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
For the end of June of 1903, Edwin Jellett begins “A Flora of Germantown” with a major digression from flora: reverie over nighttime in the woods and the sounds of insects.
Consider that night for Jellett was dark. For a half-century or more, we American city dwellers have rarely experienced a truly dark night. A widespread power failure is necessary for that, on a cloudy night with no more than a fingernail moon (and no snow on the ground). Nowadays, light pollution casts a glow every night. From the right spot in northwest Philadelphia – the open spaces of Awbury Arboretum, for instance – it’s easy to get one’s compass bearings. After the sun has fully set, the most glowing segment of the horizon and lower sky is of course in the direction of Center City. It’s more evident on cloudy nights, for the clouds reflect the light.
But for Jellett, born in 1860, the dominant lighting was from coal gas, piped into houses and streets lamps all over the city, a decidedly dim luminosity compared to today, hardly making a difference beyond each lamp’s immediate area. Yet into the dark Wissahickon woods he sauntered year after year. “Many times have I felt my way step by step through its darkness,” he writes. (His reference to Chocorua is of the prominent mountain by that name in Maine; what he is ornately saying is that there is no really high ground in the Wissahickon from which to spot a distant oncoming storm.)
So dark in 1903 that the fireflies or lightning bugs must truly have glowed. (Did you know that our countrymen on the West Coast have no fireflies? Bring a 7-year-old who has never left California to Philadelphia in June and watch the wonder in her eyes that first night in the backyard.)
And it was quiet in Jellett’s Wissahickon. The dull roar of cars on Henry Avenue or Lincoln Drive? The website carhistory4u says there were only 78,000 automobiles in all of the United States in 1905, and it’s a safe bet that few if any of Philadelphia’s fraction of them were on the road at night. Perhaps the distant clackety sounds of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Chestnut Hill line could be made out. Perhaps. Thus the young crickets’ chirp – still modest at this time of year – could not be drowned out. The really raucous insects of the night, katydids, won’t crank it up for several weeks, by which time the crickets too will be much more audible. (Cicadas will also add their racket later – but in the daytime, not night.) Yes, the sounds of Jellett’s walks in the dark woods were soft, “never more pleasurable than in June.”
Our own digression: How do crickets and katydids “sing”? Male crickets, in search of mates, rub their forewings against each other. The jagged edge on one side scrapes against the flat side, producing what we hear as a chirp. Female crickets do not do this, by the way. Among the katydids, however, singing is by both sexes, using the same technique as crickets.
Among the diurnal insects Jellett mentions is the dragonfly. There are thousands of species of dragonfly and damselfly in North America. When at rest, a dragonfly’s wings are spread horizontally, a damselfly’s folded back over its body. And it is when at rest that you can hypnotize a dragonfly. Position yourself a few paces in front of it – so that you and it are looking at each other. Slowly, so as not to make the dragonfly fly away, raise your arm and point your forefinger at it. Starting slowly, move your arm so that your finger makes a large circle with the dragonfly in the center of it. Keep rotating the arm, gradually making the circle smaller. When the dragonfly’s wings suddenly tilt down a bit, it is “hypnotized.” Keep making those circles and you can get much closer and get a good look. Don’t forget to have your insect field guide handy so you can identify the species.
Soon enough Jellett is done with the night and the insects, and he’s back to rattling off all the plants he’s seeing in bloom this time of year. If you’re baffled by one or more of the quaintly named ones (shin-leaf or tway-blade, perhaps), find the 1903 Latin name in the list at the end and enter it in a search engine. It may be something you know by another name, or it may be a rank weed. Jellett is so egalitarian.
Edwin C. Jellett – June 26, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
The woods at night are like another world, and Thoreau, an acute observer of nature, once intimated that the average mortal knew as much about “midnight” as he did of the wilds of Central Africa, but Thoreau, like a certain character in Shakespeare, “had no children,” and perhaps knew nothing of numberless rambles which I warrant took place in many a house within his range.
But a compulsory stroll about home, and a voluntary study of nocturnal nature, which our critic had in mind, are two quite different things, and appeal to us severally according to circumstances, pressure, necessity, or our own particular taste.
