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.
In an autumn mood, Edwin Jellett begins this week’s essay with a meditation on history and the passage of time. He notes, not without longing (as we still do), that the Germantown of old was a vibrant and independent town. He focuses on the once-active “intellectual colony” in the neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Penn and Main Streets (now Penn Street and Germantown Avenue).
Here today one can visit Grumblethorpe, and see some of the houses and properties he mentions, including Ivy Lodge at 29 East Penn Street, the Clarkson-Watson House at 5275 Germantown Avenue, and the historical marker commemorating Christopher Sauer, whose print shop once stood on the site of Trinity Lutheran Church at 2300 Germantown Avenue.
Via Ivy Lodge, Jellett transitions to the subject of oak trees, which he has intentionally delayed until autumn when his readers can appreciate of their mature leaves, acorns and fall color.
Awbury Arboretum is now a great place to view oak trees. There are several worthy specimens, including large Quercus lyrata (overcup oak) and Q. robur (English oak) on the ridge over looking the meadow. In wooded areas there are hundreds of oaks growing in concert with other woody species and providing habitat and food for birds and small mammals.
Recently Awbury has undertaken a comprehensive tree survey of its 3,000-plus trees. While this is still in progress, we have documented at least 136 individual oaks greater than 10 inches DBH (diameter at breast height), including many that are more than 100 inches. At least 11 Quercus (oak) species have been identified:
Oaks on the ridge at Awbury Arboretum, 2016. Photo credit: Claudia Levy
Q. alba (white oak)
Q. bicolor (swamp white oak)
Q. coccinea (scarlet oak)
Q. imbricaria (shingle oak)
Q. lyrata (overcup oak)
Q. macrocarpa (burr oak)
Q. montana (chestnut oak)
Q. palustris (pin oak)
Q. phellos (willow oak)
Q. robur (English oak)
Q. rubra (red oak)
Q. velutina (black oak)
Also numerous red and black oak hybrids.
Edwin C. Jellett – October 16, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
Ignoring the poets’ scale, we are so constituted that the past we naturally make perfect, forgetting or imagining that if evil existed, it occupied no important place. A student of history knows that time moves to higher planes and better things, that retrogression in a large sense is an impossibility. Evil, active and omnipresent, is a force to offset and stimulate, and seems necessary to the highest development of its opposing force. Without contrasts there can be no comparisons, and sin and virtue with no difference are equal. Principles without action are dead, and cowardice and justice, if not enemies, are strangers. “Good old times” there were, and in us their spirits “live and move and have their being,” if not perfected, at least purified.
This train of thought was prompted by a late remark that “culture is a thing we read about,” and that “in Germantown it no longer exists.” Now, what culture is we shall not discuss, but to place it we shall briefly present a small section of our town, which by either the inductive or deductive method we may without argument discover its past and present existence.
Not in my memory, but in the memory of many with us, Germantown was an active town, complete within and depending upon Itself, with lines distinct, it doing its work as though the existence of a nearby city of which it now forms a part did not concern it. Among the prominent citizens of this period were John Jay Smith, Samuel Harvey, Charles J. Wister and Philip R. Freas. Following them were Thomas Meehan, Lloyd P. Smith, John Foster Kirk and many others well known to the present generation. Between the two groups thus indicated John Jay Smith and Philip R. Freas were the connecting links, and while the venerable sage of Ivy Lodge was writing his farewell paper for the Gardeners’ Monthly, and the “veteran” editor through the columns of the Germantown Telegraph was spreading his knowledge throughout the entire United States, Thomas Meehan was writing “The Flowers and Ferns of the United States,” the most ambitious work of its kind in America; John Foster Kirk was directing Lippincott’s Magazine, and other writers well known to me were contributing to the best literature of the day.
