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.
Click here to visit the blog’s home page and navigate to other articles in the series.
By Michael Martin Mills
Followers of this series who live in the area through which Edwin Jellett roamed are perhaps like me – intensely eager to know just what house or intersection he is citing. Is the house, perhaps with a remnant of its 1903 garden, still there? What is the modern name of a street he mentions? Jellett easily leaves us baffled, but he was writing for another audience in another age, before the streets were renamed, before all the vast estates were carved up, before demolition of so many 19th-century structures, before family names had faded from general awareness.
So it is with a smidgeon of glee that I encounter his mention of a bit of my garden in this installment. In the course of his sojourn along Wissahickon Avenue, Jellett refers to “John Welsh Young and his green-houses, where immense numbers of blooms are grown.” A portion of the Young nursery and greenhouses occupied what is now my side yard (my adjacent neighbor apparently lives atop the center of the Young operation). Every now and then, when digging, I come across a shard of thick glass, no doubt a relic of those greenhouses.
This I learned from old plat maps. These are remarkably detailed maps that show streets, property lines, building footprints and names of owners. In a 1906 map, three years after Jellett’s “A Flora of Germantown” was published, Young’s Nursery has five greenhouses, sited close to each other; on a map a few years later, the nursery has expanded to 10 greenhouses. By extrapolating from the property lines on those maps that are still in force now, I can tell that I planted my three orchard cherries where once Young grew flowers, apparently for the florist trade. How cool!
Young’s middle name was Welsh, and the land of my cherries and his greenhouses was once part of the extensive holdings of his grandfather, John Welsh, a highly prominent figure in 19th-century Philadelphia. Welsh’s house, Spring Bank, can be seen on the southwest side of Wissahickon Avenue where it dips between Hortter and Westview Streets.
Want to find out what used to be where you live now? Several institutions have original plat maps and the like. To visit one of these collections will be a revelatory expedition – allow time to get distracted by a flood of information (and to be perplexed as well, as some of the maps are aspirational, showing someone’s plans for streets that never were created). Three key institutions are:
• The Germantown Historical Society’s library and archive, housed at 5501 Germantown Ave., has eight plat maps of the 22d Ward, for various years spanning 1871 to 1955. Best to call ahead (215-844-1683) or visit the website, www.germantownhistory.org.
• The Free Library’s Map Collection at the Central Library on Logan Square, has a larger collection. By calling 215-686-5397, it’s possible to have maps or atlases for your locale pulled from the stacks in advance. The website is https://libwww.freelibrary.org/collections/detail/16. Some maps can be viewed online.
• The City of Philadelphia’s Archives are at 3101 Market St., 215-685-9401, www.phila.gov/phils/carchive.htm. This collection includes old deeds – find out who lived in your house when it was new.
Or stay at home and go to www.philageohistory.org, the website for the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network. This is a project of a consortium of local libraries, intending to create “a web-based repository of geographically organized historical information about Philadelphia, its geography, its buildings, and its people.” For a pilot project, it already has a trove, and is so sophisticated that you can see a vintage map superimposed over a current one.
One comment on Jellett’s horticultural ruminations in this installment. Contrary to what he says, a fruit tree that pops into bloom in the autumn will likely bloom in the spring as well. Obviously, the individual flower buds that open in the fall will not repeat themselves, but most fall bloom is a case of some buds’ opening. Those that don’t will in all likelihood bloom, and set fruit, in due season.
Edwin C. Jellett – October 23, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
The season is hastening on, and we of necessity must hasten with it. As I go about our favored lanes and roads, never brighter nor fresher than now, and note the bewildering number of magnificent gardens which must be passed unnoticed, sadness creeps upon me, for this profusion of splendor should be more widely known, and both they and the disinterestedness responsible for them should abroad be appreciated as it is at home.
But since we cannot present our gardens in full, and as we are not all able to visit the by-ways and woods, I have endeavored to direct attention to those gardens accessible, which by reason of their years command respect, and which, in addition to the lustre of their associations, preserve to us the form and expression of gardens of long ago.
