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.
It’s a source of inspiration for modern gardeners like me to recall that Germantown in Edwin Jellett’s day was indeed famous for its gardens. A cartoon by Helen Hokinson in the New Yorker from the 1940s, shared with me by Mark Sellers, shows two dignified women of middle age examining a garden. One proclaims to the other, “Did I ever tell you that my sister was the first person in Germantown to let her Chrysanthemums sprawl?” In the Germantown of October 1903, Jellett encountered “chrysanthemums, myriad numbered, in variety endless, … bloom[ing] to make garden walks the most gorgeous of the year.”
“The season is holding its own,” he writes, “many flowers continue bright, the ruby glow is deepening on the hills.” Even though the elaborate gardens of his day are almost entirely forgotten, replaced in many instances by asphalt, concrete, invasive vines, and decay, October is still one of the most beautiful months for enjoying Germantown. The dusky reds of the dogwood leaves, the bronzed yellows of the tulip poplars, the brilliant red of the still-pervasive pokeweed all prevail as sentinels of a time gone by.
Edwin C. Jellett – October 30, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
In Scotland one September day two pilgrims of literary mien and following in the footsteps of a famous precursor, traversed a well-known lane, where, 276 years before, “Royal Ben” Jonson, the contemporary and eulogizer of Shakespeare, had trod, and where, under a celebrated sycamore tree yet standing, William Drummond, the “poet for poets,” welcomed him to his secluded retreat.
These pilgrims, Henry S. Pancoast and myself, following the prescribed and usual course, first visited the cave on the face of the cliff, wherein “The Cypress Grove” first saw the “light of day,” and after essayed by way of the actual grove to visit Roslin Chapel, not far distant, and inspect its natural as well as its much trumpeted artificial beauties.
Here, as at many other places in England and Scotland, we resolved to ignore the “bus” and walk, so on completing researches, and on leaving the extremely interesting cave of Robert Bruce, we took a nearby path, which from the heights of “Hawthornden” led by a gentle decline through an open wood bordering the eastern bank of the river Esk, this lane or path soon leading us to a lower level, where it continued through a tangle of bramble, underbrush and grass.
Along this walk English oak, button-wood and ash among deciduous trees, and hemlock, spruce and white pine among evergreens, were conspicuous. Beneath these plants of higher growth, heather, holly and rhododendrons green flourished, and in profusion in bloom were wild geraniums, buttercups and wild marjorum. About in great numbers were several varieties of spleen-worts, and, to make the place seem more familiar, sensitive fern, with its broad open honest leaves, was everywhere common.
The path appeared like many a favored one at home, and, with a well-remembered stretch of woodland splendor near Allen’s lane bridge in mind, I said, “Henry, did you ever see another place like this?” He replied, “It is like the Wissahickon.” Nothing more was said, for nothing more was needed, and each doubtless with hearts throbbing and thoughts surging the same, tramped onward with a step more elastic, for the sun appeared to shine brighter and nature seemed bathed in a new effulgence, because each had been carried to home.
The Wissahickon then, whose potent influence afar was so effective, we shall in outline endeavor to introduce, for no one is able to do more, and along the stream to the inviting headlands we shall proceed, and with the season pass into the silence of the great valley beyond.
I doubt if there be one at all acquainted with Philadelphia who has not heard of the Wissahickon, but I fear that an opportunity to know it as it should be known offers itself to few. The section of Faimount Park it occupies is long, narrow, irregular in shape, rugged in composition, and extends far away from the city proper, so it is not reasonable to expect more than a superficial acquaintance with it from the average visitor, for those specially interested in it, to become intimate, must be favorably located and possess the necessary qualifications. At present our limits will permit us to do no more than take a hurried ramble through it, but at a future time a “Flora of the Wissahickon,” “printed not published,” which I prepared in 1891, I hope to correct to date, and present.