To me the woods at all times are a blissful retreat, and at night there is a weirdness in them which, like that indefinable quality filling “The Fall of the House of Usher,” bewitches us, until a sympathetic chord responds, vibrates and thrills in unison with harmonious voices of the night. Many woods many times have I traversed at night wondering, wrapped in their mysteries, and no wood know I more beautiful than our own Wissahickon. There many times have I felt my way step by step through its darkness; watched the pale moon light the dark hemlocks until they seemed bathed in glistening green; many times have feasted upon the stream gurgling around the bend under “old pipe bridge,” appearing as a surging bed of frosted silver. No Chocorua is there from which to view a distant storm, but if a storm arise there are caves, tree-topped hills, sheltering dells, safety and an assured recompense for all who venture forth.
The Wissahickon woods at night are never more pleasurable than in early June, when the crickets begin their lively chirp; when tree toads twang; when twinkling fire-flies, like fairy lamps, sparkle in the undergrowth; when “stars which overspread the heavens seem to tingle with a crystalline delight;” where soon irrepressible “katydids,” who will not be silenced by “katy-didn’ts,” sing the livelong night; where now, and at all times, the ceaseless, soothing flow of never-tiring waters, musical, uplifting, carries us with it until we are lost, and like a new sail appearing upon a barren sea, or distant music across a lonely waste, or far-away things we crave, or fond memories of’ loved things long past, we irresistibly are moved “through nature,” up to “nature’s God.”
Now keen-eyed dragon flies hover and dart over the streams, and an innumerable host of green-flies, horse flies, mosquitoes and other marauders to disturb the tranquillity of mild-mannered, gentle, sweet-tempered Izaak Walton, who contentedly chews his “cud,” until he makes a whack at a vicious assailant, and loses his calm equanimity and reputation for quiet “non-resistance” at “one fell stroke.” Lizards are in the pools, helgramites frequent the caverns beneath the loose boulders near Thorp’s lane, and cray-fish, sharp-eyed and awkward, hobble along over slippery, water-covered stones near the site of Megargee’s upper mill.
Along the Wissahickon bridle-path, in front of the Monastery, grows a small clover, which is identical in appearance, if not in variety, with the clover grown in Ireland and known as shamrock. It is, of course, known to us that shamrock is not a clover at all, but an oxalis, with tri-parted leaves, of which we have several varieties. The peculiarity of the clover under consideration is that the stem of the central division is elongated, while the two other divisions are equal. Though it may seem strange, it is no less true that nearly all the clovers in America have been introduced, and in fields and along roads they and their relations, all members of the pea family, are in bloom. In addition to the clovers previously noted, we have now in flower hop clover, with bright yellow flowers; Brazilian clover, with blue, varying to violet, flowers; white sweet clover, or white flowering melilot, and yellow sweet clover, or yellow flowering melilot. These four plants have small flowers, with foliage distinct from the white-flowering Dutch and red clover, usually planted for a return, but the construction of their flowers shows unfailingly the family to which they belong. The melilots a few years ago were comparatively scarce, and were confined to a few colonies along railroad banks. Now, however, their distribution has become more general, and soon they will be among our commonest plants.
Those interested in “new or rare” plants should follow railroad banks, “dumps” and “ballast” grounds, for by these many plants come in upon us. Some years ago, while on a daily walk to the Midvale Steel Works, I occasionally found Western plants, entirely new to our territory, and along the coal road to the “Falls,” upon the banks extending from Wayne Junction to Logan Station, near Allegheny avenue on Delaware river, and many other like places, strange plants appear, and on “Treaty Island” and on dumping grounds bordering the rivers of the lower section of our city we have a “ballast flora” elaborated by Aubrey H. Smith.
Other clovers in flower are large flowering yellow hop clover, resembling the small hop clover in all but size; buffalo clover, with flowers resembling the Dutch clover, but varying in color from white to maroon, and pussy or rabbit-foot clover, quite distinct, with flowering heads of milky white, and now in bloom near “Awbury.”
