoofs, including The Scarlett Pumpernickel with Daffy Duck.)
Why the title? The hero, an English aristocrat with a double life, used the little red flower as his symbol and moniker when coming to the aid of the 1% of 18th-century France. Frankly, it’s a rather small symbol – the flowers are a third of an inch wide. But the syllables do roll off the tongue, and generations have known the sobriquet to refer to a dashing swordsman, not a diminutive weed.
Anagallis arvensis, as the plant is known botanically, is native to Europe but now found around the world. Not only was it here and there in Germantown a hundred years ago, but periodically I find it in my lawn in Mount Airy. “Pimpernel” derives from the Middle French pimprenelle, meaning little pepper.
Edwin C. Jellett – July 24, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
On a dark night late in fall, when trees are bare and “the lights are out,” one who will go to Chestnut Hill and stand with the outlook of “Norwood” before him, will, if he be of an imaginative temperament, behold a thrilling panorama, the impressiveness of which he can never forget.
Before him, like a boundless ocean, will be the darkness of space, with nothing to distinguish it from that mysterious great unknown but the number of sparkling lights, but these at times aid the illusion, and seem like signals of cheer from confident precious freight which hopefully have “gone down into the sea in ships,” to ceaselessly onward press to ports beyond our ken. Overhead silent and illimitable stars, as sands of the sea without name and without number, glimmer in obscuring clouds, and beneath, like mid-ocean in darkness, seems the impenetrable, everlasting deep.
Beautiful as the Whitemarsh Valley is in day, and always wonderful as it is, it is never more beautiful or more wonderful than it is at night, and fanciful as this picture may seem, it is so only in part and in point of time, for this valley was in fact a part of a great ocean bed, over which in ages past leviathans sported, and while there no ships sailed, nor over it human eye never ranged, storms may there have raged, though we do not know, and billows surged, and waves broke as they now break on present not far away shores.
In my youth I was fortunate in having for instructors several men of exceptional character and ability, for whose beneficent examples and influence I shall be always grateful. One of these was Henry Carvill Lewis, a man of the noblest attributes, and always a conscientious, untiring worker in chosen fields of intellectual and religious activity. Henry Lewis was a fine botanist, a mineralogist and astronomer of note, and a geologist who stood in the world’s front rank. In England his great ability was first recognized, where he was honored by a “presentation” to the Queen, and after by the learned bodies of Europe, by whom in matters scientific he was ranked as the “first American.”
During his preliminary work at home it was my privilege to make under his direction many excursions about Germantown, these “trips taking the form of studies in plants and minerals. One of his favorite walks was to Johnson’s quarry, now destroyed by Lincoln drive, a spot where was collected syenite and tourmaline. Another locality was Washington lane and Township line, a place we could always secure specimens of a glacial iron deposit noted for being common only to ground not less than 300 feet above the ocean; to the waterworks and Johnson’s woods, where we searched for flowers, in the latter of which he discovered moccasin flower, a feat I was never able to duplicate; and in the Wissahickon, where we collected quartz and feldspar and other minerals common to our neighborhood, and where he first made me acquainted with a locality for fringed gentian.
Henry Lewis made several of the most important reports for the Pennsylvania Geological Survey of 1880, and he was the first to make a study of and describe the glacial flows. Abroad he did much work on similar lines, and his notes upon Ireland, England, Italy, Holland and elsewhere are in part preserved in his book, “The Glacial Geology of Great Britain and Ireland,” but this field we shall avoid, and endeavor to confine ourselves briefly to the district which more immediately concerns us. The last time I saw Henry Lewis was at “The Eldon,” Chestnut Hill. A week before this meeting Henry S. Fancoast and I had spent an afternoon with him at this same resort, at a spot where the Whitemarsh Valley was spread before us, at which time his sensitive nature seemed filled with its beauty and he ceased not to speak of it, and of the wonders of the Wissahickon, and although he had toured the world, and was intimately acquainted with many of the older countries of Europe, he told me no stream he knew was as picturesque as the Wissahickon, and to him no view as beautiful as that of the Whitemarsh Valley. Three weeks after this he died of a fever at Manchester, and at Walmsley, England, he sleeps.
