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.
Edwin C. Jellett – October 2, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
Locally we are so accustomed to our own familiar haunts that without care an enthusiast may become shell-bound, for appreciation without regulation may obscure to us treasures beyond. The loudest speaker nor the longest writer is not always the surest guide, and an observing person at home or abroad is of necessity a liberal-minded one.
History of any kind is not a book, nor a collection of dates or events. A record is but a superficial index of the historic stream, which from “chaos to cosmos” is flowing through the ages an unstemable current, finding its origin, its energy and its consummation in the divine purpose.
Narrowed to a locality we stunt ourselves, for while we are blessed with much we have not all, and to properly light our present subject we shall present briefly so much of a contributing connection as appertains of interest.
From Darby to Conestoga road, now Market street, Darby road, our neighbor in mind, is crowded with memories, but we shall pass without stopping Blue-bell Tavern, St. James Church, Rising Sun Run, Sorrel Horse Tavern, Kingsessing School, and other one-time familiar landmarks, to inspect more closely a few spots which more directly concern us, and to properly place a few, who, beginning here, eventually found their way to Germantown.
From the days of Bartram and Marshall to the present time Darby road has been a busy highway, a developing place for florists and nurserymen, a residence and rendezvous for owners of fine gardens and naturalists. Through Darby to Bartram Garden came Humphrey Marshall, the author of “Arbustum Americanum,” the first American botanical work written by a native, to a visit to his relative, John Bartram, the founder of the famous botanical garden, a noted botanist and collector, and the author of “Travels from Pennsylvania to Onondago,” and “Description of East Florida.” William Bartram, his son, a fine botanist and ornithologist, a traveller who explored what is now a portion of the Southern United States, and whose book, “Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida,” embodies and perpetuates his work, here was born, long lived and in the Bartram mansion died. To Bartram Garden, Alexander Wilson, William Bartram’s friend and frequent companion, came; here under Nancy Bartram he received his first instruction in drawing, and here while writing his “American Ornithology” he came to consult both teacher and friend.
Bartram Garden is always interesting, and for many reasons. Although never a great botanical garden, it, in spite of the criticism of Washington, was worthy the fame it has received, and in some respects is beyond comparison in its associations. From the time of John Bartram to the present day there is hardly a native or visiting scientist of note who in some way is not connected with it, or at least has visited it. Christopher Witt and Benjamin Franklin; Washington and many colonial personages of note; John Lyon, a celebrated plant collector, and Frederick Pursh, a gifted traveller and writer, both at different periods in charge of the “Woodlands,” now Woodland Cemetery, long the finest garden on Darby road; Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, who here brought his botany classes from the University; Andre Michaux, whose “Oaks of North America” is a monumental work; David Douglas, a visitor to America, who in 1834 lost his life accidentally; Dr. S.P.C. Barton, botanical teacher and writer; Dr. William Darlington, of West Chester, a most important man and botanical writer, to Dr. Asa Gray and Thomas Meehan, both of whom we are familiar with, to our present-day botanical teachers, Dr. John M. MacFarlane, Prof. John W. Harshberger and Prof. Stewardson Brown, and including Joseph Meehan and George Redles, two of our most thorough and practical botanists.
From Bartram Garden to the east is the Seckle farm with its original Seckle pear tree, and here it is where Alexander Wilson for the last time swam the Schuylkill river, for being unwell be overtaxed his strength and developed a fever which resulted fatally. To the north nearby is the birthplace of Thomas Say, a good all-round naturalist, the author of “American Entomology,” an active man in the development of Philadelphia nature study; and beyond it is the grounds of David and Cuthbert Landreth, the pioneers of the seed trade in America. To the west is William Hamilton’s “Woodlands,” celebrated for its beauties and its rarities, where first in America gingo or salisburia trees were planted, and where very early Lombard poplar trees appeared.
William De Hart, to whom I am indebted for much concerning the Darby road naturalists, lived all of a long life upon the pike opposite Bartram Garden, in a choice spot where his own garden, noted for its collection of rare plants, was frequently visited by those who loved flowers, and who desired to share its owner’s knowledge and enthusiasm. His recollections of William Bartram I have heretofore in outline given, so that I pass to Alexander Wilson, who for a time opposite the De Hart residence boarded with Maximilian Leech, who later moved, and his boarder with him, to a house which until recently stood near the bridge in the hollow. For a time Wilson boarded at the “Sorrel Horse,” but Leech’s house is of interest to me, because from here he, in 1804, started upon his trip to Niagara. This house stood nearly opposite Kingsessing School, and Mrs. William De Hare, yet living, here attended with Wilson Leech, the namesake of Alexander Wilson. It is also of interest that Mrs. Joseph Meehan, well known to many of us, attended this school. All of us, I think, are familiar with the oft quoted lines,
“Till through old Germantown we lightly trod,
That skirts for three long miles the narrow road;
And rising Chestnut Hill around surveyed,
Wide woods below in vast extent displayed.