The clovers are of interest to us because clover was first introduced and cultivated by the Germans of Germantown, so John F. Watson informs us. Both clover and “plaster of paris” for fertilizing were used about the year 1780 by Abraham Rex at Chestnut Hill, and by Leonard Stoneburner at Germantown, where the innovations were looked upon with wonder. Leonard Stoneburner was a prosperous man, active in business: and in politics, whose home and store stood on the east side of Main street, where Johnson street now is, and whose farm extended from it to the rear.
Jacob Hiltzheimer, a fellow-assemblyman with Stoneburner, and a friend who made him frequent visits, states in his Journal under date of July 9, 1786: “Went with my wife to Leonard Stoneburner’s at Germantown, and after dinner we took a walk to his wheat field—eight acre piece—which he intends to reap tomorrow, and expects to get 27 bushels per acre.’’
Leonard Stoneburner rests in the Upper Burying Ground, his farm has disappeared before the “march of improvement,” but the knowledge which he in part cultivated lives.
Gardens everywhere now alive with bloom and fragrance are a bewildering sight. Crimson and yellow rambler roses, supported by a multitudinous assortment of tea, noisette, and hardy perpetual roses, with honeysuckle, akebia, clematis and a contributing host of less conspicuous cultivated garden flowers, such as sweet allysiumm, mignonette, sweet pea, hollyhock, oriental poppy, with sleepy, dreamy flowers; hardy hydrangea, with panicles of white flowers; pink spirea, one of our best garden shrubs; Allegheny vine, a native to parts of our State, but here cultivated and climbing trellises with Mexican vine; hedges of mock orange; arbor-vitae, or white-flowering privet, make many a modest plot a refreshing dream.
The privet now in bloom is one of a class of plants known to Indians as “white man’s foot-prints,” for where civilization goes, it follows. From Palestine privet followed the Crusaders to England, where it spread throughout Europe, and now with us is one of our most familiar plants. Many other plants, such as dog-daisy, dandelion, chelidonium and other introduced plants too numerous to mention, are grouped under this same heading.
Poison ivy, growing over walls and rocks, has shown its heavy, greenish, sickening bloom for three weeks, but I held it to present at the same time Virginia creeper, our native variety of which is in bloom in fields and woods, and wherever the poison ivy grows, and the Japan creeper, a variety imported first about 25 years ago, and now one of the commonest climbers clinging to our houses. There is no reason for ever confusing poison ivy and Virginia creeper, for their distinguishing points are so distinct that he who “runs may read.” Poison ivy usually has always a three-parted leaf; the Virginia creeper, true to form, has always a five-parted leaf. There are other points of difference, but this one is most obvious.
White-weed in bloom, is now common in open fields, and erect like soldiers the three mulleins native to Germantown stand in flower. These comprise yellow moth mullein, with its white variety; white-leaved mullein, with large pointed leaves surmounted by a spike branching into streamers of yellow flowers, and common mullein, with a clump of wooly leaves and a rigid scaled spike of yellow flowers, a plant known to children as “flannel leaf.”
The moth mullein shows its attractive purple stamined flowers first, its white variety appearing at the same time. According to arbitrary technical law “which altereth not,” this white variety as well as white variety of chickory and other like departures, though constant, are not recorded. In his “Text Book of Botany,” Prof. Alphonso Wood in 1864 states that white mullein is rare, and gives its range from Oneida Lake, N.Y., south to Georgia, but now it is much more widely distributed.
Walking one evening with Professor Meehan, he asked on passing a white mullein, “What do you call that plant?” I answered” “Verbascum lychnitis.” “It can be nothing else,” he replied, “but the plant has always puzzled me, and must strangely have escaped notice.”
Those who go from one part of the country to another cannot fail to note differences in time of appearance, in manner of growth and in colors in flowers, the same kind of plant in one section being quite distinct from the same kind in another section, and often are not a little confusing. A simple illustration of this is the yarrow, now in bloom in fields everywhere, which with us is an indifferent white, while in many parts of of New England it is a deep pink in color, and in a lighter form occasionally appear so with us. At Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and indeed throughout that country, I have seen our early flowers, such as Quaker lady, buttercup, daisy and the like, blooming vigorously in late summer. On Bald Mountain, Mt. Pemetic and Mount Desert, close to October, with Henry S. Pancoast and wife, I collected in bloom many wild flowers common to Germantown, and the rarer dwarf cornel, creeping snowberry, twin-flower, clintonia and several others which do not appear with us at all.
