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.
Those paying particularly close attention to this weekly blog from Awbury Arboretum may be wondering whether an installment of Edwin Jellett’s “A Flora of Germantown” has been inadvertently skipped. Last week had the republication of Jellett’s May 29, 1903, article, and here a week later it’s June 12, 1903.
The source of the Jellett series, a scrapbook held by the Germantown Historical Society, has no article for June 5, 1903. Apparently Jellett took the week off – his plant lists are numbered, and June 12 directly follows May 29. But he offers no explanation.
What can be said is that when Jellett wrote for June 12, 1903, he seems to have collected quite a few plants that the 21st century gardener couldn’t hope to identify: arethusa, dogsbane, goat’s rue, blazing star, cancer root among them.
Arethusa bulbosa, also known a dragon’s mouth orchid, is a rare, terrestrial orchid of wetlands in northeastern United States and Canada. The loss of undefiled wetlands no doubt is part of its rarity.
Spreading dogbane, as it is now known, is not rare, but it is poisonous and according to the well-respected Lady Bird John Wildflower Center, it “spreads so rapidly from creeping underground stems that it should not be used in small garden settings.” No wonder we’re not familiar.
Goat’s rue is another toxic plant, in the pea family with pink flowers, found in dry open conditions. It was once used to poison fish. Other names are cat gut, rabbit pea and devil’s shoestring.
Blazing star, identified as Chamaelirium carolinianum by Jellett but now classified as C. luteum, is one of the rare herbaceous plants that are dioecious – that is, male and female separate plants, like holly and ginkgo. Because of herbalist usage, it is decreasingly found in the wild.
And cancer root (or squaw root)? Jellett certainly expresses antipathy for it, apparently because it is a parasitic plant. It is dependent on attachment to oak roots, having no chlorophyll to conduct photosynthesis, the process that the overwhelming majority of plants use for growth. As a result it is a completely non-green plant. But not unattractive; its 6-inch bloom stalk can look like a pine cone or a morel, and bears are said to find it tasty, hence another name, bear corn. Its latter-day rarity is likely a function of it preference for old-growth stands of oak, not the random specimens in gardens.
A note on the lists of common and scientific plant names provided by Jellett. Many of the Latin names have been revised by taxonomists. The spellings, whether of obsolete or still-valid Latin names, however seem to have suffered from typesetter ignorance. In the old days of typesetting, a typesetter, working at a vast machine with a crucible full of molten lead, would key a manuscript into lines of type for printing. (And none of this modern business of multiple characters per key, not even “shift” for caps – the keyboard was vast.) Accomplished typesetters’ fingers flew, and regular English words typically went from manuscript to type with only an occasional typo. But Latin? The number of typographical errors in Jellett’s list of Latin names, compared with his prose, suggests that the Germantown Independent Gazette’s typesetters were often flummoxed. Of course it is not known whether they were working from handwritten manuscripts or something Jellett produced on a turn-of-the-previous century typewriter.
Edwin C. Jellett – June 12, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
Those who knew Main street and Chelten avenue thirty years ago will remember William Frey’s house, which stood at its southwest corner, heading his narrow “farm,” which, bounded by a “rail fence,” strung along a high bank for a portion of the way, extended from a point opposite the “dummy depot” westward to Greene street.
All the boys knew “Tinker” Frey, and better perhaps his fruit trees, and few were there who passed his place who did not know the clear, sparkling water of his spring, which all at all times who knew how to behave were at liberty to use.
Often did I visit this spring, and strange as it may appear, the days were always warmer and the water cooler when pears were ripe, and many times was I cautioned by its careful owner upon perhaps too frequent returns, “Thee may have the fruit upon the ground, but thee must not touch the trees.” The proprietor, the spring and the trees have gone, and a stranger passing the place can hardly imagine the rural beauty there once existing, and which yet lingers in many memories. At this spring flourished a swamp magnolia, the same in kind which covers numerous swamps throughout Southern New Jersey, and is now in bloom there, as well as on several lawns in Germantown.
William Frey’s magnolia was a notable one, and nowhere in its native habitats saw I a finer specimen, or one with larger, more numerous or more fragrant flowers. The swamp magnolia, like the willow, is able to accommodate itself to circumstances, and seems to do equally well, whether the situation be wet or dry.
There is no good reason why trees equal to William Frey’s should not be widely duplicated, the only “drawback” known to me being that it is apt to become spindly and ill-shaped, but by a little attention this lack may be readily overcome.