I have introduced Henry Lewis here because he was one of the most active of our community, and because he made a special study of our natural features. The shore line of the Whitemarsh Valley, as defined by Henry Lewis, extended by the way of Chestnut Hill, Bryn Mawr and Media to other more distant points. The sea sand and gravel deposits known as the “Bryn Mawr gravels” mark the beach of an ocean in cretaceous or tertiary times, but what mighty upheaval caused the change, or by what physical action it was accomplished, no one may say, for the geologic remains are at “fault” and are admittedly confusing, but the immediate Whitemarsh Valley may be more readily comprehended.
The expanse to the north of Chestnut Hill is a valley, not wholly because it was a bed of an ancient waterway, but because its space was occupied by magnesian limestone, a rock easily corroded by atmospheric agencies, which through the operations of time has been dissolved, leaving as elevations the harder rock originally bounding it. From the Schuylkill river to Chestnut Hill the rock of the Wissahickon gorge is composed mainly of mica-schist, gneiss and garnetiferous schist. Near Chestnut Hill the limestone belt is bounded by Potsdam sandstone, syenite and granitic rock, with new sandstone to the far beyond. In this notable region the Wissahickon stream has its rise, and through it flows, but this we shall endeavor to present at another time.
The birds now have little time to sing, and like “past grand” courtiers in superior life, who increase their expense without increasing their income, have gotten down to wearing their shabby clothes. Common quail, whose cry of “Bob White” is warning of approaching rain, is now sometimes heard, and the lusty whistler himself occasionally comes to the barnyard to feed with the chickens. Now fat, heavy-bodied flickers congregate, and on the least alarm rise in groups, and ofttimes their whirring taps on the trees are mistaken for those of a wood-pecker. Speckled, white-headed wood robins move silently through low shrubbery, and amid dripping leaves after a rain sing with low, dulcet, liquid notes the sweetest music I know.
Ferns are abundant everywhere and never appeared better. Later they begin to lose their freshness, and by mid-August, if the season be dry, exposed plants appear harsh, sometimes become “sun-burnt,” and are not at all as pleasing as at present.
Also now nearly all our ferns are either developing fruit vessels, or else these fruit vessels are mature. In Franklin and the Wissahickon woods the smaller moon-wort, as well as moon-worts previously noted, are mature, and already their spikes of grape-like spore vessels are drying, and on hills skirting Brush dam and the rear of Blue Bell Hill bracken, with wide spreading fronds or leaves, is high and showing its lines of fruit.
As you already know, ferns are classified according to the position of the fruit on the frond, and as the families are few, the markings distinct, the guide infallible, so we may learn without difficulty the name of every fern appearing in our neighborhood. About Germantown, so far as I have been able to discover, we have 35 varieties of ferns and closely allied plants, and several years of persistent search has failed to reveal more. These ferns are grouped in 18 subdivisions, the whole comprising an interesting representation of individuals.
Maiden-hair fern, perhaps our most beautiful native fern, is too well known to need description, and with us is in a class of which it is the only representative. Brake has always its fruit or sori lined along the outer edge of the leaf divisions, over which a thin membrane called an indusium is curled, the only other of its kind appearing near our territory in the steel-blue rock-brake growing along the Schuylkill river near Lafayette, Strictly, rock-brake is not classed with common brake, but I have always thought it should be, and regard it only as a question of time when it will be so grouped. Walking-fern is also a single representative plant, and is not generally known, because it is rare. This plant has a pointed, drooping leaf, with fruit pockets situated on the veins, and without apparent order distributed upon the frond. Walking-fern grows near Thomas’ wood, in several parts of the Wissahickon, and in the woods near Lafayette. Dicksonla, another lone fern, with fronds odorous, resembling that of curing hay, the frond being studded with round fruit dots situated near the margin of the pinules, is now maturing in woods at Limekin pike and Washington lane, and less plentiful in other woods nearer home.
Woodsia and bladder fern, two plants which frequent stone walls, now show their fruit. The first, a heavy grower, may be found at Township line and Rittenhouse street, the last, a slender grower, with stiff clean leaves, and appearing on the stone bridge near “Houston’s Ramble.”
To get a proper idea of fruit distinctions, take any standard work upon botany, or better take a work upon ferns, the latest and the best American work upon the subject I know being “Ferns in Their Haunts” by Williard N. Clite, in which there is a key none can fail to comprehend.
Other ferns ready for consideration we shall pass at present to note a few less patient flowering plants.