Weeds are now asserting themselves, and whether we “will or no,” they persist in thrusting themselves upon our attention. At every turn we meet galinsoga, a spreading leafy plant having numerous small, white rayed, aster-like flowers; yellow flowering wild turnip, almost as plentiful in waste places as those we strive to raise; chickweed, with ever-blooming, star-like flowers, which will “not be downed;” burdock, a coarse, rowdy-like plant, crowding out every neighbor less vigorous, resembling too frequent renegades we meet, who with lines in one hand and a whip in the other, regardless, drive over defenseless common rights.
Another such degenerate is Canada thistle, now in bloom on Weaver’s lot, near Baynton street, a plague which farmers have struggled long unsuccessfully to subdue. But there is a good side to everything, and in the end the best is bound to prevail. As it is in the higher life, so it is in the lower, and for the comparatively few objectionable plants we have an overwhelming number of virtuous ones, and among these now blooming in the Wissahickon and elsewhere about home, is wild parsnip, with slender yellow flowers; figwort, a rather rank grower, with curious greenish-purple flowers; black snake-root, a handsome plant, with racemes of white flowers; slim-leaf, a plant low to the ground, with small round leaves and variable flowers, but usually white; cow-wheat, a bushy little plant, with yellow-tipped, whitish flowers, a plant common in the upper Wissahickon; bachelor-button, a frequenter of open fields and conspicuous by its showy, yellow-rayed, purple-centered flowers; tway blade, an orchid, with chocolate-colored flowers, and, like all orchids, a plant of more than passing interest, and nowhere common, but as plenty in the middle Wissahickon as anywhere I know—these, with others previously considered, forming a pageant beyond description, and with slender blue-flag, turkey-beard, erect, white and startling; orange flowering milkwort, and calopogon, one of our choicest orchids, with beautiful pink flowers, collected by George Redles and wife, and shown at our June Horticultural Society meeting, together, constitute an assemblage of beauty hard to approach, and impossible to surpass.
At one time orange flowering milkwort grew in Carpenter’s meadow, and calopogon grew near Chestnut Hill, and although not yet far away, they are slowly retreating before the advance they dread.
An interesting plant, and one very rare near Germantown, is Adam and Eve, or putty root. This plant takes its common name from its corm or corms, which are usually in pairs, and filled with glutinous matter. In the Wissahickon putty root usually is out of sight from July until October, but about October 10 it sends up a single shoot, which envelops one dark green, strongly veined leaf, the fully developed leaf being two inches wide at its centre and five to six inches long. This leaf continues green throughout winter, drying in spring, and finally disappearing about May 20, when the plant takes a short rest. About June 15 a stalk appears, which soon develops a raceme of geenish-brown flowers. These flowers vary, and sometimes appear nearly white, with purple spots. The plant is an extremely shy bloomer, and sometimes for years no bloom appears.
For over twenty years a plant shown me by Joseph Meehan in Kitchen’s Hollow never bloomed, and elsewhere it blooms only after long intervals. With the exception of cancer root, putty root is the scarcest plant in our territory, the only localities known to me being the Kitchen Hollow one, Fisher’s woods, near Thorp’s lane, and a locality in the centre Wissahickon, discovered by George Redles and “Freddie” Fleckenstein, and made known to me by George Redles, Jr. In New England putty root is more common, and there it is grown for commercial purposes.
Plant distribution is a valuable and interesting study, and why some plants increase and flourish, while others manage only to preserve a precarious existence, what has caused the disappearance of links which no doubt at one time connected widely separated colonies, questions of soil, temperature, changes climatic and geologic, all add to the inherent charms of botany, and naturally lead to a study of the great problems ever confronting us, for after all, as Professor Lewis once said to me, “Botany is but the a, b, c of geology,” a stepping stone to something higher. While this is true, and while we may rightly study these deeper problems, we must also remember that we are finite and that all beyond us is beyond us, and was so designed.
