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 Mark Sellers
Even in turn-of-the-previous-century Germantown, surely a place where horticulture was taken very seriously, Edwin Jellett’s knowledge of botany must have been head and shoulders above his neighbors. In this article he takes on a question he must have been asked regularly on his walks: “How am I to learn from books the name of a plant I do not know?”
Jellett gently leads the reader through a brief sketch of Linnean plant classification, offering encouragement and commiserating that plant classifications and names are slippery and occasionally change, and concludes that to appreciate flowers this knowledge is desirable but not necessary.
He does, however, address the controversy surrounding the spelling of wisteria. First, he notes the plant was named by Thomas Nuttall, the 19thcentury English botanist, after Dr. Caspar Wistar, a notable Philadelphia surgeon with family in Germantown. How then is it that we do not grow “wisteria”? Jellet simply reports that Nuttall “named the plant wisteria because ‘wistaria’ was not euphonious.”
Having settled the problem of plant classification Jellett does the thing he does best, launching out to look around the neighborhood to see what’s growing. Apparently spring came a little late in 1903, and Jellett is pleased to find “great stretches of Quaker-lady” and early white magnolias, as well as salad and rhubarb in kitchen gardens in that first week of May.
Jellett also reports finding several varieties of buttercup. This is particularly interesting for observers of Awbury, as the meadow in front of the Francis Cope House is presently awash in buttercups (Ranunculus bulbosus). Jellett, ever the close observer, points out the buttercups in the front yard of the Monastery in the Wissahickon are a small plant community with double flowers.
Jellett is also capable of commenting on the relationships of the plants he observes with each other, and despite his usual posture of appreciation of all plants, he occasionally foreshadows our contemporary view of invasives: “celandine, a usurper, and like many of his class crowding out other more worthy to make room for himself. . . .”
Jellett closes with an appreciation of Nuttall, who gave a series of lectures on botany in 1818 at Germantown Academy, and was a friend of the Wistar family.
Edwin C. Jellett – May 8, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
One is often asked the question, “How am I to learn from books the name of a plant I do not know?” This question is, of course, always asked by one not familiar with systematic botanical tables, and as a majority of us are not, and have no need to be, I shall try to indicate the method, though it is too lengthy to be fully explained here.
“A rose by any other name will smell as sweet,” and no flower to us is less beautiful because we do not know its arbitrary rank, and it should be borne in mind that all systems of classification grouped under the general term “science” are artificial, and however admirable they are for their purpose they are altogether useless to the “higher life,” and unnecessary for the enjoyment of that beauty which our “mind’s eye” sees beyond things material. I in no way wish to underrate the value of science, but I do wish to divest it of a certain exaggerated importance it enjoys, which it does not possess, and therefore does not merit. If we remember that science is not creative; that its inductions, deductions and collaborations are simply attempts to determine and record existing substances and forms; that this knowledge and nature’s laws have no connection, are totally unlike and independent of each other; that the universe is conducted under fixed laws to which all known law is subject – which realizing to the full, we may pass without worry much that is likely to disturb, and be sure that while
“God’s in His Heaven
All’s right with the world”
and leave all tinsel, artificial “necessities,” and the accumulations of false standards, to the destruction which most surely awaits them.
Sanscrit is a difficult subject to master, and under certain requirements its knowledge is obligatory. In its place it is invaluable, but to most of us its acquisition would be of no benefit, and under forced conditions its study would be death to more congenial pursuits. If this be true, so is it true that the study of technical botany against our liking would be a waste of time, and productive of no permanent good, for to appreciate and love flowers this knowledge, though desirable, is not necessary, and as it “hath been said of old time,” so it is better to lose “an eye or a tooth” than that “the whole body should perish.”
Now, as all things finite are imperfect, so we find technical classification faulty, and in botany we discover dividing lines between most important classes of plants are not distinct. For this reason we find differences among botanists, changes in classification, remodeled systems, and new books according to the school or the following. In course of time two systems of classification came into general use, one founded by Linneus about the middle of the 17th century, known as the “artificial system,” and one founded by John Ray in 1682, improved by A. De Jessien, and given to the world in 1780 as the “natural system.”
The Linnean classification was based upon the number of stamens, or upon their position in relation to the corolla, and consisted of 24 classes. The natural system, which is the system now in general use, is based upon the natural affinities of plants. Under the artificial system the merest tyro was enabled to go at once to the name of a plant without difficulty; under the natural method, concentration and diligence is required, for being more complex, it follows that the system must be more difficult.