Go where we may about home, we cannot fail to notice the lavishness of the charms scattered broadcast throughout our territory — east on Fisher’s lane, Church lane, Haines street, Walnut lane, Washington lane, and west on Clapier street, School lane, Walnut lane, Tulpehocken street, Johnson street, throughout Pelham, and adjacent parts — the whole a galaxy which elsewhere it would be difficult to equal, and impossible to excel, for the richness and fullness of nature bounties we possess are an heritage contributed by time, and our gardens may be compared only with those of lands beyond the seas.
I should like to present the Deshler, Washington, beautiful garden on Main street, opposite Church lane, now owned by Elliston P. Morris; “Vernon,” with Kurtz and Meng and John Wister, and make mention of several interesting plants growing in this open area, and as well give many notes in connection therewith. With you I should like to visit “Awbury,” record its many charms, introduce Thomas P. Cope, Francis R. Cope and John Haines, the “lords of the manor” of recent memory, and also present Christopher Ludwig, who, after the Revolutionary period of laborious trust, settled upon his “farm,” which later became the property of John Haines, and was occupied and cultivated by John T. Walker.
Channon House, source unknown, Bryn Mawr College Archive
Were it possible I should like to present Miss Channon’s interesting garden, give an account of her “window gardens,” which, like those of “Grumblethorpe,” are always bright with bloom, and I should like to correct an error which our pseudo historians love to repeat. Miss Channon’s house and garden are on Main street, directly above Tulpehocken street, but Pastorius’ cave was never there, for neither Pastorius nor his associates lived in caves nearer than the Delaware river. All who frequent “Upper Main street” know Miss Channon’s showy flower-bound open cellar-way, which even in winter is filled with plants in bloom. Some years ago I asked Miss Channon how she managed to keep house plants continually bright, and her reply was, “I think the well in the cellar had something to do with it.”
Frank Kirk’s unique cactus garden, well known to every traveller on East Washington lane, as well as the old-fashioned gardens of James Laws and Mrs. C. Le Boutillier, should be noted, and no floral account of Germantown would be worth considering which did not at least mention Miss Johnson’s quaint, picturesque garden fronting on Main street, which for native charms and varied associations is in a class of its own, possessing a rare combination of subtle qualities which I doubt not influenced, and in part was responsible for, the love of nature possessed by that erratic character, George Lippard, who opposite this garden lived for many years at the southwest corner of Washington lane and Main street; attended Concord School, where he was a classmate of Ellwood Johnson; was passionately fond of the Wissahickon, at sunrise being married on its banks; founded the “Brotherhood of the Union;” wrote many books, which unfortunately live after him, and died young. The high cypress trees we have already noted, and the abundance of hardy, old fashioned plants, which from spring to fall bloom there, we regretfully pass.
With you I should like to visit Cliveden, as we did Upsala opposite, and together present them according to their merits. Many of my youthful days were spent about Cliveden, and several of its occupants I knew. When cherries were ripe its woodland border trees, free to all, I often visited. When Anthony Virtue, for Miller & Hayes, graded its lawns and planted its present trees, I was there; but I was not there when older boys than myself picked bullets from its decaying trees, relics I often heard of, but never saw. But we shall follow Main street no farther, admitting our field is larger than our measure, and the season too short for the complete gathering of the crop, let us proceed as opportunity permits.
Hamamelis virginiana (witch hazel)
Gardens have reached their limits, and with cosmos in bloom and chrysanthemums in bud and flower, we may expect further nothing new until the arrival of another season. Witch hazel, a low tree common to the Wissahickon woods, bearing a curious yellow, thin tassel-like flower, is now in bloom, the last native plant to flower, it marking the close of the season, for all late or early flowers to follow, such as dandelion, skunk cabbage, Quaker lady, and the like, will belong to another floral year.
