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.
Just like Chaucer, Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll, Edwin Jellett can perplex readers through his use of nomenclature and vocabulary that are rare or absent in 21st century discourse. This week, Awbury Arboretum presents an admittedly incomplete series of annotations and other comments regarding Jellett’s May 1, 1903, installment of “A Flora of Germantown.”
Jellett’s assertion that, regardless of March and April oddities, by May 1 everything will be in proper order was – until quite recently – relatively true. This year, even as of May 15, the plants are still getting themselves sorted out. One Mount Airy gardener had bladdernut (Staphylea colchica) flowers lingering on that date, with an adjacent sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana) showing its first blossoms; usually the former is over three weeks before the latter opens. Likewise, some cultivars in the genus rhododendron (which includes azaleas) were early and some were late, and on some a first set of buds opened and finished while others waited two weeks to swell.
As for taking houseplants outdoors, Jellett’s safe date of May 15 might seem a couple of weeks late to us these days, but early on May 16 this year, 39.7 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded in the neighborhood. Not deadly, but not good for something that’s been in a heated house since October.
“Jackminot” rose is properly Rosa ‘General Jacquesminot,’ an intensely fragrant, deep red old-fashioned repeat-blooming shrub rose, “once the most widely grown crimson rose,” according to the renowned David Austin’s website. “It is the ancestor of most red roses.”
Jellett’s “gingo” is our Ginkgo biloba. Why didn’t Jellett give the reason (“now known”) for non-fruiting trees in Germantown? Perhaps it was previously unknown that ginkgos are dioecious, having separate male and female plants (like hollies), with fruit only on the females.
The “noted” ginkgo at the Woodlands in West Philadelphia was the first of this Chinese (not Japanese) species in America, planted by William Hamilton in 1784, producing fruit into the 1980s, when it was cut down by a misguided caretaker. It did at least sprout from the stump. Grumblethorpe, the 1744 Wister home in Germantown, also has a very old ginkgo, but definitively pre-1784? The jury’s out.
The poetic excerpt (“daisies spread, and daffodils”) is a slightly adjusted quotation from the poem “To Phyllis, To Love and Live With Him,” by Robert Herrick (1591-1674).
Jellett’s tip on barren strawberries versus real strawberries is still the quickest way to distinguish them, and thus know which one to promptly weed out: Yellow flowers equal weeds (and tasteless, mealy fruit); white flowers yield strawberries.
We know “silver weed” as jewelweed. Many think a quick application of the juice from its crushed stems will counteract poison ivy.
Showy orchis is now officially Galearis spectabilis. “Wake-robin” is nowadays most commonly used for Trillium erectum.
Similarly, Jellett’s common name for Mertensia virginica – “lungwort” – is now associated with other plants entirely, members of the genus pulmonaria. Most people call it simply mertensia or Virginia bluebells. If it has been extirpated from original sites in the Wissahickon gorge, reestablishing it would be a cinch. It seeds easily, especially downhill. Question is: was it truly native to the Wissahickon or were the plants Jellett observed actually escapees from nearby uphill gardens?
Edwin C. Jellett – May 1, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
Whether a season be early or late, the first of May in each year finds the procession of flowers has reached a common starting point, where, from thenceforward the progress will be uninterrupted, and the succession sure.
Spring fields are now green, light or dark as the case may be, with rye and wheat of last fall planting; with no “mumbling of wicked charms,” nor “conjuring the moon to stand auspicious mistress,” onions have been set, and in places venturesome housewives have transferred carefully nurtured plants from the house to the front porch, perhaps to rue it, for in this latitude, though the days be early warm, the nights are cool, and plants delicately reared cannot with safety be left to themselves before the 15th of May.