Suppose we have in hand a flower we do not know. Because we have a flower, it is apparent that it does not belong to the “flowerless plants,” and therefore at once an important section is eliminated. By taking our “botany,” and following its table directions by natural successive steps, if our diagnosis be correct, we soon arrive at the name of the family, when it becomes an easy matter to select the name of the individual plant desired. If we keep in mind that plants are grouped much as the human family is grouped, that the natural divisions of both are classified, are practically the same, then much that is confusing flees, and a student is enabled to follow the study more easily. There are several “botanies” which show the method of plant analysis, and one of the best is “Wood’s Class Book of Botany,” to pages 176 and 177 of which all interested are referred.
The spring is rapidly approaching maturity. Already the freshness of youth has become tempered, and soon the more sober days of summer will be upon us. In spite of its early start the season is late, and though the fields are ploughed and oats sowed, early potatoes are yet in waiting upon more favorable weather. No one, I am confident, ever saw finer bloom than covers the fields this spring, and those who visit nearby meadows will find great stretches of Quaker-lady, like blotches of light, flecking the way. Dandelions innumerable, as little suns, stand with their golden heads erect, and smile to every comer. Squaw weed, with attractive dissected leaves and yellow crested heads, appearing too delicate for the marshy positions they prefer, are blooming in perfection. Everywhere bloom ad infinitum, like the stars above, “mystical, wonderful,” obedient to the law, rests upon nature. So the Creator “moves in His mysterious way His wonders to perform,” and so it becomes us while it is yet “day,” as subjects to the law be true, responsive as nature children, and reverently enjoy before the “night” comes.
The early white magnolia has bloomed, and the frost tipped flowers have disappeared. Other magnolias have followed on, and soulangeana, a strong growing variety, with large dark purple flowers; purpurea, the commonest purple bloomer; gracilis, a slender shrub-like variety, with dark purple flowers; speciosa, with large light pink flowers, are now in bloom, as is also the rare yellow flowering variety known as fraseri.
With the exception previously noted, all the trees are starting into I bud, many are in full leaf, and unusually early the black walnut is making ready to “join the ranks.” Branches which a few weeks ago were bare, now support myriad fingers of the most delicate tracery, or else have been relegated to obscurity by the forwardness of their own progeny. On lawns, in open fields, on copses, and along the borders of woods, red-tufted shumach, wide-spreading chestnut, and many of the later trees, are all strong in leaf, and beech, paulownia and common willow are in flower. In flower near Walnut Lane Station is common ash; near Miles’ wood, sour gum; in upper Wissahickon, wild cherry, wild plum and white elm; near centre Wissahickon, persimmon.
For a reason I cannot satisfactorily explain, there are but few persimmon trees about Germantown. Some years ago there was a number of them near James Wright’s place on Wissahickon avenue, and occasionally one comes upon an odd tree in an out-of-the-way place, but generally the tree is here unknown. In New Jersey the tree is more plentiful, and on a botanical trip to Wildwood and Holly Beach taken by George Redles, Jacob Grieb and myself, several fine specimens heavy with frosted fruit were noted; and a few years ago while botanizing along the Chattahoochee river at “Sherman’s Crossing,” in Southern Georgia, I found persimmon to be one of the commonest trees there.
In kitchen gardens salad, radishes, rhubarb and their companions are ready for the table, and sweet peas, planted in faith, give promise to a merited reward.
Flower gardens are laden with bloom, and heavy with the odor of many trees and shrubs. Weigela, with rosy tubular flowers; sweet shrub, with heavy dark flowers; iris, or flower-de-luce, with gorgeous blue flowers, vie with each other in aiding nature to make each plot an “earthly paradise.” Roadsides and pastures are also heavy with bloom, and though this often is not as striking as that of the woodlands, it is quite as important and should receive deserving attention. Go where one may, new growing plants are seeking the light. Sour-grass, with red tufted heads; lance-leaved plantain, with slender spikes capped with lengthened tops not unlike “cat-tails” in miniature; broad-leafed plantain, whose flower spikes matured are know to children everywhere as “canary seed;” rocket, or winter cress, which in places has taken possession of the roadsides and fields, and in spots its yellow flowers are so dense that they appear like sunshine, as on a dark day it streams from a rifted cloud to spread upon a field; shepherd’s purse, with white flowers, humble, and like many a poor modest soul, appearing thankful that it is permitted to live; ground ivy, or gill-over-the-ground, trailing and blue, and very pretty while in flower; celandine, a usurper, and like many of his class crowding out others more worthy to make room for himself; hedge mustard, another of the same class, more common, but not so handsome; larger mouse-ear chickweed, rock cress, larger rock cress, all with white flowers and more or less inconspicuous; wood violet, with blue-bearded petals and dark green leaves; and the rather uncommon krigia, or dwarf dandelion, resembling the common dandelion In form and color, but is more delicate in growth, preferring sandy soil, and now in bloom near Chew’s wood, greet us everywhere.