The Clarkson-Watson House, original structure circa 1744, was the country home of Matthew Clarkson, who was the mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1996. Thomas Jefferson resided here during the yellow fever epidemic in 1793. It housed the Bank of Germantown during the 19th century when John Fanning Watson was the clerk of the bank. Photo: Jack Ramsdale 2010
For the present this larger field is beyond our purpose, and we shall restrict ourselves to the neighborhood of Main and Penn streets, and endeavor to progressively note the culture of a fragment of Germantown. While Charles J. Wister, the gifted, popular owner of “Grumblethorpe,” was making the little world which circled about him more bright and pleasant, writing poetry for the pleasure of his friends, delivering lectures at the Germantown Academy, and building a character for whole-souled geniality, which yet lives to wield an influence in the memory of his survivors, two doors above him John Fanning Watson, a nature lover, a gardener and grower of flowers, was writing the “Philadelphia Bible,” and at the farther end of “Cottage Row” Daniel B. Smith, at one time a prominent druggist, long president of Haverford School or College, widely know as a line botanist, a teacher of chemistry in his own college, author of “The Principles of Chemistry,” was in the fullness of time enjoying a well-earned rest, and waiting contentedly for the setting of the sun.
Succeeding Daniel B. Smith was his son, who conducted a select school, and succeeding Charles J. Wister was Charles J. Wister, Jr., who with us and his accomplishments known to all, is everywhere beloved.
The Christopher Sauer house and print shop, 1859, Photo: Library of Congress
Immediately below “Grumblethorpe” was Christopher Saur’s house and shop, buildings which in course of time came into possession of Charles J. Wister and were replaced by the stone house now occupied by George B. Warder. In this house long dwelt Dr. Owen J. Wister and his wife, the daughter of Fanny Kemble. Here also lived Owen Wister, the present well-known writer. In this same house, after her removal from Penn street, lived Hannah Whitall Smith, the writer of many religious tracts and books, and here stopped Justin Macarthy, the author of the popular “History of Our Own Times.” Here also Walt Whitman frequently visited, recited his “poetry,” and joined in classic song, and strangely following, here under Moses Brown, meetings of the Single Tax Society were for several years held, and thanks be to providence that the issue was one, for had there been more, we all surely had been with the “weary at rest.”
On one corner of Main and Penn streets lived a descendant of John Bartram, and on the other Lloyd P. Smith, editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, author, and the Logonian successor in the Philadelphia Library. On Penn street, opposite Ivy Lodge, lived Thomas MacKellar, who after wards lived at Penn and Baynton streets, printer, publisher, author and writer of several books of creditable verses. On Penn street lived Mrs. Willing, the daughter of John F. Watson, whose beautiful place was but recently changed; John T. Roberts, writer and lecturer upon his peculiar theories; Francis Rawle, lawyer, teacher and publicist; William Kershaw, the present efficient head of the Germantown Academy; Stewartson Brown, the active and capable curator of the botanical section of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences; B. Frank Harper, lawyer, student and one of the most thorough and capable members of the City History Club; William T. Richards, one of the best known of American artists, whose realistic “Marines” entitled him to justly succeed James Hamilton in this particular department of art; Mrs. Wetherill, active in church work, whose family, owner of the famous “Wetherill Farms,” built the first “Union Church” in the lower Perkiomen district, and present owner of historic Millgrove, where Audubon spent his youth, first studied and collected birds, and where, as Charles Wetherill told me, the evidences of his work are yet apparent. Perhaps we have given enough to exhibit our measure, but the end is not yet, and one might go throughout Germantown in much the same way with profit. On Baynton street, beyond Thomas Mackellar’s, lived Edward H. Coates, president of the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts; Florence Earle Coates, whose beautiful lines are known wherever our best magazines circulate, the friend and hostess of Matthew Arnold, who upon two visits to America honored her, and here became her guest, a writer whose pen I am pleased to say continues active; Dr. Henry Hartshorne, a celebrated physician, a voluminous writer, a poet, and a missionary who, in faraway Japan, passed away in the midst of his work; Anna C. Hartshorne, his daughter, teacher, traveller and author of a recent important work, “Japan and Her People;” and Herbert Welsh, artist, orator, author, a voluminous writer, a publisher and editor, founder of the Indian Rights Society and City and State, a reformer whose force is felt throughout the length and breadth of our country.