Studded with glittering farms, the distant view
Died into mighty clouds and mountains blue,”
but not so many of us know “The Foresters,” written by Wilson, from which they are taken, and but few know anything of the companions who accompanied Wilson on this long tramp. They were Isaac Leech, the son of Maximilian, and William Duncan, the master of Milestown School. The chronicler records:
“Three cheerful partners: Duncan was the guide,
Young, gay, active, to the forest tried;
Next Leech advanced with youthful sash unfurled,
Fresh on his maiden course to see the world:
The air was mild, the woods embrowned and dry,
Soft, mild-eyed Indian summer ruled the sky,
Such was the realm when equipt we stood
On the green banks of Schuylkill’s winding flood,
Bound on a tour wide northern forests through,
And bade our parting friends a short adieu.”
The season and the men are before us, and shortly we shall follow to Germantown with other Darby road workers, who were unlike the trio named, and had other ambitions.
After the disappearance of the Bartrams there were many gardeners, florists and nurserymen on Darby road, names which readily come to mind being John Dick, William K. Harris, and several others of later date, but the oldest and most important was Rosedale, the nursery of Robert Buist. Robert Buist was a Scotchman, a plant grower with an international reputation, a writer of several books of recognized worth, a vestryman of nearby St. James Church, and a friend to all, especially of “old country” gardeners, who on coming to Philadelphia invariably visited his place in search of employment, among the number being William Saunders, Thomas Meehan, William Bright and R. Robinson Scott, with whom all nature lovers should be familiar.
As “one swallow does not make a summer,” so one “sere and yellow leaf” dropping does not make a “fall,” and the reappearance of warm weather after cold, watery, unseasonable days, revives our hopes and helps to ripen the corn. Now in the early evening glow-worm, which is not a worm at all, but an insect with a fairy lamp, sparkles in the grass; phosphorus, like the subdued glow of an electric light in a fog, makes luminous rotten logs bordering ponds and streams, which are discovered by late venturesome swimmers; overhead bats erratically circle in the twilight glimmer, while the toads and katydids, which earlier keep to the woods, have increased, and their quivering harmonies may now be heard about home.
In grass near streams the once dull stupid tadpole has “cut his teeth,” and now in long strides bounds from place to place to try his legs; crickets and grasshoppers creep lazily in the undergrowth, or, climbing far to see the world, sway upon bending stalks; sour-gum tree has put on its gorgeous coat of red, appearing like a “swell” among neighborly though shabby maples. The bag-worm swinging high has built its home wherein to lay its eggs and die before it ever sees its young, and the leaf-roller has already twisted its tube, and, safely housed, is curled within. Practically, now is the time to remove cocoons, for it is not a little absurd to wash, paint, oil, or be-cotton trunks of trees, when the insect which lays the eggs has wings, and the caterpillars on the ground are only the few which have fallen down. The blue herons in the Wissahickon crown the highest trees, and stretching long their necks look down upon the chilly waters and debate whether it is time to leave. Already the blue grackle speeds his way in the early evening, heading for the roost at Awbury. A few stray crows dart from tree to tree, or in imagined safety flit across open fields to inspect the prospects, and silently, for the present, disappear.
The season’s signs are abundant though the sun be bright and the weather warm, but the zenith has been reached, and though the mole runs his tunnelled course to a chambered nest, and the field mouse sports in hospital grain; though muskrats gambol in Wissahickon waters, and dart for cavernous retreats upon a footfall; though ladybugs, June bugs, with other preying bugs innumerable, and with yellow jacks, wasps, hornets, bees and other busy workers rest or labor, they will do so for but a short time, for life is on the ebb, and the neap tide will sweep all to the sea beyond.
Life is always a mystery, and now that we have reached the borderland of bloom with but few plants in front of us, I wonder what it means. Many years ago, in a lecture, Thomas Meehan declared that “variety is the first law of nature,” and if it be not this it certainly is a most important law. But mark you, a law, or the law, is but an expression of something existing beneath. Once in the midst of nature beauties, a scientific enthusiast told me he was an atheist, declaring that all life is “evolved,” and is the natural increase of cell life. I said this, and nothing more, “Mr. X, if you will tell me where the first cell came from, I will vote with you.” His answer was, “Well, that sometimes bothers me.” But why dim an inherited vision which every child possesses, and why let conceit obscure the most palpable truth in nature?
