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
Clearly the only editor Edwin Jellett had was a timid one. He, as well as his readers of June 19, 1903, would have profited had someone more assertive told him: You’re being pedantic with all this fern stuff. Jellett does at least skip the physiology of ferns, merely citing his 1888 The Ferns of Germantown.
We should forgive the man his Victorian-ness. Ferns were quite the rage in the late 19th century, especially in Britain, where pteridophiles (fern-lovers) searched every cranny of the island in quest of uncommon forms of various species. Jellett’s comments on the obtusilobata form of sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) are in this tradition, and there was a bit of a debate in that era over this form and whether it was stable or induced. It is interesting that, while several recent fern books say not one word about obtusilobata (blunt-lobed), the herbarium collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences has a specimen collected as recently as 1979, as well as an 1875 specimen from Germantown.
Oh there I go – getting almost as pedantic about ferns as Jellett. In hope of being more a bit more interesting for the 21st century gardener, I turn back to his installment of April 17, in which we were treated to a paragraph on the “flowering ferns.”
Flowers on ferns? Truly impossible, for ferns evolved long before plants with flowers and the insects that pollinate them. But the appearance of Osmunda regalis, or royal fern, does indeed suggest flowering. At the end of the large pale green frond is a buff- or straw-colored cluster that’s suggestive a raceme of astilbe. This is actually the spore-bearing portion of the frond.
Royal fern, as all osmundas, is an ancient species, and while graceful is quite different from the intricate, lacy forms we associate with ferns. Some have compared royal fern to locust foliage, with separated subleaflets. To grow it to full majesty, just add water. While royal fern will grow in humusy, acidic soil, it will flourish in a wet spot. Here indeed is a solution for a poor-drainage site. The wetter the position, the more sun the plant can take, and it might reach 6 feet. (If your wet spot dries up in a protracted rain-free period, irrigate the fern or it too will dry up.)
The two other North American osmundas are also relatively easy to grow and have their own odd forms. Interrupted fern (O. claytonia) has green fronds that are indeed interrupted in the middle by several brown pairs of spore-bearing leaflets. Looks like a bad design decision, frankly. But an early one. According to Sue Olsen, author of the highly recommended Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns (Timber Press, 2007), interrupted fern is the oldest extant fern species, having been found in 200 million-year-old fossils. It doesn’t care for wetness, rather a dampish woodland habitat.
Cinnamon fern (O. cinnamomea), tolerant of moist soils, but not bog conditions, has a third version of sporing. It sends up separate erect stalks with no foliage, but plumes of sporangia (that’s the word, folks) that promptly turn cinnamon brown and, at a few paces, might suggest stalks of some ornamental grass. It is a handsome fern.
All the osmundas are easy to grow – just remember which ones want more water. They’re also easy to observe in nature. For one thing, their size makes them stand out. They may be found throughout the northeastern states, including the Wissahickon gorge. In the hills and forests of Pennsylvania, a flat wooded area alongside a creek or river can present all three species in profusion, with interrupted fern a little uphill of the others.
If you are ever so lucky, you may see a hummingbird at one of these “flowering ferns.” There is no nectar, but the fiddleheads emerge in spring with a silvery down-like coating. Hummingbirds are said to use it to line their tiny nests.
A passing comment on other observations by Jellett in this installment: It was either a very, very late spring in 1903, or his notes got mixed up. The thought that a halesia (our silverbell, his snowdrop tree) was in bloom in mid-June is remarkable – in recent decades, they are done by mid-May. And yellowwood, oaks and hickories in bloom? Likewise very late based on current sequence.
Edwin C. Jellett – June 19, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
At this time of the year no plants are more luxuriant, and certainly none are more attractive or more interesting, than the ferns appearing along roadsides, on stone walls and mossy banks, in meadows, on dry hillsides in the open, on dry rocks in woods, and in fact everywhere where plants will at all grow. Many believe that ferns require, or at least best flourish only in moist, damp woods, and while this is true of some varieties, it is equally true that these conditions would be death to other varieties.
Ferns are like other plants, each particular kind having its own special requirements or tastes, and for its best development requiring satisfaction to its peculiar needs. This is not to say that ferns will not do well under adverse conditions, for I know surprising results have been secured where “fortune did not favor,” but following nature, one with little effort is enabled to surpass the greatest effort working against nature. I cannot, as I should like, stop long enough to consider the physiology of ferns, but this is common to many works upon the subject, and has been fairly treated in “The Ferns of Germantown,” which I prepared for the Mermaid Club in 1888, a work in part published.
