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
For someone who was such a prolific writer and had so many acquaintances (both among people and plants), there’s not much we know about the actual life of Edwin Jellett. The most autobiographical essay he wrote was titled, “How I kept House on $2.37 per week, or an experience of 68 days at experimental Housekeeping.” As an adult he lived in a small house on East Herman Street with his mother, and from these fragments of information I had constructed an idea of Jellett and his habits that are challenged by his essay of May 29, 1903, in which he describes a trip to Stratford, England, and another to Montreal.
Besides recounting the author’s own far-flung travels, the plants he describes here are also world travellers, illustrating that in 1903 the flora of Germantown had been altered extensively, although many of its native plants were still commonly to be observed. The European forget-me-not he describes here has already naturalized along damp areasca near local streams, and the purple-black June roses which were “as usual ahead of schedule” are almost certainly an old European variety called ‘Tuscany,’ which was commonly grown in our area in the 19th century. I had never heard of matrimony vine, which turns out to be a nightshade plant native to Northern China (Lycium vulgare), but Jellett implies that at the time of writing it was not uncommon in Philadelphia.
Many of the other plants referenced in this article are Germantown natives, including a detailed listing of ferns. Besides the Christmas fern, which is still present in great quantities in the Wissahickon Valley Park, most of the others are today either gone or not found in great quantity. However two other native plants mentioned, pokeweed and lamb’s quarters, were and are nuisances, at least in my garden. Jellett observes that although they aren’t eaten by city dwellers, these common weeds were often eaten by country people who preferred them to asparagus (a European plant).
A photo from the Germantown Historical Society shows the Jellett garden. Although plant types are hard to identify, not a weed is in sight.
Edwin C. Jellett – May 29, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
In the summer of 1894 I spent a day botanizing in and about Stratford, England. I had gone there some weeks before, but the hypnotizing fascination of the place, the richness and quaintness of its charms, its beauty and restfulness, proved irresistible, and science always to me inferior to literature, was for a time consigned to a waiting position in the line.
But I had a longing to return, and did so, though what I secured I shall not here attempt to offer because It is foreign to our subject, and I have gone thus far out of the way to present a plant which, while strolling along the river Avon, I found blooming in that peaceful stream where it sleepily meanders under Clopton Bridge. The “flower” sporting in the sunlight there was the blue forget- me-not, the same variety now in bloom in pools and along edges of streams with us.
Westward the quiet waters flowed, bordered by pollarded willows and far stretching meadows to the south, with well-kept grounds and buildings unique to the north, and high above the trees appearing not unlike the steeple of St. Mary’s Church of Burlington near home, stood out the spire of Stratford Church. Instinctively, and who would not, I associated the modest purity of the flower with the prepondering greatness of the genius whose rich contributions, like the little plant standing in its innocence, divinely planned, were designed to live to the end of time. The instrument has gone, but nothing more vital than its product lives, and the forget-me-not blooming near Franklin wood, with the row of linden trees now in perfection on Chew street, near Sharpnack street, identical in appearance, if not in variety, with those which shade the walk to Stratford Church, recalled the day and its pleasant memories.
The continued dry weather now prevailing is seriously interfering with vegetation, and many flowers have prematurely aged, but there is a good side to everything, and needed rain, though oft delayed, has never yet failed. Garden peas, corn and other “truck” stand waiting; strawberries, great with early promise, like blusterers in active life, have dwindled to poor excuses, and farmers, impatient at delay, are yet dependent upon the “signs.”
In flower gardens flowering peas are up and struggling hard against great odds. Japanese flags, not so vigorous as their German relations, show fragile striped bloom in variety galore. Matrimony vine is in bloom, and its small pink flowers look strangely out or place hidden in a bank of green. Honeysuckle is covering porches everywhere with its well-known, delicious bloom. June roses, as usual ahead of schedule time, exhibit in colors from “purple black” to camellia white flowers of indescribable beauty and fragrance, in manifold variety of structure and form, nearly all being products of skillful cultivation.
Along lanes and in fields small white clover, red clover, trailing yellow clover and the crimson Italian clover are in full bloom. Crimson clover a few years ago was looked upon as a “new and rare plant,” but now it has become so general that its novelty has vanished.
Blackberry, dewberry and raspberry show their white flowers along fences everywhere, and in the upper Wissahickon flowering raspberry is rich with purple bloom.
On “lots” and in woods small evening primrose displays its canary-yellow, sweet-scented flowers, arid white-topped, strong-scented wild sarsaparilla, thick with heavy leaves, matt in places the way. Near Thorp’s lane bridge goose-grass, with rough stems, show minute white flowers at the axils of the leaves; sweet cicely, both short and long-styled, spread their umbels of small white flowers, and poison hemlock, large, rough, with a high strong stem surmounted by a panacle of white bloom, grows amid the ruins of Bischoff’s mill. Mallow, or “cheeses,” as it is familiar to children, is flowering beside old buildings, and along barnyard fences, where “lamb’s-quarters” are well in leaf. About Germantown, lamb’s-quarters, as well as poke, now high and open, are almost unknown to the table, but in country districts not far distant both are highly esteemed as “greens,” and take precedence of asparagus.