Before the waters retreated, and gave us New Jersey, we have indisputable evidence that many plants which flourish there inhabited higher ground. Prof. Henry Carrell Lewis, who made an extended study of the subject, told me that the ocean bed extended in recent geological times to at least as far as the “high grounds of Germantown,” and at the time of the waters’ retreat there must have been a violent upheaval, for at the Midvale Steel Works, at Nicetown, I saw portions of “petrified trees” taken from an excavation, which displayed the structure of the highest developed organisms.
In several localities we have floral connecting links, and one, if not the most interesting of these, is a swamp discovered by George Redles near Pennypack creek. Here in the midst of a rolling country is a typical New Jersey swamp, where swamp magnolias, pitcher plants, sun-dews, Nuttall’s lobelia and numerous other unusual Eastern Pennsylvania plants flourish.
Across the Wissahickon at at least two points we have projections or belts exhibiting the same phenomena. One of these belts crosses the Wissahickon near “Mollie Rinker’s Rock,” and another one crosses the same stream near Chestnut Hill. In both these “remains” or extensions we find plants identical with, or closely allied to, plants which flourish best east of the Delaware river.
We may not enter too deeply into this branch of the subject, but a few New Jersey plants yet in bloom, and closely related to our own, we shall present in bare outline. Among these are wax myrtle, with small green flowers; Carolina witlow grass, resembling our own, but with petals wanting; broom crowberry, with striking purple anthered flowers; rose acasia, with large, deep, rose flowers; dwarf wild rose, and also swamp rose, both with single flesh-colored flowers; sand-wort, with sharp-pointed leaves; fragrant sumach, with pale yellow flowers; passion flower, resembling in detail the product of our green-houses, but lighter in color; spurge, with small white flowers, and the whole plant gorged with mucilaginous milk; Hudsonia, like a shrub in miniature, white with bloom; sand myrtle, with delicate white flowers; withe-rod, black haw, and arrow wood, along borders of pools and streams, and viburnum like, white in flower. These and toad flax, great solomon’s seal, arethusa, beard’s-tongue, sage, arrow arum, rock-rose, false indigo, beach plum, prickly pear, sun-drops, goat’s rue, sheep-laurel, the sweet white water lily, with also its small form variety, are in flower from Atsion to Cape May, and from the river to the ocean. A few of these plants bloom with us, but are rare and extremely “local.” Rock rose grows near the “Devil’s Pool,” prickly pear (introduced) grows near Chestnut Hill, and sheep-laurel maintains a precarious existence near Valley Green.
In gardens asparagus, permitted to develop naturally, is in flower, as well as in many fields, where it has become a permanent resident. Butterfly iris, a Japanese favorite, is gay with spreading, many-colored blooms. In old gardens box, with numerous inconspicuous flowers, and hardy phlox, dianthus, ice plant, seedum, each in variety, and all good old garden stand-bys, which do their work without attention, and flower when showy others fail. Spurge, a sometime garden plant, but now only planted in cemeteries, is in flower in many places along roads, where it has made its escape. In both old and new gardens geraniums, petunias and the varied product of the florist’s skill, vie with each other in a successful endeavor to beautify the common way.
Rough dentiza, which takes its name from its leaves, shows its very attractive flowers; clematis in variety spangle trellis and post; smoke tree is losing the haziness of its bloom; crops of rye and wheat, swayed into waves of undulating colors, now droop with bearded heads; along borders of fields, in fence corners, near rocks, where plough nor cultivator dare approach, pepper grass, dock, rank furinter and furrow weeds, with burdock, hemlock, nettles, and all the idle weeds that grow in our sustaining corn, flourish in undisturbed proprietorship.
Along roadsides and in open fields yarrow, dog’s-bane and chickory are rising into bud, and golden alexander, with finely cut leaves, shows its yellow flowers. On exposed walls in many places kenilworth ivy, a close relative of butter and eggs, shows its similarly shaped lilac flowers.
In swampy places bog-rush, wood-rush and scouring-rush exhibit their round, clean, upright stems, and umbrella grass, pond grass and cranberry are in flower. The cranberry is a common New England and New Jersey plant, but with us it is rare, growing near Miles’ woods and at Chestnut Hill.
One of our gaudiest “wild flowers,” butter and eggs, or snap-dragon, is now in bloom in fields and open places, and one would hardly suspect it related to the slender, modest New Jersey plant noted as toad-flax. Garlic is in flower everywhere, and with fragile, shabby heads of omnipresent dandelions conspire to monopolize the fields. White weed, or early aster, having little to commend it, is rapidly developing its white-rayed flowers, Butter and eggs, daisies and a number of weeds we can tolerate because of deserving qualities, but garlic, white-weed, Canada thistle, and others numerous, have little to claim our sympathetic attention.