David Peltz, on Nicetown lane, is “cutting hay,” and its pleasant aroma is drifting over fields to remind one of cramped, sultry mows of old, and of mid-summer “dog days” close at hand.
Century plant, so named because it is slow to come to bloom, with white flowering datura heavy with drooping, large, trumpet-shaped flowers, has joined the colony on the lawn, and white flowering clematis, with a mist of delicate scented small flowers, is covering many an arbor and veranda. In fields and along the edges of woods wild verbena, a high, rough growing plant with spikes of small white or light blue flowers, which no one would ever connect with the bright flowering verbenas of the garden, is now in bloom. Scarlet pimpernel, an interesting, pretty little plant, sometimes called eye-bright, is in bloom. Although its distribution is not general, it is common enough in spots, one locality being as previously noted near the barn at “Christopher Ludwig’s Farm” on East Haines street.
A rather weedy plant, but one which is always fresh and clean, is drill-seeded mercury, a frequenter of roadsides and gardens. The flowers are formed at the axiles of the leaves, are white and minute, and never conspicuous enough to attract attention. In fields and in damp places in woods common lobelia, or Indian tobacco, a small leafy plant with light blue flowers, and Nuttall’s lobelia, a rare plant with slender stems and blue flowers growing near Edge Hill, are in bloom. Near Edge Hill also in bloom is Virginia snake-root, or birth-wort, a plant with heart-shaped, pointed leaves, with green purplish flowers, and with us rare. At one time this plant grew on the old railroad banks, Wissahickon, where George Redles, Jr., told me it was looked upon as a great treasure by George Redles and “Freddie” Fleckenstein, both of whom are remembered as active and acute botanists.
Bastard pennyroyal, a bushy plant with light blue flowers, is blooming in Franklin woods and in the “Wissahickon.” False loose-strife, a leafy plant with long pediceled yellow flowers, closely resembling the true loose-strifes, is blooming in Franklin wood, where also 4-leaved loose-strife is sometimes 5-leaved, and both are covered with yellow bloom.
We have a goodly number of St. John’s worts, and several of these are in bloom. One is common St. John’s wort, previously noted, another is orange-grass or pine weed, a small plant with orange-colored flowers, and growing on Rabbit lane near E. Rittenhouse Miller’s place. Small St. John’s wort, a small delicate plant with smooth light green leaves and bright yellow flowers, common in parts of the Wissahickon; spotted St. John’s wort, common in damp places, with erect stems and mottled leaves; shrubby St. John’s wort, a bushy plant and like its relations with yellow flowers, native to home woods; and branched St. John’s wort, a stout, heavy grower, common to parts of New Jersey, are also in bloom. Marsh St. John’s wort, a swamp-loving plant, with erect stems, small symmetrical leaves, with flesh-colored flowers appearing at the axils and at the summit of the plant, is not a true St. John’s wort, but a “nearby close unto” relation.
In bloom near “Rittenhousetown” is St. Andrew’ cross, a low plant with hard crisp leaves and with curious cross-shaped yellow flowers; also near the same place St. Peter’s wort, requiring no doubt proper associations, is with thick leaves and light yellow flowers in bloom on a hill beyond “Wissahickon School.”
Early aster, the first of the asters to appear, is now showing its white attractive “open faced” flowers in Franklin wood, and near it is wild indigo plant weighted to the ground, and odd as it may seem, with yellow bloom, though not from these, but from its leaves, a blue dye, but of reputed inferior quality, is extracted. This plant is common enough in dry woods, or on high dry banks, and one who will take a walk through “Gulf” at Conshohocken at this season will be amply repaid by the exhibition there of yellow bloom.
In a popular attempt it is impossible to present plants to the best advantage, for but few of the families have all its representatives in bloom at one time, and these, therefore, cannot be satisfactorily compared and the differences noted. Botanical manuals, as they should, present plants in groups, and give a mean average time for flowering. In a work of a general character this could not be otherwise, but we may see that what such a work gains by impressive phalanxed groups is to a certain extent taxed by deficiency in accuracy.
One is often misled by general books, and sometimes with us flowers searched for under broad directions have passed their bloom. Nor is this lack entirely unavoidable in works of a restricted nature, for without announcement a flower may early appear, and as “one swallow does not make a summer,” so a leader may have a long line of straggling followers. I mention this because seeming inaccuracies may be natural digressions, or late or second crop blooms, as for example, wisteria, which now in places is showing second flowers, or as in New England, where second crops of a general character are common.