So we might continue, but success which is not conquest, but unswerving devotion to duty, and culture which is not an acquirement, but the proper exercise of the best within us, has, I think, been sufficiently presented.
In the midst of this active intellectual colony is “Ivy Lodge,” and here long dwelt John Jay Smith, the one-time editor of the “Horticulturist,” the author of many books, and translator of Michaux’s “Forest Trees of North America,” a most important work of F. Andreas Michaux in four volumes, and completed in three additional volumes by Thomas Nuttall. John Jay Smith and his garden to a certain extent at least is known to us, the friend of Bernard McMahon, A.J. Downing, Thomas Meehan and their contemporaries, as well as the confidant and active supporter of R. Robinson Scott, the last of the Darby road group we have endeavored to bring before you.
The Michauxs, both father and son, were accomplished botanists, and came to America in the interests of the French Government. Both spent considerable time in Philadelphia and made many friends, a particular friend being William Bartram, to whom 1 have referred. Andreas Michaux, the father, came to America in 1785, and established a nursery in Bergen county, N.J., wherein to store the collections of his travels, and prepare same for shipment abroad. A letter of his I have, which shows his hold upon English and his frankness of character, I herewith present in full:
New York, April 20th 1786
Sir—Amongst the timber you have sent to me there are several pieces not fit to be received, some of the wood being heated and some being nothing else but the sap or softest part of the wood. I should not like to send it back to you, on account of the expence it would put you to, but I cannot receive any except such which is good and fit for solid construction. Be pleased to send me the account of the boards and po’es you have supplyed me with, for the garden as well as the account of the flower-pots, because my intention is not to make new demands or receive anything else before I have acquited those already made. I am Sir
Your most obediant Servant, To. A. Michaux. General Dayton Elizabeth-Town.
Andreas Michaux returned to France, and in 1801 published there his “Oaks of America,” and after his death his “Flora Borealis Americana,” published in 1803, appeared. F. Andreas Michaux, his son, was also a traveller, and as we have seen a writer, for a time active in Philadelphia scientific circles. Returning to France, he in 1810 published “History of the Forest Trees of North America,” a work we have referred to, and in translation issued as “North American Sylva.”
Quercus macrocarpa from Andre Michaux, “The Oaks of North America,” 1801
From the Michauxs we naturally pass to oaks, and those native to our own and adjacent territory we shall attempt to outline, one not being able to satisfactorily do more, for study of value must be done in the fields, under proper supervision, and the exact knowledge required for the mastery of special groups of plants is of no more use to an average amateur than the possession of Greek or a grasp of the theory of fluxions is to a trolley driver.
I have delayed the presentation of oaks until now for several reasons. Oaks are most easily recognized by their mature leaves and acorns, and in spring, when they show at the axils of freshly starting leaves their small inconspicuous flowers, and above long strings of tasselled catkins, they to both the superficial and practiced observer are much alike. In autumn, in addition to their robust maturity, oaks change to beautiful shades of color, and contribute largely to the glory of the American forest. Several years ago Thomas Meehan wrote, “Although the great beauty of the oak is in its foliage and habits of growth, a large number of them have additional charms in the fall of the year by reason of the brilliant colors of the foliage. It is remarkable that nearly every American oak will change to some peculiar shade of brilliancy, from lemon to yellow or deep crimson, while the species from Europe will die away of a green color.”
Quercus alba from Andre Michaux, “The Oaks of North America,” 1801
At one time one of the best places to study oaks was “Michaux Grove,” already noted, but from its specimens the labels once there to guide have disappeared. The best place I know now is Meehans’ Nurseries, where I spent many an early Sunday morning striving to improve the “shining hour.” But plants under cultivation cannot be considered native, and only those which appear spontaneously will be presented.