If we, like Tennyson, who, rambling through an Oxford meadow, and on beholding in a brook forms of life to him hitherto unknown, was in ecstasy impelled to exclaim, “What an imagination God has!”—well, if we do likewise, provided we do so with the same devout appreciation.
Master minds have been so impressed, and a greater than Tennyson, indeed, the greatest product of our times as I believe—Robert Browning—was content to go to the fields and lie in the grass, there to watch the flowers swayed by the wind, the butterfly fluttering in the light, the cloud passing subject to law, the sun which never fails, without fear, without doubt, to his closing day a giant in intellect, a child in attitude, and always natural.
Shamrock. Medicago Lupullna.
Oxalis. Oxalis stricta.
Hop clover. Medicago Lupullna.
Brazilian clover. Medicago sativa.
White sweet clover. Melilotus Alba.
White melilot. Melilotus Alba.
Yellow sweet clover. Melilotus Officinalis.
Yellow Mililot. Melilotus Officinalis.
Dutch clover. Trifolium Repens.
Red clover. Trifolium Pratense.
Large hop clover. Trifolium Agrarium.
Small hop-clover. Trifolium Procumbens.
Buffalo clover. Trifolium Reflexum.
Dutch clover. Trifolium Repens.
Pussy clover. Trifolium Arvense.
Rabbit-foot clover. Trifolium Arvense.
Crimson rambler rose. Rosa Multiflora.
Yellow rambler rose. Rosa Multiflora.
Tea rose. Rosa Indica.
Noisette rose. Rosa Indica.
Hardy perpetual rose. Rosa Indica.
Honeysuckle. Lonicera Fragrantissima.
Akebia. Akebia Quinata.
Clematis. Clematis Paniculata.
Sweet alyssum. Alyssum Maritimumsima.
Mignonette. Reseda Odorata.
Sweet pea. Lathyrus Odoratus.
Hollyhock. Althaea Rosea.
Oriental poppy. Papaver Orientale.
Hardy hydrangea. Hydrangea Paniculata.
Pink spiraea. Spiraea Billardi.
Allegheny vine. Adlumia Cirrhosa.
Mexican vine. Boussingaultia Basseloides.
Mock orange. Philadelphus Coronarius.
Arbor vitae. Thuya Occidentalis.
Privet. Ligustrum Vulgare.
Dog-daisy. Chysanthemum Leucanthemum.
Dandelion. Taraxacum Dens-leonis.
Chelidonium. Chelidonium Majus.
Poison ivy. Rhus Toxicodendron.
Virginia creeper. Ampelopis Quinquefolia.
Japan creeper. Ampelopsis Veitchii.
White-weed. Erigeron Annuus.
Yellow moth mullein. Verbascum Blattaria.
White moth mullein. Verbascum Blattaria.
White leaved mullein. Verbascum Lychnitis.
Common mullein Verbascum Thapsus.
Flannel leaf. Verbascum Thapsus.
White chickory. Cichorium Intybus.
Yarrow. Achillea Millefolium.
Buttercup. Ranunculus Acris.
Daisy. Chrysanthemum Leucanthemum.
Dwarf cornel. Cornus Canadensis.
Creeping snowberry. Chiogenes Serpyllifolia.
Twin flower. Linnaea Borealis.
Clintonia. Clintonia Borealis.
Galinsoga. Galinsoga Parviflora.
Wild turnip. Brassica Campestris.
Chickweed. Stellaria Media.
Burdock. Arctium Lappa.
Canada thistle. Cnicus Arvensis.
Wild parsnip. Pastina Sativa.
Fig-wort Scrophularia Nodosa var. Marilandica.
Black snake-root Cimicifuga Racemosa.
Shin-leaf. Pyrola Rotundifolia.
Cow-wheat. Melympyrum Americanum.
Bachelor-button. Rudbeckia Hirta.
Tway-blade. Liparis Lilifolia.
Slender blue-flag. Iris Virginica.
Turkey-beard. Xeropbyllum Setifollum.
Orange flowering milk-wort. Polygala Lutea.
Calopogon. Calopogon Pulchellus.
Adam and Eve. Aplectrum Hiemale.
Putty-root. Aplectrum Hiemale.
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.”