In gardens all the early blooming or “June roses,” jackminot, sweet briar, moss, rugosa and a host of others are in leaf, and a few are showing the buds. In rock gardens poets’ narcissus, wall cress, adder’s-meat, erinis, thrift, or sea pink, pink saxifrage, blue and white grape hyacinths, spring iris, although they have long bloomed, still show vigor and beauty, and also giant trillium, a native of New England which seems quite at home with us. Gingo tree, a native of Japan, a strikingly interesting tree, is now pushing its leaves, tamarisk is thick with new shoots, Japan blood-leaf maple is gorgeous in its sanguinity, and rose-flowering dog-wood is a most beautiful sight on many lawns, as is also azaleas of red and yellow bloom. The leaves of the gingo closely resemble those of maiden-hair fern, and are exceedingly curious. For a long time this tree in Germantown refused to fruit, but the reason is now known. The tree first produced fruit for Charle J. Wister, and about the same time for Benjamin H. Shoemaker, and, so far as known, was first exhibited in this county at a meeting of the Germantown Horticultural Society. With the exception of the noted gingo at “Woodlands,” the finest specimen of this tree I know grown upon the grounds of Alfred C. Harrison, Reading pike, near Thorp’s lane, Chestnut Hill.
A very fine tamarisk, pictured and described in Meehans’ Monthly for November, 1902, is one growing on the grounds of Mrs. Frank Cooley, Herman street, near Baynton. This fine specimen was injured by the ice storm of two years ago, but, Phoenix like, it rose to greater strength and symmetry.
But few of us, I imagine, appreciate the importance of Meehans’ and the Andorra Nurseries to Germantown. These have not only made Germantown favorably known to the outside world, but have also filled our gardens with a wealth of growth possessed by few suburbs, and in our midst, in Meehans’ Nursery, we have what I consider the best “botanical garden” in America. I am aware that there are collections which contain a larger variety of plants, but not any known to me holds so many native plants, growing in a natural way. In his best days John Bartram not only did not possess, but it was impossible for him to know, so many plants as are here grown for trade purposes, and here, correctly marked, every shrub and tree adaptable to our climate stand for the inspection of all who properly conduct themselves, and desire to learn.
Now the “little busy bee” is seen more frequently endeavoring to “improve each shining hour,” blue-flies, scarce a few weeks ago, are becoming common, and wasps with dangling legs, light, as though they knew not what they were about, looking for all the world like a fellow “searching for work, and praying not to find it.” For a reason I do not know, the black-head bees and wasps appear first, and the “white-heads” last. Long ago I acquired a reputation for bravery from those whose admiration exceeded their knowledge, as with perfect freedom I collected male bees and wasps, handling them with impunity because they had no stings.
The early birds have now departed, though an occasional blue-bird may sometimes be seen. The wild duck and sea gulls have left the upper “Falls,” and these will not appear again before next winter. Now in-terminal warbler and sap suckers are appearing to puzzle amateur ornithologists, the Phoebe, indigo bird and mourning dove have taken their place in the woods.
I doubt if any one ever saw the Wissahickon finer than it now is, and in spite of a recent outcry against the destruction of shrubbery and trees, no damage other than that due to natural “wear and tear” is anywhere observable. The fine row of buttonwood, plane or sycamore trees growing near the site of “Allen’s lane red bridge” are now shedding their bark, and the new exposed silver sheathing appears to glisten with resplendent light. The “button-ball” is a magnificent tree, and we of Germantown have several specimens, which, though storm-battered and abused, are yet noble reminders of the vigor of days gone by.
In front of the Wagner homestead, Main street, opposite Fisher’s lane, and at Heft’s on Main street, above Manheim street, are specimens which, though grown in restricted quarters, are hard to surpass. In open fields, where unrestricted, the buttonwood reaches immense proportions, and such a tree may be seen near Shannonville, now called Audubon, on the road which runs from Jeffersonville to Pawling Bridge, and this tree alone of all I ever saw is superior to what the Heft trees were when in their perfection. One day while walking along “Thames Embankment,” London, I came upon a long row of buttonball trees extending from Whitehall Gardens to Westminster Bridge, and in spite of a poor situation, looking well. In England this tree is generally known as sycamore, and one who thinks of it as an American tree will be surprised to find it common in that country. While there it always reminded me of home and the Wissahickon, where in the Andorra Nurseries thousands of them were growing, and I saw the waters rounding the curve to feed Thorp’s dam, with “Sugar Loaf” nestling on the hill above the trees, and the sun glistening on the windows of Mount St. Joseph.