All the Indian turnips common to Eastern Pennsylvania are now blooming – the early flowering jack-in-the- pulpit previously noted, green dragon, which I never collected in our territory, but which Prof. Stewartson Brown reports at Flat Rock Dam on the Schuylkill; the new small purple flowering arum also growing at Flat Rock Dam, and a variety of arum interesting to us because it is dedicated to Prof. Brown, though too recently to appear in the “manuals.”
The yellow moccasin, an extremely rare plant, is in bloom in Germantown wild flower gardens, and Dr. H. Burgin reports it growing near Limekiln pike and County line. I have never been so fortunate as to view it in its haunts, but others more favorably located have no difficulty in obtaining it. Prof. Spencer Trotter and Stewardson Brown have both told us that it grows along Crum creek, but is not plentiful.
Many interesting plants, at one time not uncommon to Germantown, are now so extremely rare that it would be unwise to reveal their hiding places. Among these are pitcher-plant, sundew, both round-leaved and long-leaved; Virginia snake-root, painted cup and several ferns and orchids. Those who take enough interest in botany to discover these plants will also, I think, take enough interest to protect them, and silence concerning their retreats is the surest preventive of annihilation.
In Thomas’ wood on Stenton avenue, and throughout the Wissahickon, the curious cucumber-root is in flower. It is a member of the lily family, showing strong marks of its relationship. The plant rise to a height of from 18 to 24 inches, its stems studded with whorls of leaves, from the axils of which odd, insect like flowers suspended hang. The name comes from the tuber or bulb, which resembles a cucumber in color and taste. Indian physic, one of our rare plants, is now blooming in the Wissahickon, its small, white, airy flowers resembling those of the Virginian fringe tree now blooming in many gardens, and native to Millville, N. J., where it was discovered by Joseph Meehan.
Many shrubs previously recorded continue vigorous, and with maple-leaved viburnum in flower near Thorp’s lane, the woods in open places are white with bloom, and along dry hillsides, both exposed and sheltered, laurel is almost hidden with a profusion of pink to white flowers. The laurel is a most interesting and valuable shrub, and is dedicated to Peter Kahn, a Swedish traveler and botanist, who came to America to study plants, and who while here paid a visit to Germantown. His book, “Travels in North America,” is extremely rare, but our Friends’ Library is the fortunate possessor of a fine copy, which may be consulted at pleasure.
It was Kahn who described early Germantown as being a village, built along a main road about “two miles long,” where the houses were built of a “stone mixed with glimmer,” with others “of brick,” and the “inhabitants so numerous that the street was always full.”
Tulip poplar, the “king of the American forest,” so wrote Benjamin Franklin, is in flower, and Wister’s wood, where it abounds, is gay with numerous salmon yellow, gaudily marked blooms, and though we may differ from the self-sufficient philosopher quoted, it is a truly magnificent sight.
Many New Jersey plants represented here are in bud or in flower, and blue-flag, which covers the swamps below Gloucester, N.J., is now in bloom here, but these plants we shall pass for the present to make way for a few ferns approaching maturity, which may properly claim our attention, and to present one specimen of especial interest. All our native ferns have started, and several varieties show incipient fruit. These we shall endeavor later to consider in detail. The botychinus, or moon-worts, a group closely allied to true ferns, are fully developed, and appear in almost every wood. Maiden-hair fern is stretching its skeleton arms in the Wissahickon and nearby woods, and Christmas fern is making new fruit-tipped fronds. Last year’s fruit dots of the, common polypody are brown and rusty, and new fronds with golden yellow spots are beginning to appear. The king or royal flowering ferns are now at their best, and I know not a group of more attractive plants. These, the royal flowering fern, Clayton’s fern and cinnamon fern, were previously noted, and further comment will be spared us.
One of the earliest of our common ferns, and indeed so early that it takes the name from the fact that it rises before the frost disappears and is sometimes “nipped,” is sensitive fern. This plant is in no degree sensitive in the sense usually in mind when speaking of plants of this nature, for it is not “irritable;” on the contrary, it is a hardy, sturdy plant, growing along dusty roadsides, in swampy grounds, and in fact everywhere a chance is offered it.
The sensitive fern is a particularly interesting plant, for it is one of a few survivors of an age so remote that even to think of it appals the mind. This plant, so common with us, has suffered no change from the cretaceous age, when the foundations or the coal beds were laid, wherein it abundantly existed, and is an important illustration of a fact which, opposed to a theory, demonstrates that “evolution” as a law has no existence, and that “variation” is a subject controlled by immutable limitations. Evolution and the laws of variation are not, and cannot be, understood, but erroneous ideas grouped under general heads are responsible for much that is undesirable and more that is wrong. In evolution a “common origin” is admitted, and a common origin can be none other than God, who is the Creator and the Law. The Law then is omnipotent, and our wisest sages are but strangers standing at the threshold of the unknown.