And in marshy or damp places, leather wood, with ropes of cup- shaped flowers; mouse-ear chickweed, with small white flowers; ladies’ smock, with flowers varying from white to purple; cuckoo flower, white, and not unlike ladies’ smock, but of more sturdy growth; water cress, scarcely known to us by its flowers, but well known to us by its leaves, are all in bloom in many places. In running water, and along the edges of brooks, small flowering buttercup, bulbous buttercup, thick-leaved buttercup, water buttercup, all with yellow flowers, varying in size according to the variety, are in bloom.
The buttercups show a tendency to vary, and I have often thought it a promising plant to experiment with, though it is quite good enough as it is. This tendency to vary may be noted in both foliage and flower, and in some localities the departure from the original form seems to have become fixed. One of these localities is “Kitchen’s Hollow” in the Wissahickon, where on the brow of the hill, immediately in front of the “Monastery,” nearly all the buttercups have “double flowers.” In meadows also, squaw-weed, swamp stitchwort, pale violet, with petals varying from white to light blue, are in their prime.
Along Rabbit lane wood, in Wissahickon and other woods, dwarf huckleberry, thick with alabaster bloom; sweet-fern, draped with yellow catkins; choke-berry, almost hidden with white bloom, and numerous plants budding, are ready to maintain the succession, to keep the world ever bright.
In parts of the Wissahickon hound’s tongue, a rather rare plant in our territory, is now in leaf, and golden corydalis, another rare plant, is showing its bright yellow flowers on a rocky bank. On Rabbit lane may be collected wood betony, an unusually attractive plant, with beautiful leaves and curious yellow flowers; stagger-bush, with small white flowers resembling a huckleberry; bell-wort, a graceful festoon of drooping yellow flowers; larger bell-wort, much like the last, except that its leaves do not clasp the stem; sheep-berry, with bright clean aromatic leaves, about to burst into bloom.
The woods at all seasons are very attractive and beautiful to those who love them, but at no time are they more beautiful than now, when life in every form is most apparent, and the last vestige of winter has disappeared. We all, of course, have different tastes, and it is “good” that it is so, but one who knows the meaning of the “companionship of nature” possesses something which the world cannot take away, and which, when hopes and excitements give way to disappointment, is ever there, unfailingly, a “very friend in time of need.”
The wisteria, the beautiful lilac flowers of which now gaily decorate our porches, arbors and side walls, is of especial interest to us, because it was dedicated to a member of the well-known Wister family, many of whose members reside in our midst. Dr. Caspar Wistar, whom the plant commemorates, was a prominent Philadelphia surgeon, who became well known in a scientific way. There has been no little controversy about the spelling of the name, and while it is unquestioned it should be spelt with an “a,” it is also equally certain that the dedicator and the public never gave it, and we have Thomas Nuttall’s word for it that he named the plant wisteria because wistaria was not euphonious.
There has also been some confusion in regard to the plant’s discoverer, it being asserted by some that the plant was brought from China to America by Rober Fortune, a noted collector. The fact, however, is that the plant was long known, and incorrectly named, and is a good illustration of the subject with which our last week’s paper opened – the indistinctness of generic lines, and the over-lapping of the families of plants.
The wisteria in 1753, by Linneus, who was the father of scientific nomenclature, was classed as glycine frutescens. Thomas Nuttall, who discovered the error, and who according to an accepted rule had the right to re-classify it, named it for “Caspar Wistar, M.D., late professor of anatomy in the University of Pennsylvania, and for many years president of the American Philosophical Society; a philanthropist of simple manners, and modest pretensions, but an active promoter of science.”
These are Nuttall’s own words, published in 1818 in his “Genera of North American Plants,” and here he named the plant wisteria speciosa, crediting the name glycine to Wildenow, a German botanist. Next, in 1823, Jean L. M. Poiret, a French botanist, thinking he had something new, changed it to wisteria frutescens. This continued without molestation until 1891, when Edward Lee Greene, a California botanist, who should have been content to let well enough alone, in his paper “Pittonia” named it kraunlin frutescens, which has been accepted by the latest authorities, Britton and Brown, and so, according to techinque, wisteria is no more.