Now all the strictly spring flowers have bloomed; and though a few early ones have passed, the rest remain, for yet
“The feasting table shall be hills,
With daisies spread, and daffodils,”
to fill us with delight.
In bloom everywhere along the Wissahickon creek, from Reading pike south, is box-elder, or ash-leaved maple, the flowers and leaves developing together, a tree nowhere more plentiful than along this stream. The wild black cherry, common throughout the woods, is in bloom, its pure white flowers banked against a background of green, and with harmonious blending of red-bud and white dog-wood flowers, is a most refreshing sight. Along the water’s edge, and on nearly open banks, hop horn-beam, or ostraya, handsome, but not as obtrusive as its companions, is loaded with yellow stamined catkins.
In Germantown the first tree to leaf is always weeping willow, the last to leaf is either a catalpa, a walnut, or a coffee tree, and these are yet drear and bare, and apparently lifeless. We have now reached the intermediate stage, and all the trees between the indicated extremes are beginning to shoot, and soon the woods will be a wilderness of wonder. Many of the early summer plants are beginning to appear, and in Brush wood, Miles’ wood, Wissahickon and other nearby woods ferns are taking form, and shield fern is taking possession of favored spots on the ground, while bladder fern, wood fern and other ferns are endeavoring to cover damp recesses in stone walls and bridges. In these same woods grape fern in its several varieties is also spreading its leathery fronds, and may be known by its fleshy, succulent stems, with heavy dissected tops. Along roadside banks barren strawberry with yellow flowers and wild strawberry with white flowers are blooming, and on Stenton avenue, above Rabbit lane, they may be seen blooming together. Although there is some confusion in regard to these plants, these should be none, for they are quite distinct, and resemble each other in but little more than name.
Along streams in woods, and in grounds bordering upon these streams, silver weed is springing in immense number, covering the ground with bright green cotyledons of circular mould; water horehound, rusty and brown in the fall, but now a delicately tinted bronze, is beautifying the meadows; banesberry six inches high, on loamy banks, is spreading wide its arms, and both the false and true Solomon’s seal are in bud. In the upper Wissahickon the dog-tooth violet this season is superb, and is laden with fine large yellow flowers. When the leaves of this plant first appear they attract us by the beauty of their leaves, but this beauty is evanescent, and its brilliancy soon vanishes. Although the dog-tooth violet frequents damp and low grounds, it rarely blooms in perfection there, and one is often disappointed with the meagreness of the bloom, but on high, well-drained banks the bulbs best develop, the bloom is prolific, and is equal in every respect to that of more pretentious plants one sees in gardens.
One who has walked much through the Wissahickon woods cannot fail to have observed groups of plants which appear strangely out of place. One of these groups is French mulberry, growing at the west end of Thorp’s lane bridge. Another group is that of a strange leaved woodbine, quite distinct from the ordinary honeysuckle of our gardens, growing along the Bridal path near the stream coming down from Chestnut avenue. Another group is blue flowering periwinkle, which has appropriated the ground back of the “Devil’s Pool.” All these groups are the “remains,” or escapes from gardens, which once flourished in this district. This same thing is frequent in other parts of the Wissahickon, and elsewhere. One who visits Bartram Garden in February or early March will there see portions of the “park” covered with the yellow flowers of winter aconite, the children I doubt not of parents originally planted by John Bartram.