Just now there appears with us to be a dearth of nature study associations, and although I am aware of the good work of Miss Caroland, of the Central Combined School; of Miss Kite, of the Friends’ School, and a society tor this work at the Germantown Academy, the interest does not seem to keep pace with the growth of our town. This kind of work should be carried on in connection with schools, large churches, or with other institutions of a permanent character, with which there is an unfailing succession of youth. It is useless to organize private societies, for while these may flourish for a time and benefit a few, by depletion of ranks and lack of supplies these soon with misdirected energy drift to a lingering death.
When the Agassiz Association was at its height, and no community was considered complete without one, Germantown about the year 1874, under the leadership of Henry Carvill Lewis, William E. Meehan and others, organized a “branch,” but neither their ability, active interest or enthusiasm proved sufficient to sustain it, and I doubt if many of our towns-people yet remember it.
Other classes and associations followed, one of the most important of these being the “Ladies’ Botany Class,” in which Miss Cope, a fine botanist and a lady whose deeds of enduring worth live to commemorate her, was the most active spirit, and in which also Henry Lewis and Prof. Thomas Meehan were both actively interested. In all the inherent lack of succession has been an unavoidable fault, and has burdened, if it has not extinguished, corporate work.
But at all times individual workers have been active, and many of us remember the work of Allan Gentry, of Elliston J. Perot, who conducted “The Amateur Naturalist,” and of several writers who wrote for these and other papers at a time when Cope and Lewis and Thomas Meehan were writing for the world.
From its position Germantown can never be without nature lovers, and although the ratio of conspicuous ones is not equal, we have doubtless in number now as many as at any one time in our town’s history, and in Joseph Meehan, Stewartson Brown, Frank Miles Day, Earnest Hemming, Edwin Lonsdale, William E. Meehan, S. Mendelson Meehan, N. Dubois Miller, George Bedles, Albert Woltemate, John Welsh Young, with others previously named, and others in mind, we have writers and lecturers upon natural history on whom our hopes rest, and whose work should stimulate our “out of doors” students in school or out of it to maintain with the same purity and dignity the possessions they have endeavored to “keep so bright.”
Fringed gentian. Gentiana Crinita.
Small moon-wort. Botrychium Ternatum, var. Lunaroides.
Bracken. Pteris Aquilinar.
Maiden-hair’s fern. Adiantum Pedatum.
Brake. Pteris Aquilina.
Rock-brake. Pellaea Atropurpurea.
Walking-fern. Camptosorus Rhizophyllus.
Dicksonia. Dicksonia Pilosiuscula.
Woosdia. Woodsia obtusa.
Bladder-fern. Cystopteris Fragilis.
Century plant. Agave Americana.
Datura. Datura Meteloides.
White clematis. Clematis Paniculata.
Wild verbena. Verbena Hastata.
Garden verbena. Verbena Chamaedrifolia.
Scarlet pimpernel. Anagallis Arvensis.
Eye-bright. Anagallis Arvensis.
Three seeded mercury. Acalypha virginica.
Common lobelia. Lobelia Inflata.
Indian tobacco. Lobelia Inflata.
Nuttall’s lobelia. Lobelia Nuttallii.
Virginia snake-root. Aristlochia serpentaria.
Birth-wort. Aristolochia Serpentaria.
Bastard pennyroyal. Trichostema Dichotomum.
False loose-strife. Lysimachia Quadrifolia.
Foru leaved loose-strife. Lysimachia Quadrifolia.
Common St. John’s wort. Hypericum Perforatum.
Orange grass. Hypericum Nudicaule.
Pin-weed. Hypericum Nudicaule.
Small St. John’s wort. Hypericum Mutilum.
Spotted St. John’s wort. Hypericum maculatum.
Shruby St. John’s wort. Hypericum Prolificum.
Branched St John’s wort. Hypericum Densiflorum.
Marsh St. John’s wort. Elodea Campanulata.
St. Andrew’s cross. Ascyrum Crux-Andreae.
St. Peter’s wort. Ascyrum Stans.
Early aster. Aster Junceus.
Wild indigo. Amorpha Fruticosa.
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.”