Pear, quince and other trees are now in places a second time in bloom, which means that these particular trees will next season be barren. To many, that plants of this nature should bloom in the “fall” is a mystery, but the explanation is simple. All hardwooded early blooming plants perfect their flower buds the preceding season, and these usually remain dormant through the winter.
During a dry summer, followed by generous autumn rains, or a cool season, succeeded by a warm “Indian summer,” these buds prematurely bloom, and, of course, having bloomed, there is no possibility of a rebloom so soon again as spring, and no fruit is to be expected at “fall.”
On houses Japan creeper, on stone walls Virginia creeper, and on copses sumach, have put on a burnished coats of brilliant colors, varying from bronze to scarlet and deepest red. Indian grass on hillsides, and pampas and other grasses in gardens, once green and wiry, now are feathery, dry and brown.
September is past, and October with all its charms is upon us. The hills are tipped with crimson, and the lowlands are striving to rival their superiors beyond. Color in autumnal vegetation is exceedingly interesting, and I have made many attempts to discover the means by which the change is wrought, but organic chemistry I have found is a subject which a very few, myself not among the number, know anything about. From observations covering several years, I have found that all changes in color from green to another color are constant, and that the shade of color is dependent upon the season, a hard dry season producing brilliant coloration, and a wet or unfavorable season shades of the same color, varying with atmospheric or other conditions. Thus briefly, I have found that ailanthus, shell-bark, catalpa, willow and mulberry always change to greenish yellow; beach and poplar to pale yellow; apple, paulonia, locust, gingo, tulip poplar and witch-hazel to sulphur yellow; St. John wort to crimson yellow; pig-nut, hickory, chestnut and plane tree to rusty yellow; wild cherry, wild plum and scrub oak to bronzed yellow; coffee tree to brown yellow; pig-weed, huckleberry and staggerbush to red; red oak, scarlet maple, tupelo, sumach and poke weed to brilliant red; dog-wood and several oaks to bronzed red; wintergreen, arrow wood and hazelnut to bronze; chickory, bull thistle and bald cypress to brown.
At one time I thought flowers of one color were followed by a given color in the changed leaves, but this does not always happen, for while plants which bear yellow flowers usually produce changed leaves of red, green flowering plants produce distinct colors, ranging all the way from yellow to deepest red, and plants with white flowers in changing pass through all the various shades of yellow and red. The whole change seems to be due to shock, the varying shade corresponding with the varying intensity of application.
Trees in swamps and low grounds lose their leaves earlier than those growing in deep soil on uplands. Individual trees of the same species conspicuously exhibit the influence of situation, but each tree is constant in its change. In this direction, however, we have gone far enough, for not minute details of no value to worry, but inspiring impressions to elevate the mind, is what we seek.
Thinning tree canopy and fall color at the Chew Avenue Entrance to Awbury Arboretum, photo: C. Levy
Compared with a month ago, the woods now seem bare. Already leaves are beginning to fall and recent cool nights here, with frost at nearby points, have sapped the vigor, and the heavy dew at morn is a sufficient notice of days to come. Turnips in fields now look cold and deserted, pumpkins, big and fat and round and yellow, have emerged from their hidden retreats, and the corn stands “shocked.”
Black birds are collecting to leave, and our warblers, summer warbler, summer yellow bird and Maryland yellow throat, with numerous others which I have never been able to satisfactorily determine, have gone, and with the American gold finch, wood-thrush, vireo and spotted sand-piper. With us belted kingfisher stops late, though elsewhere he usually leaves early in October. Now indigo birds and blue birds may occasionally be seen together, a brilliant showing of vivid colors. Blue jay, in “baseball suit,” loud and “sassy,” like an offensive neighbor, is always about when not wanted, and, like a tardy guest, outstays his welcome. Bank swallows, rare close to home, but frequenting banks along the Schuylkill river, are yet about, and are of interest to us on account of a paper written by Benjamin Smith Barton, wherein he attempted to prove the torpidity of the class.