One of the best papers on the evolution theory I know is “Variations in Nature,” written by Prof. Thomas Meehan and read by him before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at its meeting held at Montreal in August, 1882. Prof. Meehan was one of the early workers in the ranks with Wallace and Darwin in the evolution school, but differing, he after a time withdrew. His work, however, was recognized and credited, and besides much preserved in many papers and magazines, there is an important article embodying the same in the American edition of Encyclopedia Brittanica. At this same conventional meeting was Prof. J. William Dawson, an. authority upon the subject before us, who first made known the great period of time the sensitive fern existed without change in form.
When I first visited McGill College, Montreal, Prof. Dawson was at its head; the last time I visited there he had “changed,” and was sleeping on the western slope of Mount Royal, facing the setting sun. Beside him in the beautiful Protestant Cemetery there lies Frederick Pursh, the author of “Flora Americoe Septentrionalis,” one of the most important of early botanical books. They were workers in kindred lines in life, and “in death they are not divided.” Frederick Pursh was a Russian botanist, who came to America to earn his way while studying its flora. From 1802 to 1805 he was gardener to William Hamilton, at “Woodlands,” on Darby road, Philadelphia, and while here was the friend and co-worker with active contemporaries, several of whom we have presented. He resigned this position to push into the woods, made several long journeys afoot, completed his task, returned to London, where in 1814 he published the fruits of his labors. From London he was sent by the British Government to Canada to do a similar work, and while in its pursuit died at Montreal, 1820 aged 46, where after “life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.”
I may seem to have gone out of the way, but I have done so willingly. When we come “into silence” our thoughts are purified, we become sensitive to impressions not perceptible in the vortex of action we leave. Here two strenuous lives lived, and the record complete. Above their graves locust and oak interlock. Over their heads wild asters, rue and golden rod sway with the never-tiring wind. Oblivious to evolution, myriad differences in form, and the inscrutable mysteries of the natural and spiritual worlds, they rest, while the world goes on.
Across the sea the Avon flows, thoughtless flowers bloom. Shakespeare at Stratford, and Darwin at Westminster, giants in their spheres, are gone, but the world goes on. We live, to nature kin, subject to the same laws, atoms ’neath “earth and sky,” wondering.
Why do we wonder?
In the whole realm of the spiritual world there is nothing more unsearchable than our own birth. Why then be disturbed about “evolution” and its vain outcrops? God has proved Himself abundantly able to take care of the world, and of us, whom I believe He created to “change,” but never to destroy, and when we are gone will the world go on.
Forget-me-not. Myosotis Palustris.
Willow. Salix Viminalis.
Linden. Tilia Americana.
Pea. Pisum Sativum.
Corn. Zea Mays.
Strawberry. Fragaria Vesca.
Flowering pea. Lathyrus Odoratus.
Japanese flag. Iris Laevigata.
German flag. Iris Germanica.
Matrimony vine. Lycium Vulgare.
Honeysuckle. Lonicera Japonica.
Camellia. Camellia Japonica.
White clover. Trifolium Repens.
Red clover. Trifolium Pratense.
Yellow clover. Medicago Lupulina.
Italian clover. Trifolium Incarnata.
Crimson clover. Trifolium Incarnata.
Blackberry. Rubus Villosus.
Dewberry. Rubus Canadensis.
Raspberry. Rubus Occidentalis.
Flowering raspberry. Rubus Odoratus.
Small evening primrose. Oenothera Sinuata.
Wild sarsaparilla. Aratia nudicaulis.
Goose-grass. Galium Aparine.
Sweet cicely (short). Osmorrhiza Brevistylis.
Sweet cicely (long). Osmorrhiza Longistylis.
Poison hemlock. Conium Maculatum.
Mallow. Malva Sylvestris.
Cheeses. Malva Sylvestris.
Lamb’s-quarters. Chenopodium Album.
Asparagus. Asparagus Officinalis.
Indian turnip. Arisaema Triphyllum.
Jack-in-the-pulpit. Arisaema Triphyllum.
Green dragon. Arisaema Dracontium.
Purple arum. (small). Arisaema Pussila.
Brown’s arum. Arisaema Stewardsoniana.
Yellow moccasin flower. Cypripedium Parviflorum.
Pitcher plant. Sarracenia Purpureum.
Sun-dew (round). Drosera Rotundifolia.
Sun-dew (long leaved). Drosera Intermedia, var. Americana.
Virginia snake-root. Aristolochia Serpentaria.
Painted cup. Castilleia Coccinea.
Cucumber root. Medeola Virginica.
Indian physick. Gillenia Trifoliata.
Virginian fringe tree. Chionathus Virginica.
Maple leaved viburnum. Viburnum Acerifolium.
Laurel. Kalmia Latifolia.
Tulip poplar. Liriodendron Tulipifera.
Blue flag. Iris Versicolor.
Botrychium. Botrychlum Virginicum.
Moon-wort. Botrychium Virginicum.
Maiden-hair fern. Adiantum Pedatum.
Christmas fern. Aspidium Acrostrichoides.
Polypody. Polypodium Vulgare.
King fern. Osmunda Regalis.
Royal flowering fern. Osmunda Regalis.
Clayton’s fern. Osmunda Claytoniana.
Cinnamon fern. Osmunda Cinnamomea.
Sensitive fern. Onoclea Sensibilis.
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.”