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
Since our last installment, an essay on the life of Edwin C. Jellett has been published in the Germantown Crier (Volume 66, Number 1), adding insight into a beloved if quirky Germantown figure who left many words but little personal information to satisfy the curiosity of posterity. In it, author Thomas F. Boyle explains that although Jellett was a committed diarist, recording a personal entry every day, topics from illness to death to changes of employment are related with absolutely no discernible emotion and in the most economical of language.
The descriptive treatment of his personal life cannot contrast more with the natural history essays that make up “The Country in the City.” In these writings Jellett’s language rambles in a way that suggests how his perambulations may have as well. Here he is at the Schuylkill observing the rare presence of the wild hydrangea. Without pause, now he’s describing a venerable honey locust in front of the General Wayne Hotel. A few paragraphs later he discusses the famous franklinia tree, often referred to as gordonia in older texts. He describes how the original franklinia tree discovered by William Bartram survived at Bartram’s Garden well into the mid-19th century Carr era, the last generation of the Bartram family to operate the garden. When the tree suffered neglect after the family was forced to relinquish the garden, it was taken to a place in Darby where it was nursed back to health, before being moved to Meehan’s famous nursery in Germantown, today only evidenced by a Meehan Street that terminates at Germantown Avenue.
My favorite passage in this essay, however, is Jellett’s opinion that anyone wanting to plant an ailanthus tree (clearly already an undesirable species in Jellett’s time) should consider a “Pistillate” specimen rather than a “Staminate” one.* From the lifelong bachelor, for whom we have no indication of having had a romantic or sexual life, the reader comes away with the impression that even when it comes to trees, the less said about intimate relationships, the better.
* Editor’s note: Jellett was probably speaking over the heads of most of his readers in 1903. Ailanthus, like holly, is dioecious, having female flowers and male flowers on separate plants. The male flowers are staminate – having stamens (and thus pollen); in ailanthus they are malodorous. Pistillate ailanthus flowers, having pistils that take the pollen to the ovary, are female, and odorless. Alas, by recommending female ailanthus, Jellett is favoring the trees that produce copious seeds. Besides, the broken twigs of both male and female stink, too.
Edwin C. Jellett – July 3, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
While in Scotland some years ago, I one afternoon in Edinburgh set out to visit a few of the many historical spots with which this picturesque town abounds. I had left the quaintness and varying charms of the “Gannon-gate” and “Grass market” to visit the alluring precincts, dear to every antiquarian, of Gray-friars Church, which appears to dwell enveloped in a fog of the past, where the rust of ages has settled upon the gates, where lichen-covered tombstones seem dripping with a clammy dampness condensed from the overhanging weighted gloom, and while on the way I stopped, as my custom is, to taste the delights of an “old book stall,” to leave for a moment the rush and bustle of a hurrying world, and in quiet reflection, without hurry, to look over silent pages, and enjoy as though it lived a shred of the life and thought garnered into the treasure house of books. As I turned over a motley collection, an odd title caught my eye, and a name familiar was flashed upon my attention. The book was inscribed:
“Tentamen Medicum Inaugurale De Venenis.
The volume was elegantly bound in red and gold, and was a “presented copy” to “Dr. Fothergill from his sincere and much obliged friend, the author.”
Now, who was George Logan, and who was Dr. Fothergill, to interest us? As you have already inferred, George Logan was Dr. George Logan, the grandson of James Logan, and known to all students of Germantown history as the owner of “Stenton,” where he lived the husband of the gifted and popular Deborah Logan, himself widely and favorably known, a skilled physician, a United States Senator who dignified the office, the cause of the so-called “Logan act,” who was born and who died at Stenton, and who sleeps in the little graveyard facing “Logan Meadow” and the promised dawn.
Dr. Fothergill was none other than Dr. John Fothergill, of London, for whom the genus Fothergilla, comprising alder-like shrubs closely allied to the witch-hazel, was named; the correspondent, friend and patron of John Bartram; at whose suggestion William Bartram was sent into the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, and at whose expense his “Travels” through that then new country was first published to the world in 1791. With the “three-pence” asked for the book I soon parted, and with the gem in my pocket, and a heart beating faster because I had been carried to home, I tramped on to the forsaken grave of “Bludie” Mackenzie, to the conjectured one of Allan Ramsay, and to that of the “martyrs” graphically described by Stevens, in fact, but in thought far away ranging over disrupted though pleasant fields, and wading through the high grass of the middle meadow of “Stenton.”
To a traveller the physical world soon becomes exceedingly small, and from its centre in our vision of space the boundaries of the unknown ever wider and wider grow. Imagination common and natural, is to me in itself sufficient proof of the existence of things spiritual, for if faculties were created for a purpose, then the non-existence of an object would be a fault, now where discernible in nature.