A question often asked is, “What is a weed?” The question itself is a question, for what is considered a “weed” at one place is highly prized at another place, for what is “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.” Thomas Meehan’s definition, that a “weed is a plant which grows where we do not wish it,” while perhaps too general, is good enough for common use, and certainly more pleasing than John Burroughs’ definition, that “weeds are tramps of the vegetable world.” Many plants leave gardens, become “naturalized,” and then become weeds, as spurge, asparagus, tansy and many other plants which we often find far away from home.
Corn-salad, which has been in bloom for some time, is now passing, and downy rock cress, with whitish flowers, and rattle-box, with yellow flowers, are at their best. The rattle-box, or wild pea, is an interesting plant, growing on dry exposed banks. The plant takes its name from its seed vessel, which is a veritable rattle-box. While not common, the plant grows freely in the few places it frequents, one of these spots being near Miles’ wood, and another one is on Hartwell avenue, near the Wissahickon.
The woods have now lost their freshness, though not their beauty, and the early summer plants are preparing to “present themselves at court.” The recent warm and continued dry weather has aided in this, and the high temperature, with the unusually early appearance of fire-flies, have made it seem summer indeed. Now bats flit silently about in the early evening, and humming birds occasionally may be seen darting from flower to flower in search of hidden sweets. In open places king-birds, on “police duty,” sit on fences, prepared to drive before them every luckless objectionable stranger.
On apple trees, and in woody bowers, the retiring brown thrush may be seen, and also cat-bird and wood-robin, each a sweet-voiced, harmless, desirable bird. Everywhere in fields is tom-tit, pewee, yellow finch, and in fields and woods clover-bird, indigo bird, and blue-jay, while killdeer, king-fisher and shrike frequent the streams. Gray squirrels may sometimes now be seen in the Wissahickon, but they are not common. One who has gone through Central Park, New York, or Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Boston, and has seen there the numbers of these attractive, gentle animals, may well wonder that in our famed park they are not more numerous. The later and not so common high hawkweed is yellow with bloom near Penn monument in the middle Wissahickon. Twisted stalk, not unlike a bell-wort in appearance, though not so common; white baneberry, with wide, spreading leaves and peculiar, wax-like flowers; blazing star, another New Jersey plant, and oddly named, for it has a stem of white flowers, are all in bloom in various parts of the Wissahickon. Along borders of woods and in open places in our home woods, avens shows its attractive white flowers; blue coliosle is erect with a panicled stem of greenish flowers; wound-wort and common fumitory, like loafers on corners and of little worth, present themselves in public places, for otherwise they would be unknown to the world.
In Miles’ wood sour gum, or tupelo, is in bloom, and in the Wissahickon, near Thorp’s lane bridge, bladder-root is drooping its flowers, and the two late cornels, alternate leafed dog-wood and silky dog-wood, not at all like the early dog-wood, with large, showy flowers, display their more modest bloom near the water-falls, which streams down the hill from Chestnut avenue and empties into the Wissahickon near Spruce mill, or Price’s lane bridge.
A peculiar, and I think the rarest, plant in our territory is now in flower in the middle Wissahickon. This plant is unknown to a majority of flower lovers, and so scarce is it that few beyond favored botanical enthusiasts have seen it. It is not a plant which would attract one by its beauty, nor is it one possessing other qualities to please. It cannot be transplanted with any certainty of success, its flowers do not appeal to us in nature, and when preserved they turn to a repelling brown or black. The plant is known as squaw, or cancer root, and is prized because it is unique, elusive, an unclaimable, irredeemable parasite, following its own whims, ignoring attentions, appearing when it sees fit, serving only its own sweet pleasure. The plant has received but little consideration, and indeed the most complete account of it I know is my own, which, illustrated by Henry Troth, appeared in Meehans’ Monthly for September, 1897, but being too lengthy cannot be reproduced here.
Parasitic plants to all of us are extremely interesting, and their weirdness, uncanniness, merciless tenacity, fascinate, notwithstanding the natural disgust we feel towards all obnoxious violators of common rights; for it must be admitted that in spite of insinuating attractiveness they are a sorry lot, unworthy of imitation, of serious consideration, or a standing among self-supporting members of a community which earn their own living, stand on their own feet, and ask no favors.
Swamp magnolia. Magnolia Glauca.
Willow. Salix Fragilis.
Pitcher plant. Sarracenia Purpurea.
