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 Denis Lucey
What a welter of words! Names of half-forgotten roads and taverns, half-remembered individuals high and low, toll gates and mansions, all running into lists of summer-end flowers, grasses, shrubs, tree Note the buildings now missing, hills as well as structures leveled, all testifying to “the frailty, the vanity and the erracity of bungling, blundering man.” This melancholy pattern continues, accentuated by the premature leaf fall of this 2016 droughty summer, and the later mornings and earlier evenings of September. Despair at the surprise demolition of long-loved structures meets distaste for the extravagant constructions of developers.
Jellett’s “sweet clematis” – is this our sweet autumn clematis, the Clematis paniculata escaped from gardens everywhere, rambling over fences, trees, and rocks in Pennsylvania and even over sand dunes in New Jersey? In the recent past, C. paniculata was also called C. maximowicziana. Or, is this the much rarer, native C. virginiana? This last clematis has more than one name: Virgin’s Bower, or Old Man’s Beard, for the more prominent whorled seed heads (sometimes silver and gold). Recently, I saw a spray of the native sprawling over a rock face. Glancing at this driving at 35 m.p.h., it resembled the disarticulated skeleton of a rattlesnake much more than a bower or a beard. Edgar T. Wherry’s 1948 wildflower guide notes that this native is often grown in gardens. Fifty years later, it is a rare horticultural sight.
Jellett continues to say matrimony vine often joins clematis over arbors and porches. This writer first encountered matrimony vine on the beaches and bluffs of Raritan Bay as a middleschooler. No one could name it; then I chanced, in the school library, on a friend of Jellett’s, Mrs. Alice Morse Earl (in the 1901 edition of Old Time Gardens). Page 186 of this book in the 2001 reproduction shows matrimony vine spilling over the porch at Van Courtlandt Manor. Alas, it is no longer there in 2014. Raritan Bay, like the Hudson Valley, was part of New Netherlands. Perhaps the plant was a Dutch import to Philadelphia. I am unable to find out why it is called matrimony vine. The plant is easy to weave into wreaths. The flowers and fruits often appear to be paired, although this is not strictly so. This solanaceous plant, like many others, has both poisonous and edible characteristics. Among other virtues, traditional Chinese medicine suggests that the fruit “boosts” potency and mobility of sperm. To further complicate the picture, this lovely plant is also called wolfberry, possibly because of confusion between the Greek word for “wolf” and the Roman province of Lycia, where the plant may have first been found.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, birdseed has superseded rice at many weddings these days; would that we could revel in costly native wild rice more. Is it true that wild rice was introduced to Philadelphia? It is common enough in the coastal plain south and east of us. What fun it is to paddle a canoe along the margin of a silted-up mill pond, or a lazy stream, and striking the seeds’ heads, drop rice into the floor of the canoe, i.e. tossing hulls as well as germ into the boat’s hull.
“Sneezeweed” is locally available in varietal form in nurseries and pictures in foreign gardening magazines. I don’t know of the wild species in Northwest Philadelphia. But two weeks ago, at the lower end of Pine Creek in Lycoming County, there were six-foot swaths of it along this stream beloved of another Germantown writer, Cornelius Weygandt.
Weygandt was fond of junipers, too. We still have junipers everywhere (outside of the city corseted to protect them from the appetites of browsing deer). It is still possible, just off Germantown Avenue, to dig up old fence posts with cedar uprights. The section underground was often charred to protect from rot. Cut into this and the fragrance of fresh cedar floods out. “Cedar incorruptible” is a phrase, I think, of Weygandt’s, but I cannot locate the source, and oh the changes of nomenclature of spruces, cedars, false cypresses, and today, taxodium. This last, a rarity in Jellett’s day, is with global warming increasingly viable and visible.
Edwin C. Jellett – September 11, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
Not many years ago “Lamb Tavern road” and “Old Plank road” were highways familiar to home pedestrians and roadsters, as were those of York road and Germantown road, but both at this day to the many are unknown, and to the few are names only which one remembers.
By the “dead end” which the railroad made to Pulaski avenue, with the northern extension of the city, “Plank road” has lost its identity, and the lower part of “Lamb Tavern” or Township Line road has disappeared as completely as Turner’s lane, a one-time well-known, much-used road, and favorite resort for city naturalists. Turner’s lane, it will be remembered, extended westward from Germantown road in the vicinity of “Fairhill” to a short distance beyond Ridge road, near “Mount Pleasant.” Dr. John D. Godman, who for some years dwelt in the stone house yet standing on our Main street, directly opposite Pastorius street, while living in Philadelphia was a frequenter of this road, and he records in his “Rambles of a Naturalist” that much of his data was collected along a small strip of Turner’s lane. This fact I refer to not to enlarge upon, but to give an idea of the rural character of a now populous district so late as 1830, and which in the neighborhood of Fairhill and Lamb Tavern was hardly less rural in 1880.