The word “Wissahickon,” as we have it, appears to be a growth, though Heckwelder credits it to the Delaware Indians, meaning in their language “cat-fish,” and “yellow water stream.” It appears, however, that the Indians used two names for the stream, the first Wisamekan, meaning cat-fish, and the other Wissaicksickan, yellow colored stream. It is more than likely that both names were once in general use, and during a particular season, for in early times the stream was known for the abundance of its fish, and one familiar with its characteristics knows that after a freshet the natural pristine clearness of its waters gives place to a heavy rushing mass of most uninviting red or yellowish hue.
On early maps the stream is marked Whitpain creek, but in court records, dating back to the first settlement, it was named Wessahitiking. From these sources the present well-known beautiful name, which harmonizes perfectly with the region and stream, meeting completely every requirement of an appropriate popular name, is derived. From the Wissahickon “head-lands” and northward far beyond, to southward its point of discharge, tradition and history follow hand in hand the Wissahickon’s course; together they excite and deepen its interest; together they add to its charms and enhance its beauty. Long before the white man appeared the aborigines were gathered upon its banks; long before the “pale face” had been “proved” and spurned, they rested upon its hills. These “owners of the soil” left its protecting heights and peaceful shades because the beauty they worshipped had been discovered; because the freedom they loved was endangered; because the security in which they trusted had vanished; because the civilization they feared was insatiable, and would not be satisfied. So the children of the forest departed, and with them the story of the Lenni-Lenapes of the Wissahickon was brought to a close, scattered remnants of uncertain records alone remaining to remind posterity of their lives, their joys and sorrows, their passage “to the kingdom of Ponemah, to the land of the Hereafter.”
The change was inevitable, for those who will not march progress will destroy, so the valley of the Wissahickon was deserted, and became subject to an expanding era of change. In due time the Indians wholly disappeared; the stream was taken possession of and curbed; “trails” gave way to broad, substantial roads; natural dams were replaced by artificial ones; bubbling springs gave place to confined fountains; sylvan retreats of great beauty yielded to habitations and laboring mills; and where the king-fisher plied his trade undisturbed, and camp-fire songs once resounded, the buzz of trade and shrieks of whistles followed; protected camping grounds were appropriated by inns to cater to multitudes who came in quest of sport or trade.
These were the conditions of the Wissahickon district during the middle part of the last century. Happily a necessity arose, and a reaction came, a new era dawned, which paved the way for a return to nature. The condition of the Schuylkill river demanded an improvement, and the development of Fairmount Park had educated the people. In time the change came, and when it came it was radical and complete. Now many objectionable intrusions have vanished; habitations have gone; noisy, dirty mills, which served well their “day and generation,” have passed into nonentity, where it is hoped they may forever “rest in peace,” and the stream flows freely on.
But before entering the Wissahickon ravine, let us pause to note the surroundings of its outlet, present vegetation as it is, name our remaining ferns, and present R. Robinson Scott, the discoverer of the most notable, if not the rarest, of native ferns. Many of us go far away from home in search of the strange, the picturesque and the wonderful, an unknown field is speculative, and, like a silent man, is always credited with more than it is able to give. So many a one, ignorant of the wealth of his own neighborhood, extols to the last crack the beauty of a distant one of which he knows next to nothing.
Pennsylvania, the Keystone of the States in position, in politics and in natural wealth, has to offer no more picturesque view than that to be had from the summit of Chamounix, or from the new western Park drive, or from West Laurel Hill, and those who know “Horse-shoe bend,” the elevations and rivers of Pittsburgh, Mauch Chunk and its inclines, or the wonderful view of Wilkes-Barre from the mountains, may with profit visit here, for of all the “views” I know, including the far-famed one of the Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, not one other, to me at least, is more touching or more inspiring. Falls of Schuylkill, a village of olden time, where the odor of “waffles” and “catfish and coffee” once prevalent, yet lingers to keep alive the memories of this once well-known popular resort, lies immediately below the outlet of the Wissahickon creek. At “Falls Village,” in the genial days of a century or more ago, long dwelt the “Governor,” “a hale fellow well met,” whose home was a resort for lovers of cheer and good company, were passers-by might
“Above the highway rising bold, The pillared Mifflin’s house behold! Where once a score of fountains played, And acre-spread of lordly shade; And deer forgot their woodland home, So wide their limits were to roam: Where men and dames of high degree Were often wont of old to be.”