Sun-dew. (round leaved). Drosera Rotundifolia,
Sun-dew (long leaved). Drosera Intermedia, var. Americana.
Nuttall’s lobelia. Lobelia Nutallii.
Wax myrtle. Myrica Gale.
Carolina whitlow grass. Draba Caroliniana.
Broom crowberry. Corema Conradii.
Rose acasia. Robinia Hispida.
Dwarf wild rose. Rosa Carolina.
Swamp rose. Rosa Lucida.
Sand wort. Arenaria Squarrosa.
Fragrant sumach. Rhus Candensis.
Passion flower. Passiflora Incarnata.
Spurge. Euphorbia Ipecacuanhae.
Hudsonia. Hudsonia Ericoides.
Sand myrtle. Leiophyllum Buxifolium.
Withe rod. Viburnum Cassinoides.
Black haw. Viburnum Prunifolium.
Arrow wood. Viburnum Dentatum.
Toad flax. Linaria Canadensis.
Great Solomon seal. Polygonatum Giganteum.
Arethusa. Arethusa Bulbosa.
Beard’s tongue. Pentsetmon Pubescens.
Sage. Salvia Lyrata.
Arrow arum. Peltandra Virginica.
Rock-rose. Helianthemum Corymbosum.
False indigo. Amorpha Fruticosa.
Beach plum. Prunus Maritima.
Prickly-pear. Opuntia Vulgaris.
Sun-drops. Oenothera Futicosa.
Goat’s rue. Tephrosia Virginiana.
Sheep-laurel. Kalmia Angustifolia.
Water lily. Nymphaea Odorata.
Small water lily. Nymphaea Odorata, var. Minor.
Rock-rose. Helianthemum Corymbosum.
Prickly pear. Opuntia Vulgaris.
Asparagus. Asparagus officinalis.
Butterfly iris. Iris Laevigata.
Box. Buxus Sempervirens.
Hardy phlox. Phlox Drummondii.
Dianthus. Dianthus Caryophyllus.
Ice-plant. Sedum Ternatum.
Sedum. Sedum Siedboldii.
Spurge. Euphorbia Cyparissias.
Geranium. Pelargonium Zonale.
Petunia. Petunia Violacea.
Rough Dentzia. Dentzia Scabra.
Clematis. Clematis Patens.
Smoke tree. Rhus Cotinus.
Rye. Secale Cereale.
Wheat. Triticum Vulgare.
Pepper grass. Lepidium Virginicum.
Dock. Rumex Crispus.
Yarrow. Archillea Millefolium.
Dogsbane. Apocynum Androsaemifolium.
Chickory. Cichorium Intybus.
Golden alexander. Zizia Aurea.
Kenilworth ivy. Linaria Cymballaria.
Butter and eggs. Linaria Vulgaris.
Bog-rush. Juncus Effusus.
Wood-rush. Luzula Campestris.
Scouring-rush. Equisetum Hyemale.
Pond-grass. Hemicarpha Subsquarrosa.
Umbrella grass. Fuirrena Squarrosa, var. Pumila.
Cranberry. Vaccinium Oxycoccus.
Snap-dragon. Linaria Vulgaris.
Toad flax. Linaria Canadensis.
Garlic. Allium Vineale.
Dandelion. Taraxacum Dens-leonis.
White-weed. Erigeron Annuus.
Early aster. Erigeron Annuus.
Daisy. Chrysanthemum Leucanthemum.
Canada thistle. Cnicus Arvensis.
Spurge. Euphorbia Cyparissias.
Apsargus. Asparagus officinalis.
Tansy. Tanacetum Vulgare.
Corn salad. Fedia Oblitoria.
Downy rock-cress. Arabis Hirsuta.
Rattle-box. Crotalaria Sagittalis.
Wild pea. Crotalaria Sagittalis.
High hawkweed. Hieracium Paniculatum.
Twisted stalk. Streptopus Roseus.
Bell wort. Uvularia Perfoliata.
Baneberry. Actaea Alba.
Blazing star. Chamaelirium Carolinianum.
Avens. Geum Album.
Bue Cohosh. Caulophyllum Thalictroides.
Woundwort. Stachy Arvensis.
Common fumitory. Fumaria officinalis.
Sour-gum. Nyssa Sylvatica.
Tupelo. Nyssa Sylvatica.
Bladdernut Staphylea Trifolia.
Alternate leaved dog-wood. Cornus Alternifolia.
Silky dog-wood. Cornus Sericea.
Common dog-wood. Cornus Florida.
Squaw root. Conopholis Americana.
Cancer root. Conopholis Americana.
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.”