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
In this week’s entry, Edwin Jellett continues his perambulations and his running commentary on the flora of Northwest Philadelphia, its topography, and in this case also its architecture. He describes the view looking west from a high point in Chestnut Hill near Compton, once the mansion of siblings John and Lydia Morris. Upon Lydia’s death in the 1930s their large estate with its excellent collection of horticultural specimens was bequeathed to the University of Pennsylvania. The mansion was demolished in the late 1960s, and today we know the estate as the Morris Arboretum.
Behemoths like the Compton estate, surrounded by large undulating lawns, once broke the view of uninterrupted forests, fields, and the occasional smoke stack or church steeple looking west beyond Flourtown to Gwynedd and even farther. The archives of Bryn Mawr College include a fascinating database of Suburban Manors of Late 19th Century Philadelphia with images of these homes (http://www.brynmawr.edu/iconog/wh/wharc.htm).
Besides looking out at the horizon, Jellett also looks down at the ground, in this instance at the terrestrial orchids that in his time were still to be found in the Wissahickon and elsewhere. Many of the species he describes are still to be found in Pennsylvania (if alas not in the Wissahickon). The nature Conservancy has created this page on Pennsylvania native orchids: www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/pennsylvania/placesweprotect/pa-orchidfs-final-1.pdf.
Lastly, a mystery! Jellett writes of collecting orchid species he came across on his walks. What exactly did he do with the plants he collected? His own garden was modest in size, and most likely of an unsympathetic character to support fussy terrestrial orchids. In fact, Jellett was collecting plants to include in the herbarium of the Germantown Horticultural Society. Herbaria were (and are) composed of loose sheets of stiff paper on which dried and pressed plants are carefully mounted and labeled, including information about the date and the exact location where they were collected. At one time the president of the Germantown Horticultural Society, Jellett would have been very active in the management of its herbarium, which would have functioned as the club’s database of plants.
The mystery lies in the location today of this herbarium. Some of GHS’s papers are currently in the archives of the Germantown Historical Society, but there is no record of what became of their specimen collection. If you live in an older home in Germantown, check your attic. Maybe someday this important documentation of local flora will be rediscovered.
Edwin C. Jellett – July 31, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
Surveying Whitemarsh Valley from the heights of “Sugar Loaf” or “Norwood” at a favorable season by day, one may see Flourtown with its skirting iron mines, its ancient flour mill, and its comfortable homes contracted to the measure of a picture all nestling in the foreground. Far away to the east may be seen the hills of Waverly Heights and Weldon, whose wooded ridges studded martello like with spacious homes, turreted towered, dot the visual boundary where Edge Hill Furnace, once its most conspicuous object, snorted and puffed volumes of steam and smoke, and whose reactive energy tremored the valley from Plymouth and Fort Washington to Abington, Moorestown and Jenkintown, but which now neither marks nor disturbs it more. Northward, in front of the circle, stands the square brown tower of St. Thomas’ Church, replacing the historic high-pointed one of pleasant memory which stood on the self-same green elevation, hiding then as now the fortifications of Camp Hill beyond, and which only at times permits a view of the high flagstaff marking the site. Due north, those with keenest eyes may see over the verdured expanse of Longstreth’s and Broad Axe woods the slender, needlelike steeple of Boehms’ Blue Bell Church, which always reminds me of the loyal “Reformers” who founded it, and of Thomas Meehan, who, under its lengthening shadow in “God’s Acre,” lies in the midst of a country he knew, where open air, sunshine, flowers and singing birds never fail, and where far-reaching fertile fields extend from Fairview, Pennlyn and Three Tuns to Gwynedd, North Wales and the limiting horizon.
Northwest the smoke of smouldering Lancasterville furnaces lazily skyward curls, and reaching from busy centres through the open are roads and pikes which, like long drawn knotted ropes, stretch outward until they disappear in the trees. Nearer, the remains of fort-like “Erdenheim,” grim, stand their ground beyond the smiling height of Compton, and Monticello near, quiet and uncomplaining, looks subdued amid more pretentious surroundings.