Where the “lions” guarding the approach to his well-remembered mansion never interfered with visitors upon pleasure bent, nor ever growled in disapproval at the occasional boisterousness of lighter spirits frequenting “Fort St. David’s” close at hand. But history at present is not our mark, and here we shall only imagine a patient “disciple” catching his fish, cooking it, perhaps tossing it, as he had seen his mother “toss cakes,” and, worse than all, condemned to do his own “eating.”
The shad fisheries, and the wonderful “catches” for which Godfrey Schronk stood sponsor, we shall be obliged to pass, as well as accounts of the union of Fort St. David’s and State in Schuylkill; Joseph Nelf and his school; Dr. William Smith, the first provost of the Philadelphia College; Andrew Garret, an eccentric character, who lived on Indian Queen lane, and Joseph Montelier, the “hermit,” who was “born in Oxford street, London, Marylebone Parish, St. Patrick’s Day, 17th of March, 1756, six o’clock in the morning, six inches snow all over London,” all of which, with much more than I have indicated, is portrayed in Charles V. Hagner’s “Early History of the Falls of Schuylkill and Manayunk.”
Manayunk, to the north, was originally known as “Flat Rock,” and afterwards as “Bridge-water.” It was not until 1824 that the name Manayunk was adopted, an Indian name, which means “our place of drinking,” a custom long in vogue, and most religiously observed to the present day.
The season is holding its own, many flowers continue bright, the ruby glow is deepening on the hills, but, as anticipated, the over-feeding of lowland vegetation has deprived the autumn of “its spoils.” In gardens cosmos continues to hold its heads in many colors, and chrysanthemums, myriad numbered, in variety endless, in form and color without limit, defy description, and, innocent of their beauty and the designs of an admiring throng, bloom to make garden walks the most gorgeous of the year.
Borders and beds formed of decorative grasses now begin to look blear and seedy, and from lanky bamboo to low panicum, spreading like a hen above her brood, show the effects of age, and with the vigor and rich colors of dahlias and scarlet sage appear together like “January and June.”
For a reason I cannot explain cultivated grapes this season were everywhere abundant, while native grapes were unusually scarce, fox-grapes being barren in places, and chicken grapes, though more fortunate, were not at all as plenty as they usually appear. This year the chestnut crop is light, while shell-bark, walnut and other common nuts are abundant, and there is an unusually heavy crop of persimmons. Near home, as already noted, the persimmon tree is scarce, but in “Stone-hill” woods they are not at all uncommon.
Flowers in fields and woods, like the good angels they are, continue “bright and fair,” and in many a sheltered nook, if it were not for surrounding thickets, one might think it midsummer, for great lobelia, and its modest relative, Indian tobacco; black-eyed Susan and ladies’ tresses, yellow oxalis and wild carrot, with galinsoga and several of the pig-weeds, at no time were more vigorous than now.
Our higher vegetation defoliation has already begun, and walnut and mulberry trees are almost bare. With the exception of black ash, which holds its leaves untill the first “black frost,” when it drops all at once, and the weeping willow, the earliest tree to start and the longest runner in the race, all other deciduous trees are slowly but surely thinning out, and the progress of nature, though by the magnificent weather delayed, in the end must triumph.
Our two remaining ferns are walking-fern and Scott’s spleen-wort, though both have disappeared from the lower Wissahickon region in which they once grew. Walking-fern is a small plant, having long thin tapering leaves, which bend over, take root and produce a new plant at the tip, this new plant repeating in like manner, and hence the name. Walking-fern appears to prefer soft rock, and in this territory it most frequently appears on “soap-stone rocks.” On rock of this character it grows sparingly in the upper Wissahlckon, and elsewhere I have found it in like situations. One day, while botanizing along Swamp creek, near Zeiglerville, I came upon a group of steatitic boulders, when Immediately I thought of walking-ferns, and there sure enough they were in hiding.