Gardens continue a thing of beauty, and one who keeps pace with the superb array of bloom everywhere dominant is surprised and delighted with the resplendent, exuberant vigor, yellow flowering abutilons’ contrasting with large red flowering poppies; dahlias in variety of striking colors endeavouring to outshine the gorgeous assemblage of golden flowering companions; sunflowers in many varieties, with lower stature coreopsis, petunias, phlox, marigolds, plain, and variegated leaved funkias, with coleus flowering inconspicuously, but now, contrary to the usual practice, gorged with color, bronze, deep red or in combinations, or variety, infinite.
In old gardens, as well as in select fields, blackberry lily continues to bloom, and a most attractive and interesting plant it is. Also in bloom is Jerusalem artichoke, or earth-apple, a plant with rough stems and leaves, appearing like a sunflower, to which family it belongs, once widely grown for its tubers, but now appearing only in old-fashioned places. Now autumn crocus is in bloom, with plain bare lilac or white flowers, the sturdy smooth leaves which develop early in the spring having, according to nature, disappeared, leaving the flowers to take care of themselves. This practice is one common to many plants, particularly of bulbous plants and orchids, plants such as narcissus and hyacinths among bulbs, and puttyroot and crane fly orchis among orchids. Other soft wooded plants also have this habit, the leaves disappearing after flowering, among this class being obolaria and lungwort.
It is this wonderful variation which makes the study of botany of never failing interest, for no matter how much one learns an unknown, unconquerable ocean of wonder is forever before him. Variegation in plants, if not always, is usually a sign of weakness, resulting from a defect, and is perpetuated by propagation. Although plants appear variegated naturally, these, if left to themselves, dwindle and disappear, while many familiar striped plants, if richly fed, increase in vigor and become green. There are, of coarse, exceptions to this rule, a notable one being the panicums, or variegated grasses, but even these lose their distinctness under a generous diet.
Plants in many ways resemble human beings, and as between ourselves and other sections of the animal kingdom we may notice outward resemblance, so certain characteristics of the vegetable kingdom remind us of traits common to every-day observation. We all know “Elizabeth and her German Garden,” but in this same direction I know nothing more clever than “Lovely Mary,” and her “Denominational Garden,” which all flower lovers should read. But not this so much as other alikes have I in mind, for our own constitutional weaknesses appear in a measure to reside in plants. Peanuts preferring dry ground cannot well stand wet ground. Shade loving plants cannot be brought to perfection in the sun. High colors lose their brightness in a place unsuitable for their maintenance. Aquatic plants like fish made for water flourish, but drainage loving plants are no more able to stand wet feet than bipeds of higher station. A tree lofty and strong may seem a giant, but if abused it quickly shows wear. A fair illustration of this may be seen to the rear of Wingohocken Station. This ground in its mill-dam days was a wooded grove, with weeping willow and buttonwood trees bordering the water. When the dam was drained, the stream housed, and the ground graded, deep hollows were left between the newly made street and the hillside wood. These depressions were filled about the trees, the “crowns” in some cases being covered to a depth of 8 or 10 feet, and as I expected the trees at once began to sicken, and one by one to die. Now of the many not a specimen of the buttonwood trees survive, and the weeping willows continuing are a sorry looking lot, some being dead at the top. The weeping willow is the hardiest tree I know, but here the strain of the unnatural struggle for existence is too evident.
The present, if not the best, at least is a favorable time to study ferns, for all are mature. Our early developing varieties, such as royal flowering fern and the like, are, of course, past, but the later aspleniums and aspidiums are vigrorous and bright. These we shall now present, and the remaining native varieties at a later time. Our best known asplenium is ebony spleen-wort, a common plant along roadsides and fences, and in fact in dry situations everywhere. It has a long narrow leaf or frond, with a dark bony mid-support, lined almost throughout its entire length with small narrow pinules or sub-divisions. Dwarf spleen-wort is, as its name indicates, a very small plant, and may be found on the under side of cool shelving rocks in the Wissahickon woods. Narrow leaved spleen-wort is a handsome fern growing to 3 feet in height, and is common to nearly all swampy places in dark rich woods. Lady fern is extremely variable, a plant growing from 1 to 3 feet in height, and heavily fruited, common to swampy places. Silvery spleen-wort is another swamp variety, which also appears in moist rich woods. It may be known by the silvery covering to the bark of its fruited leaves. Aspidiums “in their prime” are New York fern, a plant common along flat streams and in marshy places; marsh shield fern, a plant closely resembling a New York fern, and usually growing with it, and from which it may be distinguished by its minute fruit dots; shield fern, or wood-fern, a handsome fern, growing in rich woods, especially in the Wissahickon woods, where it may be seen near the Devil’s Pool; crested shield fern, a swamp variety, with oval-shaped leaves, and rather scarce. Once native to Brush wood, and if there will not stop much longer; and Goldie’s fern, one of our handsomest native plants, a rare fern which appears sparingly in the Wissahickon, where George Redles first discovered a “locality” for it.