Rabbits now bound through the woods, and in the underbrush partridges rustle and flutter to deceive, but did they know me they would not. Our modest and most cautious birds, if raised at home, develop none of the wariness of their independent relations, and I have known crows and partridges raised with pigeons, which housed with them for years, as tame as chickens.
Leaving Main street familiar haunts, we reluctantly westward move to reach the Wissahickon woods, where we in due time shall bring our “Flora” to a close. On the way let us stop to note a few deserving points which cannot justly be ignored. To me Wissahickon avenue, or “Township line,” is one of our most delightful roads, and from the heights of “Gardette’s hill,” where we left it, we shall follow it quickly to Kitchen’s or Truliinger’s lane, the most romantic and beautiful approach to the Wissahickon. Descending the hill, we pass the wooded entrance to Rene Gillou’s, and immediately below the greenhouses in which William Berger grew to be a florist.
The Carlton Manson, 1948, Temple University Digital Library
Across the fields, proudly showing its palatial front, is “Corney Smith’s,” or Carlton, once a shelter for Washington and his aids, the men here, or elsewhere, having all “out of doors.” Surrounding Carlton are some of the finest trees to be found in Germantown, and its mansion, white and ivy-covered, serenely keeps the way.
John Coulter’s house is gone, but the “Abbey” above where it stood, altered, continues, and one who now views its quietness is hardly able to imagine the bustle and bustle of its trade when Charlie Malarkey was hostler, and “sleighing season” was on.
E.W. Clark’s place, with its sassafras trees and Indian mounds, known to every prowling boy, is beyond, and “Ketterlinus’ ” on one side and “Merrick’s” on the other, were throughout my memory “country seats” of special interest and beauty. When General Grant and President Hayes were visiting Edward T. Steel In this neighborhood, I, with many another “hero worshiper,” was there, and I doubt if either of those named ever elsewhere saw finer houses and grounds.
On the hill leading to Rittenhouse street is the charming vine-covered dwelling of Prosper E. Senat, the artist, and on the succeeding hill of Blue Bell lives G.C. Thomas, whose fine garden and grounds have long been an attraction to Germantown. Beyond is the cosy, attractive farmhouse of “Sam” Welsh, whom every frequenter of the old Germantown cricket field knew and loved, and who many a follower there of true sport has reason to gratefully remember.
One of our most charming gardens next appears, and here N. DuBois Miller, resting from law, becomes gardener, and whose labors and rewards bedeck his place with bloom to his own enjoyment and the pleasure of every passer-by. Following is “Spring-bank,” one of the most beautiful places in Germantown, long the residence of John Welsh, active in many fields, who made possible our Centennial Exhibition, Minister to England under President Hayes, a gentleman so closely identified with Philadelphia’s religious and philanthropic work that his identity with it can never be separated; the birth-place of Herbert Welsh, with whom we all are, or should be, acquainted: the scene of heavy fighting during the battle of Germantown, as a cannon ball here unearthed, and once placed in my keeping, is extant to testify. All these, and other places in the neighborhood — John Welsh Young and his green-houses, where immense numbers of blooms are grown; Frank Miles Day and his “Italian Garden;” Harry C. Francis and his rose garden, are worthy of extended mention. After all perhaps the best service with this, as with other matters, is simply to direct attention to and state a fact, for this activity and recompense here as everywhere else is but an expression of a beauty within, which, finding an outlet, is shared with all, for a garden is never selfish, no one “lives unto himself,” and “the world is full of roses, and the roses full of dew, and the dew is full of heavenly love that drips for me and you.”
Taking Nicetown lane our southern boundary, westward we pass several points of interest at which we may not stop, and soon reach Schuylkill river, our western boundary, which we follow to Wissahickon creek, and on the way pass one of the rarest of uative ferns. Nuttall’s spleen-wort,
Asplenium pinnatifidum (Nuttal’s spleenwort, lobed spleenwort)
the fern in mind, is a small, narrow notched, pointed-leaved plant, usually dry, dusty and weighted with seed vessels, an extremely odd and interesting plant, a fern nowhere plenty, and here collected by Thomas Nuttall, whom by this time we have become acquainted. The plant was first discovered by Henry Muhlenberg, and by him made known in “Catalogus Plantarum Americae Septentrionalis,” published in 1813, in which it is recorded as a variety of walking fern, a classification Nuttall accepted and credited. The plant, however, became known as “Nuttall’s spleen-wort,” and from 1818, the date of the publication of “Genera of North American Plants,” to the present day, its popular name so stands.