Ferns appeal to botanical students because of their varied beauty and obscure development, and in the realm of nature I do not know anything more wonderful than the growth of a sexless being to a being capable of reproducing itself; so marvelous is this that one is awed into silence by the incomprehensibleness of the mystery. In spite of much to the contrary, ferns are easily identified and pleasurably studied as one studies plants in the fields, a microscope is not required. For close work and a study of the fruit dots, a glass is necessary, but most of us, I imagine, will not care to go so far, though this is a most fascinating branch, and one whose marvelous revelations will lead us to the study of diatoms and other microscopic plants.
An objection to the study of ferns, and it is the only one I know, is that but a small proportion have distinctive common names, but this objection is not serious, and, I doubt not, will in time be corrected. All plants within certain limits have a tendency to vary, and this is noticeable in many ferns now appearing in their maturity in every wood. This variation, and the eagerness of collectors for recognition, is, I am satisfied, responsible for many forms recorded as varieties in our text-books. Among the ferns which vary is sensitive fern, one which I have noted for its long existence without permanent change in form, and it is a good illustration of “cause and effect.” Under certain conditions the sensitive fern has perpetuated itself indefinitely without change, but under certain other conditions a form appears which is classified as onoclea obtusilobata.
For a long time I noticed that this variety was not constant, and on speaking to Prof. Meehan about it, he was uncertain, and told me Isaac Martindale had gathered specimens near Miles’ wood which appeared to be distinct. My specimens were collected on Township line road, near Cresheim creek, at a place exposed, where wagons sometimes injured the plants. The reason was present, but I did not see it, and it remained for Professor George F. Atkinson to make known that all we have to do with this fern to cause it to appear abnormally is to injure it, or cut away its early barren fronds, and the produce will be the form noted. So also is it with the moon-worts. Unfortunately, several varieties are grouped under one name, and these are known as flowering ferns, grape ferns, or moon-wort, all native with us being now in fruit in our woods.
The typical form with us is botrychium ternatum, but from this there are two recorded varieties, known as B. dissectum and B. lunaroides. Now, I have no doubt that the same cause which produces the “freak” sensitive fern produces also these variations, for the action of a colony of several hundred plants which grew in a glade south of Franklin street bridge, a “locality” now destroyed to make way for Lincoln drive, would seem to confirm it.
For several years I carefully observed the plants at this place, and I found the development closely followed the weather. Thus in a warm, damp season, favorable to plant growth, botrychium ternatum in all its vigor appeared. In a hard, dry season extremes of conditions produced botrychium lunaroides, and in an average season all variations in form between these extremes were exhibited in botrcyhium dissectum.
This time “rule” will also apply to “hard wooded plants,” and many forms recorded as distinct, in time to come, I feel sure, will be looked upon as simple variations. If a plant cannot reproduce itself the evidence is reasonably clear that something is wrong, and while there is much difference of opinion as to the fruitfulness of hybrids, the truth remains that hybrids, in spite of exceptions, are generally incapable of reproduction. So it should be borne in mind that botany as a science is not and cannot from its nature be exact, that botanical records as preserved are far from a state of perfection, and until there is a common ground of consent confusion there must be; and while I have no sympathy with needless change, and do not approve many of the decisions of Britton and Brown, the authors of the latest standard text-book upon North American botany, it must in fairness be conceded that they have produced a most important work, which, in spite of adverse criticism, will live as a model for future botanical writers. But until it is generally accepted I shall adhere to the Harvard classification of Professor Asa Gray, yet in common use.
All our native ferns in “flower” have been noted, but now appearing in fullness of frond beauty is woodsia, a sturdy fern growing on stone walls; bladder fern, clear cut and more refined, on stone bridges; ebony spleen-wort, erect and bristling, on dry banks and elsewhere in unexpected places; maiden-hair and Christmas ferns, growing side by side in open woods where the sun sometimes reaches them, and several other ferns of large form, which “darkly” are reaching out to the light which shall perfect them. In fields and meadows many sedges, rushes and grasses are in bloom, but this is ground “where angels fear to tread,” I dare touch but lightly, for being difficult to determine, with but few distinguishing points, and grouped under one common name, which is used indiscriminately for many varieties, it is with few exceptions impossible to present them so that they may be intelligently considered. Grasses require special application for their mastery, and one must be in touch with a herbarium to become familiar with them. The same also applies to mosses, liver-worts, other inferior orders, and to microscopic plants, all of which are difficult, and their study should not be undertaken by one who has not qualified in the primary principles of the science.
In 1893 Professor Thomas C. Porter prepared a “List of the Grasses of Pennsylvania,” and in a “presented copy,” corrected by him to 1896, I find 177 varieties marked. A majority of these grasses appear in the vicinity of Germantown, but only conspicuous rushes, sedges and grasses, like brittle-leafed sedge, Pennsylvania sedge, umbrella sedge, and low spear grass now in bloom will be noted.