In the middle foreground is “Valley Green,” and beyond is the Wissahickon following a sinuous line of vegetation, where glistening waters occasionally flash to tempt us to a closer acquaintance, and from our height we descend to the bridge, and rise again to the summit of another hill, where the brown and white soil sharply meet.
To the north and east the scene has changed so as to be almost unrecognizable, and to the front “Sugar Loaf” now commands the way.
Southward, like a wooded mountain range, are the over-lapping hills of the Wissahickon gorge, and rounding Dewee’s corner are the rippling waters hastening to the sheltering ravine.
Far, or near,
“Earth has not anything to show more fair,
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty.”
Here we shall leave the speeding waters to retrace our steps, for I have glanced over the area which gave the Wissahickon life to better give an idea of what maintains its strength. The Wissahickon creek is formed by the union of several rivulets which appear in the southwestern part of Montgomery county. The northernmost branch has its rise to the north of Lansdale, which a short distance below this town is joined by a branch from Montgomery Square. These united branches flow southwestwardly to a point near Gwynedd Square, where the stream turns to the southeast, and below West Point is joined by another branch from North Wales.
From this junction its course is generally southeast through Gwynedd, Whitpain, Plymouth and Upper Dublin townships, being strengthened as it progresses by numerous contributions from east and west, which greatly increase its volume. At Pennlyn the flow reaches the dignity of a “creek,” where it is first checked for commercial use, and from here it follows a tortuous course through an open country, making below Ambler a turn to the west, after which its general direction becomes southwest. By way of Camp Hill, Sandy run, a swift flowing stream rising near Willow Grove, empties into the main stream near Skippack road, which now passes through the rich meadow lands of Whitemarsh and Springfield townships. There it leaves to enter Philadelphia county and the “Wissahickon” confines.
The length of the stream from Lansdale to the headlands is 14 miles, and from this point to the Schuylkill river five miles, a total of 19 miles. Throughout its entire flow the Wissahickon passes through a country varied with meadows, hills and undulating land. In open meadows it is fringed by alder and elder, by paper birch and red cedar, by button-ball and poplar, and several varieties of willow. Where It skirts the hills, hemlock and beech, chestnut and oak, spread wide their branches. Through “cloud or sunshine” it passes on “its way rejoicing,” making “glad the heart of man;” broadening here and there into a lazy, placid dam; now washing projecting roots from wooded banks of sloping hills; now flecked with foam and whirling and circling in the shade; now surging and racing over rocks and hastening to the hills, which in ecstasy it reaches, and among which it gurgles and sports until it emerges into the broad light resting over the unyielding Pencoyd hills, and the receiving river bids it be still.
This briefly is the topography of the upper Wissahickon region, the “other side of the picture” and complement of the Whitemarsh Valley at night, a study we hope more fully to continue.
In open fields, and sometimes deep in woods, several of our native orchids are now in bloom, and from our position on Convent Hill I am reminded of adder’s tongue, a small plant with a slender stem 4 to 6 inches long, springing from a hard bulb, and bearing a raceme of small green flowers, found by Joseph Meehan in a glade below the site of Bell’s or Thorp’s mill, and now due in bloom. Whether common or rare, orchids are always interesting, and are looked upon as nature gems.
When we speak of orchids, immediately there flashes up in commercial minds the sum of $500 or $5000. Now, there is a distinction between a flower lover and a fame lover, and though “listed” low, our native terrestrial orchids are just as odd, just as interesting, and intrinsically just as valuable as any others, no matter what they “fetched.”