Nuttall described this plant as growing “in the crevices of rocks on the banks of the Schuylkill, rare, and also in Tennessee, always distinct from walking-fern.” Until recent years Nuttall’s spleen-wort was known to grow only in the two districts named, and as yet, while its distribution has been found more general, it is nowhere known to be common.
In the Wissahickon, before the cutting away of a projecting ledge opposite the lower dam, there was a rock known as “Nuttall’s Rock,” on which this fern grew, a spot first shown me by Joseph Meehan.
Outside of our immediate territory I have found the plant only on rocks along the Schuylkill river, near Lafayette, and in extremely limited numbers.
Solitary plants, or isolated colonies of plants, to me are always of extreme interest, and it is strange that two of the rarest of American ferns, Nuttall’s spleen-wort and Scott’s spleen-wort, are associated with the Wissahickon. One we have now very briefly presented, the other we hope to present to your satisfaction.
Cosmos. Cosmos Bipinnatus.
Chrysanthemum. Chrysanthemum Indicum.
Witch hazel. Hamamelis Virginiana.
Dandelion. Taraxacum Dens-Leonis.
Skunk cabbage. Symplocarpus Foetidus.
Quaker lady. Houstonia Coerulea.
Pear. Pyrus Communis.
Quince. Cydonia Vulgaris.
Japan creeper. Ampelopsis Tricuspidata, var. Veitchii.
Virginia creeper. Ampelopsis Quinquefolia.
Sumach. Rhus Toxicodendron.
Indian grass. Chrysopogon Nutans.
Pampas grass. Gynerium Argenteum.
Ailanthus. Ailanthus Glandulosus.
Shell-bark. Carya Alba.
Catalpa. Catalpa Bignoniodies.
Willow. Salix Alba.
Mulberry. Morus Rubra.
Beech. Fagus Ferruginea.
Poplar. Populus Tremuloides.
Apple. Pyrus Malus.
Paulownia. Paulownia Imperialis.
Locust. Roblnla Pseudacacia.
Gingo. Salisburia Adiantifolia.
Tulip poplar. Liriodendron Tulipefera.
St. John’s wort. Hypericum Perforatum.
Pig-nut. Carya Porcina.
Hickory. Carya Tomentosa.
Chestnut. Castanea Sativa, var. Americana.
Plane-tree. Platanus Occidentalis.
Wild cherry. Prunus Pennsylvanica.
Wild plum. Prunus Americana.
Scrub oak. Quercus Ilicifolia.
Coffee tree. Gymnocladus Canadensis.
Pig-weed. Amarantus Paniculatus.
Huckleberry. Gaylussacia Frondosa.
Stagger bush. Andromeda Mariana.
Red oak. Quercus Rubra.
Scarlet maple. Acer Rubrum.
Tupelo. Nyssa Sylvatica.
Sumach. Rhus Toxicodendron.
Poke. Phytolacca Decandra.
Dog-wood. Cornus Florida.
Wintergreen. Gaultheria Procumbens.
Arrow-wood. Viburnum Dentatum.
Hazel nut. Corylus Americana.
Chickory. Cichorium Intybus.
Bull thistle. Cirsium Pumilum.
Bald cypress. Taxodium Distichum.
Turnip. Brassica Napus.
Pumpkin. Cucurbita Pepo.
Sassafras. Sassafras Officinale.
Nuttall’s spleenwort. Asplenium Pinnatifidum.
Walking fern. Camptosorus Rhizophyllus.
Scott’s spleen-wort. Asplenium Ebenoides.