This question, and the questions it suggests, we shall leave with “Everyman,” and in “lighter vein” pause for a moment to present a few rare plants making their home in the “fields” which from afar appeared so “green.”
At the extreme edge of “Logan Meadow,” bordering on Broad street, is false indigo, or lead-plant, a Western plant, in which section of our country its appearance is said to indicate the presence of the mineral its name suggests. The plant forms a large shrub-like growth, and is covered with light purple pea-shaped flowers, which are quite conspicuous. There is also a specimen of this plant on Chew street, near Pleasant street, an escape, no doubt, from Meehans’ nurseries.
Along the railroad, near “Logan Barn,” beard-tongue or penstemon, Another Western plant, resembling the penstemon of our gardens, but with violet or purple flowers, is in bloom; also near the same place stork’s-bill, a close relative of the geraniums, but distinct from our common wild geranium in structure and appearance, shows its small rose-colored flowers.
Another rare plant blooming near here is flowering spurge, a plant with smooth light green leaves, growing to a height of two feet, and covered with small white flowers. This euphorbia has a wide distribution, but with us it is exceedingly rare. Nearby is barren brome grass, an introduced plant, and first noted here by William Kite. Goldies’ aspidium, now perfecting its fruit, and which at one time grew near the “Upper Spring,” is now there no more, but though rare it may be found at least two points in the Wissahickon. William Wynne Wister collected this plant at Logan’s Spring many years ago, and also in Roberts’ meadow, where, through his interest, I explored the grounds along the creek in this meadow from Apsley street to where it one time crossed the main road at Nicetown. The fern, the creek and the meadow have disappeared, and it is, I fear, but a short time question when “Logan Meadow” will, like the salubrious heights of “Sawdustville” marking its northern border, be peopled, and as Roberts’ meadow exist for a time in memory to eventually find a place on antiquated maps.
One of the finest gardens in Germantown was situated on Manheim street, near Township line, and its owner was William Price, favorably and affectionately known to his neighbors and friends as “Penny” Price. Enemies he had none, and it mattered not to him whether “his friends called him candle ends,” for to all “Penny” Price was a lovable old man, whom every one was pleased to meet, and who to children was a perennial delight. Very many happy hours I spent in his company, and I doubt not his simple manners and cheerful disposition were due in part to the beauty of his environment, for of the many old-fashioned gardens with which we are favored, his was one of the most attractive. Price’s garden as a garden is lost, but many of his rare and beautiful plants now beautify the grounds which absorbed it, and his home, once hidden by a wealth of vine and bloom, now serves as a minor building upon the spacious grounds of Manheim.
We all know the famous virgilia trees extending their branches over the street, but other noteworthy plants are there which have been overlooked, and one of these is an immense holly now showing its small white bloom.
This specimen is about twenty feet in height, the largest holly I know in Germantown, and rivals in size and condition some of the famous hollies of Wildwood, N. J.
The holly is a native of the Eastern United States, but with us it is very rare. At one time a few of these plants were growing in a wood on Willow Grove avenue, Chestnut Hill, but these have disappeared, and I now do not know that the plant grows naturally in our territory.
Garden paths are now lined by stocks, like “Joseph’s coat of many colors;” with generous flowering spikes of blue larkspur; with white, feathery, pyramidal heads of astilbe; and with clean, bright, wide-awake, golden-eyed French daisies. Nasturtiums show their tawny, gaudy flowers in beds and along walks and stone walls, and in dining-rooms, where the plant is sometimes served as a “green”.
Pansies, with bright, happy, many-hued faces, look as rollicking as a bunch of peeping kittens. Marigolds, with light green foliage and circular golden blooms; begonias, coral red and with large shining leaves, or with drooping leaves and small white flowers, according to variety, keep to the walks and beds; and bright-topped, showy cannas, orange flowering tiger lilies, brilliant, many-hued hollyhocks, and sun-flowers,” gay with yellow flowers, large or small as the variety may be, stand high above less ambitious neighbors.
Pink and blue hydrangeas bloom on lawns to furnish argument for the “pros and cons” of those who do not know the secret, and I doubt if any is able to certainly secure a blue specimen at will. In Germantown blue hydrangeas are common because the conditions are favorable, but in other parts it is impossible to keep them after being produced, which indicates that the Change is purely chemical.
One who goes tramping about the country soon comes to know the character of the flora by the composition of the soil, for the relationship between the two is constant, and we are often surprised to observe plants which flourish on one belt, on another belt near, but differently constituted, do not appear at all, or else appear sparingly.
“May cherries” are ripe, and what the boys and robins have left are trembling at the top of the tree. “Pie cherries” are red, and soon this year’s scanty crop of “ox-hearts,” and other varieties known by their names to every farmer lad will be on the way to market.