Our list is as follows: Chinquapin, or dwarf chestnut oak; bear, or black scrub oak; bur, or mossy-cup oak; chestnut oak; post, rough, box white, or iron oak; black jack, or barren oak; turkey oak; red oak; willow oak; laurel, or shingle oak; pin, or swamp oak; scarlet oak; quercitron, yellow barked, or black oak; Spanish oak; yellow chestnut oak; swamp white oak; white oak, and Bartram’s oak.
Chinquapin, or dwarf chestnut oak, is a low shrub like plant growing to a height of 4 feet, having wavy-edged leaves, a plant common near Winslow, N.J., and by specialists said to be a variety of yellow chestnut oak, a plant with long unnotched full leaves, which rises to the dignity of a tree. Bear, or scrub oak, is a straggling shrub rising to a height of 8 feet, covered with thick leaves of dark green, and usually producing an abundance of acorns, a plant common throughout the pine barrens of New Jersey, and with us appearing upon the “projection of New Jersey” crossing the Wissahickon Creek, below Kitchen’s lane. Bur, or mossy cup oak, is a handsome tree of good shape, with deeply notched leaves, producing many acorns, a tree not common, but of wide distribution. Chestnut oak, a common medium sized tree in open places, but a high grower in the Wissahickon woods, where it grows plentifully near the site of “pipe bridge.” Post, rough, iron, or box white oak, is common near Millville, N.J. It Is a strong grower, rising to a height of 40 feet, is covered with large deeply cut leaves, and produces a very .hard wood, which gives it its various common names, a tree which if permitted to develop naturally curves its lower branches to the ground and above forms a symmetrical pyramidal head. Black jack, a barren oak, is a medium grower rising to a height of 25 feet, a common tree near Hammonton, N.J., and of which growing near Vineland of the same district is a distinct dwarf variety, highly valued by Joseph Meehan, and which he first noted upon a botanical outing there. Turkey oak is a rare tree, which grows plentifully enough near Hammonton, N.J. It is a large handsome tree bearing extremely variable leaves, and was first shown me by William F. Bassett, to whom and also to his son, Frank, both acute botanists, I am indebted. Red oak is a strong grower, and a finely shaped tree, rising to a height of 90 feet where favorably located, a common well-known tree. Willow oak usually grows to a height of 30 or 40 feet, but in Washington there is a specimen 11 feet in circumference and 70 feet in height. It is one of our most attractive trees, and it is recorded that it was the favorite tree of Thomas Jefferson. This tree is common in cultivation, but grows naturally in southern New Jersey, and numerous places elsewhere. It takes its name from its leaves, which resemble those of the willow. Laurel, or shingle oak, is a stout growing tree, rising ordinarily to a height of 40 feet, bearing plain oblong laurel-like unnotched leaves, a tree appearing throughout portions of New Jersey, and as its name indicates is largely used for the making of shingles.
Quercus palustris from Andre Michaux, “The Oaks of North America,” 1801
Pin, or swamp oak, is one of our finest trees, a quick grower, having a tendency to droop its branches, and altogether a desirable plant, and is well known Id cultivation. There is a fine specimen of pin oak growing in Independence Square, Philadelphia, and along the centre of Pennsylvania avenue, east of the National Capitol, there is a fine row of these striking trees. Scarlet oak is a strong growing, finely shaped tree common to our fields and woods. It rises to a height of 80 feet, is clothed with deeply cut leaves, which turn to red in autumn to give the tree its name. Quercitron, yellow barked, or black oak, is considered a variety of scarlet oak, which in many respects it resembles, the principal observable difference being in the bark of the trunk. Spanish oak is usually a straggly open grower, but in places it produces a head as regular as that of a red or a black oak. It is a Southern tree, extending as far north as Philadelphia. A specimen, and the northernmost native one recorded, was shown me by Joseph Meehan on George’s Hill, not far from the site of the walnut memorial trees planted by Washington and Lafayette. Swamp white oak is a tree growing to a great height, and common in swamps or in wet ground, like pin oak producing an erect heavy trunk, studded with heavy close branches. There is a very fine specimen of this tree in Washington Square. White oak, one of our commonest trees, as well as one of our most impressive, its entire outline giving an impression of great strength, closely resembles the well-known live-oak of the South. The tree builds a heavy trunk, and throws out wide-spreading cumbersome branches, which sometimes cover an immense area. Ordinarily the tree is heavy and often squatty, but there is a specimen near Camden 20 feet in circumference and 75 feet high, with a spread of 70 feet, and at the Friends’ grounds at Salem, N.J., there is a notable specimen with a spread of 150 feet. The finest specimen I know near home grows at “One Oak,” the residence of my brother, Stewart A. Jellett, on grounds once a part of Fern Hill estate, this tree giving name to the place.