However, names once established, like boundary lines, are hard to obliterate, and for this generation, and for all time to come, let us hope wisteria, as it is written, shall stand.
Thomas Nuttall, who gave the plant the name we know, was well known in Germantown, and a frequent visitor here. In 1818 he gave a course of lectures upon botany at the Germantown Academy, and in other ways was closely associated with Germantown. He was a friend of Charles J. Wister, father of our present honored friend and fellow-citizen of the same name, and at “Grumblethorpe,” the home of both, he was a welcome guest, where the friend of the father became the friend of the son, who at a meeting of our Horticultural Society presented a few years ago his “memoir” of this most interesting and gifted man.
Oat. Avena Sativa.
Potato. Solanum Tuberosum.
Quaker Lady. Houstonia Caerulea.
Dandelion. Taraxacum dens-leonis.
Squaw-weed. Senecio aureus.
Early white magnolia. Magnolia conspicua.
Magnolia Soulangeana. Magnolia Soulangeana.
Magnolia Purpurea. Magnolia Purpurea.
Magnolia Gracilis. Mangolia Gracilis.
Magnolia Speciosa. Magnolia Speciosa.
Magnolia Fraseri. Magnolia Fraseri.
Black walnut. Juglans nigra.
Sumach. Rhus Toxicodendron.
Chestnut. Castanea vesca, var. Americana.
Beech. Fagus Ferruginea.
Empress tree. Paulownia Imperialis.
Paulownia. Paulownia Imperialis.
Common Willow. Salix Fragilis.
White ash. Fraxinus Americana.
Sour gum. Nyssa Multiflora.
Wild cherry. Prunus Serotina.
Wild Plum. Prunus Americana.
White Elm. Ulmus Americana.
Persimmon. Diospyros Virginiana.
Salad. Lactuca Sativa.
Lettuce. Lactuca Sativa.
Radish. Raphanus Sativus.
Rhubarb. Rheum Rhaponticom.
Sweet-pea. Pisum Sativum.
Weigela. Weigela Rosea.
Sweet-shrub. Calycanthus Floridus.
Iris. Iris Germanica.
Flower de luce. Iris Germanica.
Sour grass. Rumex acetosella,
Lance-leaved plantain. Plantago Lanceoalta.
Cat-tail. Typha Latifolia.
Broad-leaved plantain. Plantago Major.
Canary seed. Plantago Major.
Yellow Rocket. Barbarea Vulgaris.
Winter cress. Barbarea Vulgaris.
Shepherd’s Purse. Capsella Bursapastoris.
Ground Ivy. Nepta Glechoma.
Gill over the ground. Nepeta Glechoma.
Celandine. Chelldonium majus.
Hedge mustard. Sisymbrium Officinale.
Common Mouse ear chickweed. Cerastium Vulagtum.
Rock-cress. Arabis Laevigata.
Larger rock-cress. Arabis Hirsuta.
Wood violet. Viola Villosa.
Krigia. Krigia Virginica.
Dwarf Dandelion. Krigia Virginica.
Leather-wood. Cassandra Calyculata.
Mouse-ear chickweed. Cerastium arvense.
Ladies Smock. Candamine Pratensis.
Cuckoo flower. Cardamine Pratensis.
Water cress. Nasturtium officinale.
Small flowering buttercup. Ranunculus Abortivus.
Bulbous Buttercup. Ranunculus Bulbosus.
Thick leaved Buttercup. Ranunculus Pennsylvanicus.
Water Buttercup. Ranunculus Multifidus.
Common Buttercup. Ranunculus Acris.
Squaw-weed. Senecio Aureus.
Swamp Stitchwort. Stellaria Uliginosa.
Pale violet. Viola Striata.
Dwarf Huckleberry. Vaccinium Stamineum.
Sweet-fern. Myrica Asplenifolia.
Choke-berry. Pyrus Arbutifoila.
Hounds-tongue. Cynoglossum officinale.
Golden corydalis. Corydalis aurea.
Wood betony. Pedicularis Canadensis.
Stagger-bush. Andromeda Mariana.
Huckleberry. Gaylussacia Dumosa.
Large bell-wort. Uvalaria Perfoliata.
Slender bell-wort. Oakesia sessilifolia.
Sheep-berry. Viburnum Lentago.
Wisteria. Wisteria Speciosa.
Glycine Frutescens. Wisteria Speciosa.
Wisteria Speciosa. Wisteria Speciosa.
Wisteria Frutescens. Wisteria Speciosa.
Kraunlin Frutescens. Wisteria Speciosa.
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.”