Among orchids we have noted is wake robin, moccasin flower, putty root, a tway blade and coral root, all native to the Wissahickon, and pogonia, common to Edge Hill. Though appearing only in rare instances in our territory, several members of the rein orchis group are now in bloom, of which the most beautiful varieties are abundant at Millville, Quaker Bridge, and other parts of New Jersey. Now blooming is white fringed orchis, with pure white feathery flowers, and yellow fringed orchis, with rich yellow flowers. Two other varieties are the common rein orchis and ragged fringed orchis, both with nagreenish flowers, all the representatives of the rein orchis or habenaria group, are strong growers, and whether they develop root leaves or “throw up” erect stems, they all wherever they appear show conspicuous flowers.
There are several orchids credited to our territory which I have not been fortunate enough to collect. One of these is bog tway blade, a small plant appearing in damp grounds, resembling tway-blade in form, but having yellowish green flowers instead of the chocolate-colored ones more familiar to us. Another one is many flowered coral-root, a strong grower in dry woods, having high stems, and with fragrant white purple-spotted flowers.
A unique and one of our most beautiful leaved plants is rattlesnake plantain, an orchid now blooming sparingly throughout the Wissahickon woods. This is a low growing plant, with small thick white-veined leaves, and producing a stem of waxy white flowers, a plant easy to grow and a valuable acquisition to any garden.
The span of a person’s life seems but a short time in which to note nature change, but even in my own brief existence I have been able to notice the retrogression of several of our finer plants. Many of the best “localities” through the growth of our town have been destroyed, drainage improvements aiding in the destruction, and delicate rare plants, if slowly, are surely retreating. At one time a treasure mine was Carpenter’s swamp, situated on Township line road, above Carpenter’s lane. Here grew several New Jersey plants, such as the curious “carniverous plants,” smaller and greater bladder-worts, each having yellow flowers, and on slender threadlike rootlets numerous small sacs, which bladder-like float and absorb unwary animalculae; and also sundews, one with round leaves, and another known as long-leaved sundew, both with small white flowers, mucilaginous stems, round clasping spiked leaves, and growing in moist places.
Here also grew purple flowering and yellow flowering polygala and other moisture loving plants. Some of these plants were here collected by Joseph Meehan, but all named have disappeared. In bloom here, however, at the present time is pink flowering, yellow-stamined meadow beauty or deer grass, a specially attractive tuberous plant growing in most ground along the creek.
Here I have found but one variety, but in New Jersey at Millville, and also at Egg Harbor, George Redles and myself have collected the white flowering variety, and also a rarer variety known as aristosa, both of which are now blooming. When dahlias bloom it somehow seems that “fall” is nigh, and now they show their red and yellow heads over many a fence. Funkias, with imbricated leaves, and tall spikes of white and dark purple flowers; hardy phlox, high and strong, bright and gay, great in color and in variety, illumine old-time gardens, and many imitative gardens of the so-called modern school.
White flowering tobacco, distinct from the poisonous looking market product, now rears its awkward stems and ungainly heads of scented bloom; cultivated yellow primroses, small in stature but large in production, open their drooping ox-eyed-like flowers, when “the shadows of the evening fall.” Mountain of snow, a well-known euphorbia, with white and green variegated leaves and producing whitish green flowers, is blooming along walks; atamasco lily, showing a delicate shaded pink flower upon a single short leafless stem, usually grown in pots, is now beautifying many a path and porch, though in places its bloom is now over.
Indian currant in many a garden, and also in the upper Wissahickon, is showing its pink and white bloom, which in time will give way to coral berries, which give the plant its name.
Everywhere, outside of towns, potatoes are in flower, and the farmer who prides himself upon his ability to treat his friends to “new” ones on the Fourth of July, has had his pleasure. Wheat and rye are in full head, and oats are cut and stacked. Already grapes are full in form, pears have taken size and color, and early apples are showing the warm blush of a rotund maturity.
Along roads althaea is covered with single hollyhock-like purple or pink, or white spotted with red, blooms; and hollyhocks, “single” and “double,” in many colors, stretch upward to the light. Black mustard, a rough growing plant with yellow flowers, is yet vigorously blooming in waste places. Horse radish, a one-time garden plant, but which long ago made its escape, shows common enough its white flowers along roadsides and in fields, and also truant with it is tansy, with odorous leaves, and now headed with small round thick-set yellow flowers.