There are many other oaks “introduced,” which we shall pass, and there are several “varieties” of native oaks, but these with only one exception will not be considered. Bartram’s oak, specimens of which in Bartram’s garden long puzzled botanists, is now known to be a hybrid, and is supposed to result from a “cross” between red oak and willow oak. For a long time no duplicate of this tree could be found, and it remained for Thomas Meehan to rediscover it in New Jersey, where it is now to be found generally distributed. Thomas Meehan once wrote, “It is not generally known, though botanists are well acquainted with the fact, that some oaks take over it year to mature their acorns.” With some varieties the flowers when fertilized rest for a season, and develop to maturity the following season. Only the sections classed as white oaks go through the whole process from fertilization to maturity the same season. Of those that are native to the Atlantic States are white oak, scrub oak, mossy-cup oak, swamp white oak, chestnut oak, dwarf chestnut oak and live oak. All the other species take two seasons to perfect their acorns.
The few additional plants in bloom waiting upon us we shall hold, to note an extremely rare fern which several years ago George Redles discovered in “the Wissahickon” near “old red bridge.” Go where I may, there is no place so much to me as the Wissahickon woods, and ever while there, or away with it in mind, I am thankful for the treasures nestling in its hills. The rare fern referred to is climbing fern, once a common plant in southern New England, but now there rare, a plant also native to portions of New Jersey, but nowhere plenty.
Oaks on the ridge at Awbury Arboretum, 2016. Photo credit: Claudia Levy
Climbing fern is a long, twining, delicately formed beautiful plant, and is doubtless known to all, it at one time being largely used for decoration, especially for the beautifying of churches at Christmas, a fitting illustration and warning that the love of beauty which we each possess must be held under control, for beauty is in the mind, and all love mis-centered leads to self-gratification to the exclusion of nature’s purposes, for the “letter killeth,” while the “spirit” natural maketh whole.
Chinquapin. Quercus Prinus, var. Humilis. Dwarf chestnut oak. Quercus Primus, var. Humilis. Bear oak. Quercus Ilicifolia. Black scrub oak. Quercus Ilicifolia. Bur oak. Quercus Macrocarpa. Mossy cup oak. Quercus Macrocarpa. Chestnut oak. Quercus Prinos. Post oak. Quercus Stellata. Rough oak. Quercus Stellata. Box white oak. Quercus Stellata. Iron oak. Quercus Stellata. Black Jack oak. Quercus Nigra. Barren oak. Quercus Nigra. Turkey oak. Quercus Cerris. Red oak. Quercus Rubra. Willow oak. Quercus Phellos. Laurel oak. Quercus Imbricata. Shingle oak. Quercus Imbricata. Pin oak. Quercus Palustris. Swamp oak. Quercus Palustris. Scarlet oak. Quercus Coccinea. Quercitron oak. Quercus Coccinea, var. Tinctoria. Yellow barked oak. Quercus Coccinea, var. Tinctoria. Black oak. Quercus Coccinea, var. Tinctoria. Spanish oak. Quercus Falcata. Yellow chestnut oak. Quercus Prinos, var. Acuminata. Swamp white oak. Quercus Bicolor. White oak. Quercus Alba. Bartram oak Quercus Heterophylla. Black oak. Quercus Nigra. Pin oak. Quercus Palustris. Live oak. Quercus Virens. Climbing fern. Lygodium Palmatum.
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.”