“Lamb Tavern road,” popularly so known to drivers, began on Broad street at the “Punch Bowl,” extended northwest to its connection with Wissahickon avenue or Township Line road, where to “The Abbey,” like the “Lamb Tavern,” a favorite stopping place, it held this name, but seldom beyond. The “Punch Bowl” and the hill on which it stood have disappeared; so has the genial “Scattergoods” with the adjoining race track; so also has Donald McQueen’s old-fashioned fascinating nursery, each a prominent landmark and each an object of pleasant memory.
At Nicetown lane “Al Brothers” yet “holds the fort” to remind us of old-time travelling days when one could stop anwyhere “along the road” and find shelter and care “for man and beast,” but it too has changed, and now bears the name of its onetime friendly “rival” to the north.
“Old Oaks Cemetery,” desecrated and degraded; its entrance posts rotting; its lodge an object of misery and ruins; its broad fields laid waste; its tenants and memorials scattered Lyle to Ivy Hill, and a multitude to I know not where, all testify to the frailty, the vanity and the erraticity of bungling, blundering man.
“Al.” Kooker, his toll-house and gate are missing; the steel works has crept upon the familiar beloved cricket fields, and rows of house like mushrooms have risen, no doubt to plague their neighbors on the hill, whose “ancestral halls” overlook the devastating trend and tread.
For this was a charming road, enriched by beautiful estates, dignified by notable frequenters and residents. Of this number was George Blight, a gentleman remembered for his white-columned mansion, grounds of notable trees and shrubs, and farm with herds of fine cattle, an enthusiast, active in scientific agricultural matters, the founder of the “Farmers’ Club,” and at whose home for many years was conducted a Sunday-school, which in time became the nucleus resulting in the formation of Calvary Church; John Tucker, the one-time president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railway, whose brown stone mansion, deserted, is the embodiment of despair; “Hazelbrook,” more pleasing, the home of James A. Wright, whose broad acres of undulating lawns, shaded by numerous trees of great size, age and beauty, are a perennial delight; Dr. E. B. Gardette’s stately mansion, and its statelier group of lofty pines which grace the summit of the hill; with Frothingham’s sylvan retreat; Ingersoll’s; Leonard’s; all leading up to western Manheim street, where there is a block, comprising the estates of Judge F. Carroll Brewster, Mrs. James E. Caldwell, Manheim Cricket Grounds, William W. Justice, James L. Erringer, Mrs. Sharp and Thomas F. Jones, which for rare combinations of wonderful beauty has no counterpart in Germantown.
But we may not stop to consider these, for although every place named is worthy of extended notice, our time will not permit, and we shall confine ourselves briefly to “Fern Hill,” the representative estate of the district. “Fern Hill,” if not the oldest, is one of the largest and most beautiful country seats in our midst, and at one time its location fairly rivalled that of Chestnut Hill. Two decades ago everybody in lower Germantown was familiar with “McKean’s Hill,” and its extended view reaching from St. James the Less Church at Falls of Schuylkill to the low boundaries of Kensington and Frankford, with the Delaware’s shining line of river stretching across the foreground, was perhaps as well known to their parents, who, with all deservers, were permitted to use a portion of the estate as a park, a privilege freely taken advantage of on holidays and Sundays.
This use may have suggested the movement now being actively pressed to have “Fern Hill” set apart for a public park, a project, however, yet young and the outcome uncertain. “Fern Hill” was the home of Louis Clapier, a merchant of note, and a man of noble qualities, who is affectionately remembered by the surviving few who live in the neighborhod he has forever left. The personal reminders of Clapier present with us are the metal ship weather-vane surmounting the barn, and a nearby street which keeps alive his name. The hill he planted, no longer known as his, has become entirely identified with its present owners. Under Louis Clapier, “Fern Hill” grounds were cleared and planted, and present effects are the fruit of the labor of Peter Baumann, his landscape gardener.
Peter Baumann was an intelligent, able Frenchman, a graduate of one of the best gardening schools in France, a good linguist, speaking fluently several languages, and an active man, who came to America to take charge of the gardens of Stephen Girard, and whose service he left to enter upon the work at “Fern Hill.” With Louis Clapier, Peter Baumann continued for many years, and so much did he think of his employer that he gave his name to his eldest son.