Nowhere else have I seen native grapevines of such immense girth and climbing to such a height as those to be seen in the recesses of the Wissahickon between “Kitchen’s mill” and “Dead Man’s lane.” Here at certain periods of the year one might imagine himself in the wilds of an African forest. These grapes, and the chicken grape, as well as cultivated grapes in gardens, are now strong in leaf. The wild geranium, common in almost every wood, is bright with handsome heads of pink or rosy red flowers; foam flower, with its white tufted head rising from a plaque of round leaves, shows itself on rocky slopes; wild ginger, with curious heart-shaped leaves, and three-parted, bell-shaped, chocolate-colored flowers, may be found most frequently in turfy loam in several spots in the Wissahickon. In marshy places in meadows, and in pools in woods, a strong growing, light green, strong-ribbed plant, which at a distance may readily be taken for skunk cabbage, among which it usually grows, is false hellebore. This plant grows on Mt. Airy avenue, near the County line, and also in Franklin woods. In cultivated grounds, and along roads, with but one exception, all the chick weeds in our territory are now in bloom – common chickweed which grows in gardens everywhere, long-leaved chickweed or stitch-wort, common to the Wissahickon, and great chickweed growing at Robinson’s knoll and along the drive near Laurel Hill.
In fields buttercups, the “brightest and best of the sons of the morning,” like atoms of the sun, which indeed they are, besprinkle the way, and I am thankful their leaves are bitter and that cows will not eat them, for otherwise think of the bloom the world would be without! Rabin’s plantain, or old-man-in-the-spring, is now in bloom in many meadows, and sometimes may be met in woods. Along the stream on Shur’s lane it is quite common, and its handsome aster-like flowers are quite conspicuous. Greek valerian, or polymonium, is also in bloom, and its bright blue flowers are worthy a place in every garden. Wake-robin, or showy orchis, one of the few of our native orchids, and a most attractive one, is now blooming near the centre Wissahickon, and near the same place pale corydalis shows its sulphur yellow flowers from the exposed crevices of a rock, exhibiting at the same time the red and yellow flowers of the columbine. Near the same spot nodding trillium, the only trillium native to our territory, is in full bloom.
The violets are now appearing in force, and we have with us downy yellow violet, which grows in Wister’s wood and throughout the Wissahickon; prim-rose leaved violet, which grows near the Devil’s Pool; Muhlenberg’s violet, which is common to damp places in nearly every wood, and to be particular, in Franklin wood; lance-leaved violet, growing in Unruh’s meadow; arrow-leaved violet, growing on Rabbit lane near the creek, and bird’s-foot violet, one of our handsomest native flowers, appearing in many varieties, sometimes closely resembling the pansy of our gardens, of which it is a close relation, is common in many parts of the Wissahickon, and especially so in the vicinity of Cresheim creek.
One of the rarest, and one of the most beautiful flowers of the Germantown region, is lung-wort, now blooming in its perfection. At one time it was quite common, but its qualities are such that when found few can resist the temptation to transfer it from its native bed to a corner in the garden at home. In consequence, the plant is frequently seen in gardens, and but seldom in haunts to which it belongs. Twenty years ago the plant was common enough in the “park,” and I remember a fine patch of it near the “pipe bridge.” Now I know only one spot in the entire Wissahickon where the plant grows, and this is carefully protected by the few to whom it is known. Outside of our territory the plant, however, is not so rare, and it is common enough near Whitemarsh Church and along Skippack creek.
There are now several societies, which with plants, like the Audubon Society with birds, aim to educate their members to a proper appreciation of the bounties so generously bestowed, and for wanton disregard there is no excuse, for throughout the East there are nurseries making a specialty of “wild flowers,” where for a trifling cost the rarest gems may be procured, removing the necessity, and enabling us to possess growing specimens of our own, without molesting the native treasures of our woods.
Rye. Secale Cereale.
Wheat Triticum vulgare.
Onion. Allium Cepa.
Jackminot Rose. Rosa Indica var.
Sweet-brier. Rosa Rubiginosa.
Mossrose. Rosa Centifolia Muscosa.
Japanese rose. Rosa Rugosa.
Poets narcissus. Narcissus Poeticus.