Walking-fern is of special interest to a botanist because of its own peculiarities, and also because it and the common ebony spleen-wort are the parents of Scott’s spleen-wort, a natural “cross,” which for many years puzzled naturalists, and which only recently has been definitely placed. Some authorities credit this fern to limestone banks on the Schuylkill river, near Port Kennedy, but this is incorrect. The original Scott’s spleen-wort was discovered on the edge of a small stream which empties into the Schuylkill river, near the Pencoyd Iron Works, at a spot shown me by James G. Scott, who, like myself, has long been interested in it. My first exact knowledge of this plant was obtained from William De Hart, and, following a clue, I in due development obtained the following:
“The original specimen of spleen-wort found by my father, of which you have an electrotype made from his original woodcut, was discovered on the edge of a small brook running through the Roberts property at Pencoyd, Lower Merion, on the west bank of the Schuylkill, almost immediately opposite the mouth of the Wissahickon. Very truly yours, James G. Scott.”
Now, who was Scott, and why should we be interested in his find? R. Robinson Scott was one of the best of a group of botanists who came to America, settled on Darby road, and who later became an active force in Germantown. Born at Belfast, Ireland, in the year 1827, he early in life resolved to devote himself to the study of botany and horticulture.
Connecting himself first with the Botanic Garden of Glasneven, near Dublin, he there followed the usual course of study, and after proceeded to Kew Gardens, near London, where it is recorded that he soon became familiar with every plant in its immense collections. At the breaking out of the Smith O’Brien rebellion he proceeded to where he believed duty called, and with pen and voice took an active part in the struggle.
At the close of the trouble he decided to settle in America, when he came to Philadelphia and entered the employ of Robert Buist. Quoting from my account of Scott in Fern Bulletin of April, 1903, he, being ambitious and possessing unusual literary talent, soon launched out for himself, and in April, 1852, presented to the public the first issue of “The Philadelphia Florist,” a monthly magazine, which, if it had proved as successful financially as it proved itself in other respects, would have left, as Thomas Meehan wrote, “no room in the United States for another magazine of like character.” After struggling for three years the magazine was discontinued, owing to lack of sufficient support.
Relieved of the burden of publication, Scott continued his literary labors by writing for prominent agricultural and horticultural papers of his day. He also did work of a more permanent character, and the “Year Book of the Farm and Garden for 1860,” published by A.M. Spangler, was written almost in its entirety by him. Scott’s style was good, and whatever he wrote was illumined by a knowledge beyond that required for the immediate purpose, so that, while thoroughly reliable, his work possessed in addition a charm which few of his contemporaries were able to equal. Scott carried on his literary work, while he acted professionally as landscape gardener, and as agent for scientific magazines and books.
After leaving Darby road, Scott settled in Germantown, where he became the friend of John Jay Smith, Philip R. Freas, Thomas Meehan, Joseph Meehan and other prominent botanists and horticulturists of forty years ago. For a time Scott was gardener for Samuel Emlen, on West Coulter street, and while there lived on the Chancellor property, now owned by John Alburger, a place which may be known by its magnificent specimen of white pine, which stands on School House iane, Immediately beyond the Germantown Academy.
Scott’s last residence in Germantown was at 33 School House lane, where Miss Jane Hart and others long in the neighborhood well remember him. Scott, in addition to his technical knowledge, was a fine linguist, and in his own country ranked as a noted orator. In America he was active in everything concerning horticulture, and it is fitting that his name should be inseparably connected with our flora. After a long illness he died at Harrisburg, Pa., June 24, 1877, an immeasurable loss to American arboriculture.
I have tried to present Scott fairly, though briefly this cannot be done, for his work cannot be compassed by a superficial paper, but I have thought a simple introduction better than no acquaintance at all. It was the keenness of the botanist which discovered the rarity, and it was Scott’s spleen-wort which more than any other fern discovered upon the American continent has interested botanists abroad, and why should not it, its discoverer, and associations forever connected with retreats we love, not specially interest us?