On lawns yellow flowering oxalis, small flowering blue-curls, small euphorbia, with chick-weed and common plantain, are in bloom where the lawn mower cannot reach them. Dwarf spreading horse-chestnut, with flowers not at all like the decorative plants lining the river near Columbia Bridge, is in bloom; Spanish bayonet, with needle-pointed leaves, and a high, erect stalk supporting a mass of creamy white flowers, glistening at night like orbs of light, and trumpet vine, a patient, steady toiler, covering arbors and out-buildings, is happy in a display of tubular, orange-colored flowers.
In waste places sow weed, teasel and wild carrot, all introduced plants, are pushing to bud, and timothy grass, hedge mustard, with yellow flowers; Venus’-looking-glass, with light purple flowers, and motherwort, with stalks almost hidden by mottled purple bloom, flourish about dwellings and deserted spots. Common chickory, a plant well known as a substitute for coffee, is blue with radiant bloom in fields everywhere. With a few exceptions, all the milkweeds native to our territory are in bloom, and if it were not for their objectionable sap they would make desirable garden plants, for which purpose a few of the best varieties are now used.
Common silk, or milk-weed, with large heads of olive-colored flowers, with the customary attendant sanguineous insect, is spreading its heavy sweetness near Chew wood. Variegated milkweed, with red hoods and white flowers, reported by George Redles, is in bloom near Green Lane Station. Poke leaved milkweed, with white hoods and greenish flowers, is in bloom on Willow Grove avenue, and in the Wissahickon, near Livezey’s lane. Butterfly weed, or pleurisy root, the most striking milkweed, having attractive orange-colored flowers, is in bloom near Brush wood, and the middle Wissahickon. Four-leaved milkweed, with white flowers as previously noted, is yet in bloom, and will continue so for some time. All the milkweeds have good staying powers, and those now flowering will hold until the later ones of July and August appear.
A rather rare plant with us is wild hydrangea, now in bloom along the Schuylkill river, below Columbia bridge. This plant grows to a height of six or eight feet, and like the cultivated varieties, bears cymes of white flowers. Near streams and along the edges of woods burning- bush, and its relative, strawberry-bush, continue to hold their own, and common smooth sumach, poison sumach, ailanthus, higher, but otherwise much resembling sumach, are covered with bunches of unattractive greenish flowers. The ailanthus is a well, if not favorbly, known shade tree now in disrepute because of an offensive odor during its flowering season. Where the tree is desired, this objection may be met by planting pistillate trees, for only the staminate trees are objectionable. In woods sweet cicely and wild sarsaparilla continue to hold, and baneberry, cucumber-root, slim-leaf are flowering at their best. Four-leaved loosestrife, erect and high, with whorls of small long-stemmed yellow flowers; wild dianthus, with rigid stems and clustered heads of small pink, bloom, and star-flower, small, with delicate transparent leaves and modest star-shaped white flowers, are in bloom. Loose-strife is common to woods everywhere, wild dianthus grows near the sites of Megargee’s mill and “Rube” Sands’ Hotel in the Wissahickon, and star-flower was collected by Joseph Meehan at Chestnut Hill at a point I was never fortunate enough to come upon it, but though here exceedingly rare, it is common enough at Clementon, N.J., where a fine locality for it was shown me by Henry Troth.
There are a number of fine specimens of common locust and honey-locust trees growing in and about Germantown,and these are now in flower. One of the finest honey-locust trees I know is that standing by the General Wayne Hotel, and there is another one almost equal to it on Pulaski avenue, below Seymour Street. Gordonia, or Franklin tree, a tree closely related to loblolly bay of the Southern States is now in bloom, and one who does not know it should take a trip to Meehans’ Nurseries, to Fairmount Park, west of Horticultural Hall, or to the grounds of William De Hart, Woodland avenue, Philadelphia,’ to become acquainted. This extremely rare and beautiful tree has an interesting history, being first discovered on the Altahatma river in Georgia in the year 1760 by John Bartram and his son William, but being out of flower at the time it could not be determined, and was not disturbed. Fifteen years later it was rediscovered in the same locality by William Bartram, and by him was named Frankliana, in honor of his friend, Benjamin Franklin, and specimens were brought by him to Bartram Garden, where it was propagated, and the increase distributed.
William Bartram described the plant as “a flowering tree of the first order for beauty and fragrance of blosson,” which Humphrey Marshall said was like the “fragrance of a china orange.” “The tree grows 15 to 20 feet high, branching alternately. The blossoms are very large, expand themselves perfectly, are of a snow-white color, and ornamented with a crown or tassel of gold-colored refulgent staminae in the centre.” William Bartram notes that the Gordonia was found in only one locality, covering two or three acres, where it grew plentifully.