Wall cress. Arabis Albida.
Adder’s-meat. Sellaria Holostea.
Erinus. Erinus Alpinus.
Thrift. Armeria Alpina.
Sea-pink. Armeria Alpina.
Pink Saxifraga. Saxifraga Crassifolia.
Blue-bell Muscari Bothryoides.
White grape Hyacinth. Muscari Bothryoides Alba.
Spring Iris. Iris Pumila.
Giant Trillium. Trillium Grandiflorum.
Gingo. Salisburia Adiantifolia.
Tamarix. Tamarix Gallica.
Blood-leaved maple. Acer Polymorphum, var. A tropurppureus.
Rose Dog-wood. Cornus Florida, var. Flore-Rubro.
Red flowering Azalea. Azalea Mollis.
Yellow flowering Azalea. Azalea Mollis.
Maiden-hair fern. Adiantum Pedatum.
Buttonwood. Platanus occidentalis.
Plane. Platanus occidentalis.
Sycamore. Platanus occidentalis.
Buttonball. Platanus occidentalis.
Box-elder. Negundo aceroides.
Negudo. Negundo aceroides.
Ash-leaved Maple. Negundo aceroides.
Wild black Cherry. Prunus Serotina.
Red-bud. Cercis Canadensis.
Dog-wood. Cornus Florida.
Hop-horn beam. Ostrya virginica.
Ostraya. Ostrya virginica.
Weeping Willow. Sails Babylonica.
Catalpa. Catalpa Bignoniodies.
Walnut. Juglan’s Nigra.
Coffee-tree. Gymnocladus Canadensis.
Shield-fern. Aspiduium Noveboracense.
Bladder-fern. Cystopteris Fragilis.
Wood-fern. Woodsia obtusa.
Grape-fern. Botrychium Virginicum.
Barren Strawberry. Potentilla canadensis.
Wild Strawberry. Fragaria Virginiana.
Silver-weed. Impatiens Fulva.
Water horehound. Lycopus virginicus.
Banesberry. Actaea alba.
False Solomon Seal. Smilacina Racemosa.
True Solomon Seal. Polygonatum Biflorum.
Dog-tooth violet. Erythronium Americanum.
French mulberry. Callicarpa Americana.
Woodbine. Lonicera Brachypoda.
Common Honeysuckle. Lonicera Hirsuta.
Periwinkle. Vinca Minor.
Winter aconite. Eranthis Hyemalis.
Summer-grape. Vitis aestivalis.
Chicken-grape. Vitis Cordifolia.
Cultivated grape. Vitis Labrusca.
Wild geranium. Geranium Maculatum.
Foam flower. Tiarella cordifolia.
Wild ginger. Asarum Canadense.
Skunk-cabbage. Symplocarpus Foetidus.
False Hellebore. Veratrum viride.
Common Chickweed. Stellaria Media.
Stitchwort. Stellaria Longifolia.
Long leaved chickweed. Stellaria Longifolia.
Great Chickweed. Stellaria Pubera.
Buttercup. Ranuculus acris.
Robins’ Plantain. Erigeron Bellidifolium.
Old-man-in-the-Spring. Erigeron Bellidifolium.
Greek valerian. Polymonium Reptans.
Polymonium. Polymonium Reptans.
Wake-robin. Orchis Spectabilis.
Showy Orchis. Orchis spectabilis.
Pale corydalis. Corydalis Aurea.
Columbine. Aquilegia Canadensis.
Nodding trillium. Trillium Cernuum.
Downy Yellow violet. Viola Pubescens.
Primrose-leaved violet. Viola Primulaefoila.
Muhlenberg’s violet. Viola Canina, var. Muhlenbergii.
Lance-leaved violet. Viola Lanceolata.
Arrow-leaved Violet. Viola Sagittata.
Bird’s-foot violet. Viola Pedata.
Pansy. Viola Tricolor.
Lungwort. Mertensia Virginica.
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.”