Wall-rue spleen wort is said to appear in our territory, but a long search has failed to reveal it, and I mention it so that others may be on the alert. John H. Redfield once wrote me that it had been collected at Spring-mill, but many searches there have so far resulted in failure.
Following in the tracks of the “foresters,” we are again at Germantown, and from Loudoun we rapidly pass the imposing front of William Adamson’s, the storm beaten plane trees of George M. Wagner’s, and the once magnificent old-fashioned home and garden of John S. Henry, a garden now altered and in part built upon, to stop at the site of the “Roe-buck Inn.”
Now in bloom in dry places in parts of New Jersey is kuhnia, a plant closely allied to the bonesets, and sometimes called false boneset, a member of the large family of compositae. It is a perennial plant growing to a height of 3 feet, having alternate leaves, and bearing panicled heads of cream-colored flowers. I do not know that the plant appears in our territory, but it is of interest to us, because it was dedicated to Dr. Adam Kuhn, a native of Germantown.
Adam Kuhn was born in the year 1741, and so far as I have been able to determine, his birthplace was the Joseph Shippen home, a building which later became a favorite tavern, the site of which is now covered by the spacious stone mansion of William Heft. In the year 1747 Kuhn’s father removed to Lancaster, where, in addition to professional duties, he served in a public capacity, and gave instruction to his son in medicine. At Lancaster Kuhn studied until 1761, when he left for abroad. In 1762 we find him enrolled at the University of Upsala, where he for two years studied under Carl Von Linne, the famous naturalist. Following the accustomed route of American medical students abroad, Kuhn proceeded from Upsala to Edinburgh to complete his studies and graduate. In 1768 he returned to Philadelphia, where he at once became prominent in medical work, active in society, lived long, and, respected and honored, died in the year 1817.
This in outline is the progress of Adam Kuhn. Although never prominently identified with Germantown, he is of special interest to us because of the Linnean dedication noted, and also because, so far as known, he was the first regular teacher of botany of America, he in the year 1769 being elected to the chair of botany in the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania, where for 21 successive years he gave a course of lectures upon this important branch of natural science.
We have produced much of importance to ourselves and the outside world. Among the good let us include the character, knowledge, skill and charity of one born with us, and also that of William Shippen, the first lecturer upon anatomy in America, who for several years lived at Main street and Walnut lane, and there died in the year 1808.
If we cannot originate, we have much of worth to imitate, and though we may no longer be “pioneers,” let us at least strive to be worthy successors of those who struggled for our instruction and honor.
Seckle pear. Pyrus Communis.
Phosphorus. Agaricus Melleus.
Sour-gum tree. Nyssa Multifiora.
Silver maple. Acer Dasycarpum.
Yellow flowering abutilon. Abutilon Megapotmicum.
Red flowering poppy. Papaver Rhoeas.
Dahlia. Dahlia Variabilis.
Coreopsis. Coreopsis Lanceolata.
Petunia. Petunia Violacea.
Phlox. Phlox Drumondli.
Marigold. Calendula Officinalis.
Plain leaved fucshia. Funkia Lancifolia.
Variegated fucshia. Funkia Undulata Variegata.
Coleus. Coleus Blumei.
Blackberry lily. Belamcanda Chinensis.
Jerusalem artichoke. Helianthus Tuberosus.
Earth-apple. Helianthus Tuberosus.
Sun-flower. Helianthus Annuus.
Autumn crocus. Colchicum Autumnale.
Narcissus. Narcissus Polvanthos.
Hyacinth. Hyacinthus Orientalis.
Putty-root. Aplectrum Hiemale.
Crane fly orchis. Tipularia Discolor.
Obolaria. Obolaria Virginica.
Lung-wort. Mertensia Virginica.
Panicum. Panicum Variegatum.
Weeping willow. Salix Babylonica.
Buttonwood tree. Platanus Occidentalis.
Ebony spleen-wort. Asplenium Ebeneum.
Dwarf spleen-wort. Asplenium Tricomanes.
Narrow leaved spleen-wort. Asplenium Angustifolium.
Lady-fern. Asplenium Felix foemina.
Silvery spleen-wort. Asplenium Thelypteroides.
New York fern. Aspldium Noveboracense.
Marsh shield fern. Aspidium Noveboracense.
Shield fern. Aspidium Thelypteris.
Crested shield fern. Aspidium Cristatum.
Goldie’s fern. Aspidium Goldianum.
Wall rue spleen-wort. Aspidium Rutamiraria
Kuhnia. Kuhnia Eupatoriodes.
False boneset. Kuhnia Eupatoriodes.
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.”