Now along nearby roads, streams and in the Wissahickon woods, all our native grapes are in flower. These include chicken-grape, with its well-known bunches of small fruit; summer grape, with medium size berries; sweet-grape, which frequents banks of streams, and northern fox grape, from which has been developed the favorite “Concord,” and other valuable tenants of our gardens.
Corn-flower is in bloom, and “in market,” and its light blue flowers harmoniously blend with the creamy white of swamp magnolia, and varying shades of sheep-laurel and rhododendrons. By fences and water courses burning bush shows its bright, shining leaves and small green flowers, and in the fall, one who goes along the Wissahickon, near Thorp’s lane, may there see brilliant, firey hulls, from which, suspended on long streamers, hang salmon-colored seeds. There are two forms of burning bush common to the Wissahickon, one form prostrate and creeping, and another form erect and bush-like. Both forms, however, are from a common stock, but when there is so much sub-division and minuteness elsewhere, one wonders why a hungry seeker for recognition did not long ago score a point.
A blue flowering, low-spreading mint now in bloom in Western Pennsylvania, but so far as I know not appearing spontaneously in our territory, is dedicated to Thomas Meehan, and is known technically as Meehania cordata. I love to see plants named for the honored dead, whose life and whose work is worthy of imitation, but I consider it questionable to load a defenceless, innocent plant with the name of one untried, who has yet to “prove” himself. This reminds me of a story told me by Thomas Meehan of a Philadelphia public school named for a too active man, who turned out to be a rogue, which led to a change of name in the school in particular, and the passage of a law prohibiting the naming of schools for personages uncertain.
In nearby New Jersey meadows pipe-wort, xerophyllum and bog asphodel are in bloom, and in Miles’ wood, Chew wood, and along the Wissahickon, meadow-rue, a beautiful foliaged plant, with panicles of feathery white flowers, appears as bright and happy as a wedding decoration; and yarrow, which now lines the paths with sturdy stalks of odorous growth, is in flower to furnish hopeful maidens with food to “dream” upon.
The milk or silk-weeds are getting ready to bloom. Common silk-weed is already large with heavy heads, and the earliest variety, the four-leaved one, how shows its whitish flowers in County line wood. With us this plant is rather rare, but in the Perkiomen region it is quite common. Moneywort, like a golden snake, is trailing through the grass; cockle shows its dark purple face among the wheat, and looks like the rascal it is. Camomile, odorous and strong, with flowers resembling those of a dog-daisy, blossoms in waste places and along paths in company with worm-seed, a pernicious weed with an offensive exhalation. Wart-weed, with straggling stems, and minute white flowers, along with obtuse-leaved dock, are in flower, and spreading chickweed, having small bright white flowers, with forked chickweed bearing flowers of greenish white, are budding in the Wissahickon near Springfield avenue.
In fields and in favored spots along roadsides our native strawberry is heavy with fruit, and one accustomed only to the cultivated berry will be surprised with its delicious sweetness. Along streams and borders of woods elderberry is white with bloom, and visions of plenitude of “new wine” is already webbed in the minds of many prudent housewives.
In spots along Manheim street, on the hill by “Tucker’s” on Township line road, and through the fields by “Old Oaks Cemetery,” a strong-growing, white-flowering violet may now be found. This is Canadian violet, and the original plants were brought about 25 years ago from Maine by Thomas A. Newhall, and planted on his place near Calvary Church. From here the plants have spread as indicated and give fair promise of becoming a native, and of ranking with “Francis Murphy, Esq.,” who was buried at old Trappe Church. “He migrated to America in 1787. He became a naturalized citizen, and as such was an active and useful member of society the remainder of his life.”
Many trees are in bloom to claim our attention, among these being snowdrop tree, which has shown its wealth of bloom for some time, as has also yellow wood, a very fine and a noted specimen of which is on the Price estate, now part of Manheim grounds, and bloom of walnut, shell-bark, hickory, pig-nut, butternut, which show their greenish flowers, resembling the spike of a rag-weed, are dropping to the ground in nearby woods. Until a few years ago a pecan tree, a tree closely allied to the nut-bearing trees we have named, stood on Dr. William Dunton’s lawn, Main and High streets, which, if standing, would now be in bloom. This was a famous tree, because extremely rare in this latitude, and also because it was grown from a nut which Thomas Nuttall collected in Arkansas, and presented to Reuben Haines.
Red cedar, of which there are many fine specimens about Germantown, and common juniper, not so common here, are covered with small shot-like berries, and occasionally showing a queer, brown, horny, corn-like growth, resembling a fruit. This curious formation has caused no little discussion, but like many questions we regretfully pass, is beyond our province to enlarge upon.