“Fern Hill,” its buildings and gardens under both Louis Clapier and Henry Pratt McKean, was recognized as one of the most perfect, if not the most perfect, artistic agreement of architecture and nature within or near Philadelphia, its handsome commodious mansion perfectly equipped with all that wealth and good judgment were able to furnish, and its surroundings gauged with a “single eye” to the harmonious symmetry of the whole. From the designer to Henry Pratt McKean was but one step, and this not a step backward, for the good deeds and generosity of the founder were continued and emphasized by his successors, and there are scores now living who might well stand up and call them blessed.
Money never “makes a man,” and if he be a man neither does it unmake him, and of the gentlest, tenderest, most sympathetic, most practical in good works, most humble in the exercise of their privileges, always so far as possible never letting “one hand know what the other did,” was the master and mistress of “Fern Hill,” who admittedly were the autocrats of wealth in Philadelphia.
As time progressed, Peter Baumann was followed by Alexander Newitt, who will be remembered as a noted plant grower, one of the founders of our Horticultural Society, and its energetic supporter for many years. He was succeeded by John Noonan, who upon retirement was followed by John F. Sibson, whose worth and work and delightful personality are known to all frequenters of our Horticultural Society meetings.
Orchards are now laden with produce, and one who travels through outlying districts will find apple trees, pear trees, plum trees and quince trees loaded with their weight of fruit. Nut-bearing shrubs and trees are also heavy, and hazel-nut, walnuts, hickory-nuts, pig-nuts, butternuts, “shelbarks” and chestnuts are maturing to be ready for the first frost.
Plowed fields everywhere are in evidence to remind us of the return of another season, for after a replowing next month “winter wheat” will then be sown. Now fields of buckwheat are white with bloom, already corn is turning “yellow in the ear,” and on dry hills the trees have decked themselves in autmnal sheen. Rows of “sunflowers,” no longer able to follow the day’s accustomed course, bow low their drooping heads, and food grown for chickens, now dropping, is collected by hungry green-eyed searchers before the time appointed. But though quickly passing, the summer is yet here, as humid sultry weather, dark lowering clouds, low rumble of distant thunder and vivid zigzag flashes of lightning of an approaching storm hurry the gatherers of late cut curing hay into confusing action, remind us.
I was recently asked if we did not now have more electrical storms than formerly, but this is a question which perhaps no one is able to satisfactorily answer, for the frequency of storms is largely, I think, a matter of location, and one living upon a hill or upon a mountain ridge cannot fail to have noticed the regularity with which storms follow the valleys, and while these have rains “enough and to spare,” elevations with due allowance for drainage suffer from drought.
In gardens portulacca is as bright and showy as ever, thriving in places where other plants would die, and spreading where we want it not, which is its only serious fault. Oxybaphus, a Western plant, which first discovered near Wayne Junction several years ago, and which early blooms, is now again in bloom, and showing its small rose flowers in places to which it has been introduced. Oleanders are blooming on many a lawn, and an exceedingly dangerous plant it is if grown anywhere near an apiary, for its attractive pink flowers produce honey deadly poisonous.
Snowberry, a shrub already showing pure white fruit, at the same time is covered with delicate tinted flowers of pink. Stone-crops of various kinds, of many forms, with fleshy leaves which children use as “squirters,” producing white, pink, yellow and other colored flowers, according to variety, are now blooming, as they have bloomed many a time before, at their own convenience and pleasure.
Ribbon-grass, variegated and wiry; paper plant, round, green and umbrella topped; with high pampas wavy plumed; the first too with flowers inconspicuous, and the latter too well known to need other mention, are pushing to bloom. Aspidistra, a broad, sword-leaved plant, with low clusters of yellow flowers which often bloom unseen, has taken its place with the late comers of the “aristocratic line.” Showy blue plumbago is rich in bloom, and so is boltonia, an asteraceous plant with beautiful white white flowers; prince’s feather, tall, bright-topped amarantus, stands high with drooping heads of pink, a plant which to many places has escaped, is blooming near Falls bridge; and sweet clematis, a pure white sweet-scented virgin bower, is in full bloom over many an arbor and porch, and often with it is matrimony vine, with small purple flowers and with ropes of Barbary like fruit.
One would think that fashion in flowers would never change, but many favorites of but a few years ago we miss from their accustomed haunts, though occasionally in unexpected places these appear. Among the number is candy-tuft, a straggling free white bloomer; pelargoniums, a showy flowering class of hardwood geraniums; ivy leaved geranium, a one-time favorite for rocky places; stocks in variety, very useful, if not always refined; bouvardia, a valuable green-house plant with attractive white, pink or red flowers, according to variety, used for beds; artillary or cigar plant, a low shrubby grower, with tubular red white-tipped flowers; cape jasmine, a shrubby plant with thick white heavy scented flowers; and catalonian jasmine, one of the finest, most delicious odored flowers I know, a cross-shaped gem of white of the most exquisite beauty. These all are greenhouse plants, requiring a certain amount of protection, but the old-fashioned practice of putting them “to pasture” for the summer as would seem to have outgrown.