In 1895 Dr. A.W. Chapman, the author of “Flora of the Southern United States,” who was interested in this plant, wrote me: “To my knowledge the tree has not been seen in Georgia since the date of Bartram’s discovery, although repeated attempts have been made in that direction. By recent explorers it has been looked for in the vicinity of old Fort Barrington, on the lower waters of the Altahama, near which it is supposed Bartram found it. If still in existence it must be very rare and local.”
This note is of interest because Dr. Chapman was born 18 years before the death of William Bartram, and from 1830 until 1899, when he died, lived in the Gordonia country. William De Hart, who remembered, and who distinctly described to me William Bartram, as well as the original Gordonia tree, told me this tree flourished until after the death of Colonel Carr, when the place for a time was abused, and to save this plant which had been trampled down, he took what remained of it to “his grounds on Darby road, where he succeeded in reviving it. In its new quarters, under watchful care it survived for many years, when it was presented to Joseph Meehan, at whose grounds it died of old age. So in Germantown its eventful career came to a close, and from its now departed life all Gordonias known have sprung.
False indigo. Amorpha Canescens.
Lead Plant. Amorpha Canescens.
Beard-tongue. Penstemon Pubescens.
Penstemon. Penstemon Pubescens.
Garden Penstemon. Penstemon Pubescens.
Stork’s bill. Erodium Cicutarium.
Wild geranium. Geranium Maculatum.
Flowering spurge. Euphorbia Corollata.
Small euphorbia. Euphorbia Preslii.
Brome grass. Bromus Sterilis.
Goldie’s aspidium. Aspidium Goldianum.
Virgilia. Cladrastis Tinctoria.
Holly. Ilex Opaca.
Stock. Matthiola Incana.
Larkspur. Delphinium Elatum.
Astilbe. Astilbe Japonica.
French daisy. Chrysanthemum Frutescens.
Nasturtium. Tropaeolium Majus.
Pansy. Viola Tricolor.
Marigold. Calendula Officinalis.
Red flowering begonia. Begonia Rubra.
White flowering begonia. Begonia Semperflorens.
Canna. Canna Indica.
Tiger lily. Lilum Tigrinium.
Hollyhock. Althaea Rosea.
Large sunflower. Helianthus Annuus.
Small sunflower. Helianthus Maximiliani.
Pink hydrangea. Hydrangea Hortensia.
Blue hydrangea. Hydrangea Hortensia.
May cherry. Prunus Cerassus.
Ox-heart cherry. Prunus Cerassus.
Pie cherry. Prunus Cerassus.
Oxalis. Oxalis Stricta.
Blue curl. Trichostema Dichotomum.
Small flowering euphorbia. Euphorbia Preslii.
Chickweed. Stellaria Media.
Common plantain. Plantago Majus.
Dwarf spreading horse chestnut. Aesculus Macrostachya.
Spanish bayonet. Yucca Filamentosa.
Trumpet vine. Bignonia Spendens.
Sow-weed. Sonchus Oleraceus.
Teasel. Dipsacus Fullonum.
Wild carrot. Daucus Carota.
Timothy grass. Phleum Pratense.
Hedge mustard. Sisymbrium Officinale.
Venus-looking glass. Specularia Perfoliata.
Motherwort. Leonurus Cardiaca.
Chickory. Cichorium Intybus.
Silk-weed. Asclepias Cornuti.
Milk-weed (common). Asclepias Cornuti.
Variegated milk-weed. Asclepias Variegata.
Poke-leaved milk-weed. Asclepias phytolaccoides.
Butterfly-weed. Asclepias Tuberosa.
Pleurisy-root. Asclepias Tuberosa.
Four-leaved milk-weed. Asclepias Quadrifolia.
Wild hydrangea. Hydrangea Arborescens.
Burning bush. Euonymus Atropurpureus.
Strawberry bush. Euonymus Americanus.
Smooth sumach. Rhus Glabra.
Poison sumach. Rhus Venenata.
Ailanthus. Ailanthus Glandulosus.
Sweet cicely. Osmorrhiza Brevistylis.
Wild sarsaparilla. Aralia Nudicaulis.
Banesberry. Actaea Alba.
Cucumber-root. Medeola Virginica.
Shin-leaf. Pyrola Rotundifolia.
Four-leaved loose-strife. Lysimachia Quadrifolia.
Wild dianthus. Dianthus Prolifer.
Star-flower. Trientalis Americana.
Locust. Robinia Pseudoacacia.
Honey locust. Gleditschia Triacanthos.
Gordonia. Gordonia Pubescens.
Franklin tree. Gordonia Pubescens.
Loblolly-bay tree. Gordonia Lasiantus.
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.”