All our native oaks are in bloom, but we shall pass them for the present, to bring forward the catalpa, a curious tree, which always reminds me of a banyan, is now displaying its pyramidal bunches of gorgeous red-blocked white flowers, which in due course of time will be supplanted by elongated seed vessels known to boys everywhere as “smokers,” making itself conspicuous on lawns, along roads, streams and river banks, and “Meng’s magnolia,” now spreading its magnificent foliage in Vernon Park. “Meng’s magnolia,” locally so known, is a native of our Southern States, and its presence here is credited to Matthew Kin, a botanical collector, who lived in early Germantown. Kin was a noted character, said to resemble an Indian, and known as “the wild man” on account of his habits, being seldom at home, and frequently away on long journeys in search of rare or medicinal plants; and upon one of his many trips the present magnolia was said to have been secured, and presented to Melchior Meng, who owned and planted the grounds now known as Vernon Park. To me Kin is most interesting, but I wish not to amplify a subject which shortly will be fully presented in Dr. Keyser’s “History of Germantown.”
Several years ago William E. Meehan, in “Notable Trees,” gave an interesting account of Meng’s magnolia, and I am pleased to remember him in connection with it, for it was the unselfish efforts of his father, a botanist greater than Kin or Meng, which secured Vernon green and its treasures for our use “forever.” In the great hereafter, when we who now enjoy these good things shall have passed away, by others the agent which provided them will be remembered, for all good, like a “grain of mustard seed” small and to nature true, must develop to a tree to shield not only the “birds which lodge in its branches,” but as well to comfort and uplift mankind. A great poet has written:
“It is not what we give, but what we share,
For the gift without the giver is bare.”
So let us not forget Thomas Meehan and his work, nor his innate modesty, dignity of character, nobleness of purpose, one who “marched breast-forward” and “never doubted”—
“Our greatest yet without pretense,
Rich in saving common sense,
In his simplicity sublime”—
a model to emulate if not to imitate; a shining example for all “who come after.”
Sensitive fern. Onoclea Sensibilis.
Obtuse leaved sensitive fern. Onoclea Sensibilis, var. Obtusilobata.
Botrychium. Botrcyhium Ternatum.
Botrychium. Botrychium Ternatum, var. Dissectum.
Botrychium. Botrychium Ternatum, var. Lunaroides.
Woodsia. Woodsia Obtusa.
Bladder-fern. Cystopteris Fragilis.
Ebony spleenwort. Asplenium Ebeneum.
Maiden-hair fern. Adiantum Pedatum.
Christmas-fern. Aspidium acrostichoides.
Bristle leaved sedge. Carex Setifolia.
Pennsylvania sedge. Carex Pennsylvanica.
Umbrella sedge. Fuirena Squarrosa, var. Pumila.
Low spear grass. Poa Annua.
Chicken-grape. Vitis Cordifolia.
Summer-grape. Vitis Aestivalis.
Sweet-grape. Vitis Riparia.
Northern fox-grape. Vitis Labrusca.
Concord grape. Vitis Labrusca.
Corn-flower. Centaurea Cyanus.
Swamp magnolia. Magnolia Glauca.
Sheep-laurel. Kalmia Angustifolia.
Rhododendron. Rhododendron Maximum.
Burning bush. Euonymus Atropupureus.
Blue mint. Meehania Cordata.
Pipe-wort. Eriocaulon Gnaphalodes,
Xerophyllum. Xerophyllum Setifolium.
Bog asphodel. Narthecium Americanum.
Meadow-rue. Thalictrum Polyganum.
Yarrow. Achillea Millefolium.
Silk-weed. Asclepias Cornuti.
Milk-weed. Asclepias Cornuti.
Four leaved milk-weed. Asclepias Quadrifolia.
Money-wort. Lysimachia Nummularia.
Cockle. Lychnis Githago.
Camomile. Anthemis Cotula.
Dog daisy. Chrysanthemum Leucanthemum.
Worm-seed. Chenopodium Anthilminticum.
Wart-weed. Euphorbia Maculata.
Obtuse-leaved dock. Rumex obtusifolius.
Spreading chickweed. Mollugo Verticillata.
Forked chickweed. Anychia Dichotoma.
Strawberry. Fragaria Virginiana.
Elder-berry. Sambucus Canadensis.
White violet. Viola Canadensis.
Canadian violet. Viola Canadensis.
Snowdrop tree. Halesia Tetraptera.
Yellow wood. Cladrastis Tinctoria.
Walnut. Juglans Nigra.
Shell-bark. Carya Alba.
Hickory. Carya Tomentosa.
Pig-nut. Carya Porcina.
Butternut. Juglans Cinerea.
Rag-weed. Ambrosia Artemisiaefolia.
Pecan. Carya Olivaeformis.
Red cedar. Juniperus Virginiana.
Common juniper. Juniperus Communis.
Catalpa. Catalpa Bignonioides.
Banyan tree. Ficus Bengalensis.
Meng’s magnolia. Magnolia Macrophyllus.
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.”