Thick in fields, but not yet in bloom, is horse-weed, a tall leafy heavy grower, and also with it is red-stemmed common evening-primrose, which now should be in bloom, but is not. In moist places in fields and along streams orange flowering jewel weed, sometimes called impatiens, is now everywhere in bloom, accompanied by the later sulphur yellow flowering variety.
Turtle-head, a curious closed tubular white flower growing upon a high sturdy stem, is blooming on County line, near Rabbit lane, and also in the Wissahickon, near Thorp’s lane.
Among common plants with mediocre flowers now in bloom is stinging nettle, with whorls of small green flowers; water smart weed, with white or flesh-colored flowers; arrow leaved tear thumb, with armed stems and pale rose or white flowers; dwarf sumach on dry banks, and with greenish flowers; and poison sumach or poison elder, distinct in appearance from other sumachs, with green flowers, and unlike the usual brown or crimson topped sumachs, with whitish fruit, the plants first named appearing in the upper Wissahickon and the sumachs near Miles’ wood.
Blooming also in the Wissahickon, near Thomas’ Mill road, is common hop, with pendant acorn-shaped green flowers, and false buckwheat, with small white flowers, both plants climbing over bushes.
In shaded fields and in woods is wild sensitive plant, with delicately divided leaves and small bright yellow flowers; partridge pea, with spreading leaves and showy yellow bloom, now appearing in Franklin wood; and wild senna, a strong leafy plant 4 to 6 feet high, with numerous heavy pea-shaped yellow flowers, now blooming in many places, but the nearest native place know being on the Schuylkill river, near Layfayette.
Several thistles are blooming, and these may be found in swamps and fields, and occasionally in woods. In bloom is rough thistle, with spring leaves and round heads of purple flowers; swamp thistle, a high plant bearing purple flowers; pasture thistle, low growing and stout, with white or purplish flowers.
In dry fields pearly everlasting, with stems of downy foliage and tufted heads of closed white flowers, is in bloom. Though not as common as the earlier Indian tobaccos, which it resembles, it may be found near Franklin and Chew woods. Also near the same places in bloom is wild abutilon, with heart-shaped velvety leaves, and with small yellow flowers, resembling in shape and color, though not in size, at least one abutilon flowering in our gardens.
Among attractive summer plants are our native lilies now appearing. Although not “to the manor born,” tiger lily has in places taken possession of our fields and has earned recognition in text books as “adv. from Europe.” On account of their conspicuous attractions our lilies are not as common as they were a few years ago, and in Chew wood, Brush wood, Franklin wood and other near woods where they were one time abundant, they are now scarce.
All native lilies are high growers, with medium size flowers, in shape resembling the cultivated “candidum lily.” Wild yellow lily, a pure yellow one, and also Turk’s cap lily, a spotted reddish one, both with drooping flowers, grow in Chew woods. Philadelphia lily, resembling Turk’s cap lily, but with erect flowers, I collected in Brush wood. About Germantown this lily is very scarce, but in the Perkiomen Valley, away from beaten paths, it is common enough.
Henry Troth, who will be remembered for his beautiful wild flower photographs, told me of a field near Downingtown covered with blooming Philadelphia lilies. So what is considered rare at one place at another place not far way may be plentiful enough.
It is one of our greatest blessings that flowers which “neither toil nor spin” are taken care of, and wait upon the willing searcher. He who is content to follow beaten paths in any pursuit may preserve what he has received to his own satisfaction, but to the community and a growing world he is of minus value. An indifferent or indolent student, satisfied with leisure ways, may pass and re-pass desired objects within range without gain. Whatever our interests, let us be enthusiastic, or else let fall upon us the condemnation of the great apostle who said, “Ye are neither hot nor cold, and because ye are neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth.”
Without living to the best that is in us, contentment is a nonentity which nothing but conscientious effort can correct, for alone all the wealth of the world, all the power of the world, all the honors of the world, are barren, and not worth one atom of happiness.
Alder. Alnus Serrulata.
Elder. Sambucus Canadensis.
Paper birch. Betula Papyrifera.
Red cedar. Juniperus virginiana.
Button-ball. Platanus occidentalis.
Poplar. Populus Monilifera.
Hemlock. Tsuga Canadensis.
Beech. Fagus Ferruginea.
Chestnut. Castanea Sativa, var. Americana.
Oak. Quercus Alba.
Adder’s tongue. Microstylis Monophyllos.
Wake-robin. Orchis Spectabilis.
Mocasson flower. Cypripedium acaule.
Putty-root. Aplectrum Hyemale.
Tway blade. Liparis Lillifolia.
Coral root. Corallorhiza Odontorhiza.
Pogonia. Pogonia verticillata.
Rein orchis. Habenaria Tridentata.
White fringed orchis. Habenaria Blephariglottis.
Yellow fringed orchis. Habenaria Ciliaris.
Ragged fringed orchis. Habenaria Lacera.
Bog tway-blade. Liparis Loeselii.
Tway-blade Liparis Lilifolia.
Rattlesnake plantain. Goodyera Pubescens.
Small bladderwort. Utricularia Clandestina.
Large bladderwort. Utricularia Inflata.
Round-leaved sun-dew. Drosera Rotundifolia.
Long-leaved sun-dew. Drosera Rotundifolia var. Intermedia.
Purple polygala. Polygala paucifolia.
Yellow polygala. Polygala Lutea.
Meadow-beauty. Rhexia Virginica.
Deer-grass. Rhexia Virginica.
White deer-grass. Rhexia Aristosa.
Dahlia. Dahlia Variabilis.
Funkia (white). Funkia Subcordata.
Funkia (blue). Funkia Ovata.
Hardy phlox. Phlox Drummondii.
White tobacco. Nicotiana Acutiflora.
Common tobacco. Nicotiana tabaccum.
Garden primrose. Primula Grandiflora.
Mountain of snow. Euphorbia Variegata.
Atamasco lily. Amaryllis Atamasco.
Indian currant. Symphoricarpus Vulgaris.
Potato. Solanum Tuberosum.
Wheat. Triticum Vulgare.
Rye. Secale Cereale.
Oat. Avena Sativa.
Grape. Vitis Labruscai.
Hollyhock. Athaea Rosea.
Black mustard. Sisymbrium Officiale.
Horse-radish. Nasturtium Armoracia.
Evening prim-rose. Oenothera Biennis.
Jewel weed. Impatiens Fulva.
Impatiens. Impatiens Fulva.
Yellow flowering jewel weed Impatiens Pallida.
Turtle-head. Chelone Glabra.
Stinging nettle. Urtica Dioica.
Water smart-weed. Polygonum Acre.
Arrow-leaved tear-thumb. Polygonum Sagittum.
Dwarf sumach. Rhus Glabra.
Poison sumach. Rhus Veneata.
Hop. Humulus Lupulus.
False buckwheat. Polygonum Dumetorum var. Scandens.
Wild sensitive plant. Cassia Nictitans.
Patridge pea. Cassia Chamaecrista.
Wild senna. Cassia Marilandica.
Rough thistle. Cnicus Lanceolatus.
Swamp thistle. Cnicus Muticus.
Pasture thistle. Cnicus Pumilus.
Pearly everlasting. Anaphalis Margaritacea.
Indian tobacco. Antennaria Plantaginifolia.
Wild abutilon. Abutilon avicennae.
Cultivated abutilon. Abutilon Striatum.
Tiger lily. Lilium Tigrinum.
Candidum lily. Lilium Candidum.
Wild yellow lily. Lilium Canadensis.
Turk’s cap lily. Lilium Superbum.
Philadelphia lily. Lilium Philadelphicum.
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.”