In fields and woods grasses mature are everywhere conspicuous, and often obtrusive. Among these is bur or hedge-hog grass, an odd crabbed little plant known throughout New Jersey as sand-bur, a plant I first collected in Pennsylvania on top of Fort Mifflin on the Delware river, and afterwards at home, near Chew wood; wild rice, or Indian rice, a strong grower introduced to our territory, but now blooming naturally near Camden, N.J.; beard grass, a heavy-headed grass mature near Rabbit lane; wood reed grass, producing a thick spreading head, and flowering at Miles’ wood; wire, or crab grass, another spreading grass, and common where it is not wanted; low spear grass, everywhere in fields, and others known and unknown to me too numerous to satisfactorily present, with no history, and with but slight points of difference, they like steady workers who never “get in the papers,” have been almost wholly ignored by the “upper ten” of the “language of flowers,” and, like Topsy, have “just grow’d up.”
Fields and meadows everywhere are decked in holiday attire, flowers of scarlet pimpernel, brick-red; tall thistles, rosy pink; fall dandelion, low, small and yellow, in bloom, and near swamp thistle, a sturdy grower with large and often solitary heads of beautiful pink flowers; monkey-flower, a smooth clean refreshing plant with bloom of variable exquisite shade of pink or lilac; iron weed; Joe Pye weed, with white flowering eupatoriums, asters and golden rods before noted, but all now at a well developed maturity, conspire to brighten the world before they leave it.
Sneeze-weed, one of our handsomest native plants, is in bloom near Price’s lane bridge on the upper Wissahickon. It is a smooth plant, with lance-shaped, toothed leaves, growing to a height of from two to six feet, and producing striking golden rayed flowers. Actinomerous, another autumn plant, from four to eight feet high, with hairy stems, lance-shaped leaves and with corymbed heads of yellow flowers, is blooming near Thorp’s lane, as also near the same place is slender sunflower, a plant 2 to 6 feet high, with small yellow-rayed purple disk flowers; and large sun-flower, a rough hairy plant, lifting its head to a height of 10 feet, its branches topped with medium sized heads of slender rayed yellow flowers. These with the flowering yellow flowers previously noted, and with high gerardia, which continues in bloom, and added the several varieties of golden rod now approaching perfection, comprise in the main the bloom which gives the golden glow to our firmanent of flowers.
Prickly poppy, an introduced plant, and nowhere with us common, may occasionally be met in barren or dry places “where no water is,” a low rough prickly plant bearing yellow flowers, which on sight announce their relationship. From early summer to fall blue bells flower, and although I have not collected them in our territory, I have been told they grow on Schuylkill river hills near Spring Mills, and Charles Francis Saunders, who writes the exceedingly interesting floral articles for the Philadelphia Record, confirms the fact that they grow near home. Many places in Scotland I gathered them, and one of the delights of two days I spent upon “Arthur’s Seat” was the collection of the blue bells’ modest sky-blue flowers.
Common juniper is in berry, and although these now are green, they soon will be blue. This shrub or small tree is a well-known evergreen common to dry situations everywhere. Red cedar or juniper, a plant of large growth, and extremely variable, is also in berry, and I have seen nowhere larger specimens than we have in Germantown, a few of which may be seen on Tulpehocken street, near “Mike Meehan’s lot.” This tree assumes many forms, and in a letter I received from Charles S. Sargent in 1893, in reply to a question, he stated: “There is only one variety of Juniperus Virginiana from a botanical point of view, although this tree, which has a very wide geographical range and grows in soil of very different composition, often assumes different habits, and is sometimes broad and spreading and sometimes narrow and pyramidal. These variations appear to be accidental, and, so far as I have been able to observe, are not dependent upon climate or soil.”
Red cedar of Pennsylvania is entirely distinct from white cedar or cypress, a Southern tree of great symmetry and height, but which North becomes dwarfed, and grows sparingly at Clementon, Cedar Brook, Winslow and in other parts of Southern New Jersey.
The few additional asters and golden rods which have crept upon our stage we shall hold in abeyance to outline an “old-fashioned” nursery. At the death of Louis Clapier, Peter Baumann established himself in business, and secured a tract of land extending on present Manheim street, from a point near Wayne street to “Old Plank road,” and southward on it to near the present line of Seymour street. Although this ground is now almost entirely built upon, it is yet known to old residents of this section of Germantown as “the nursery,” and many are yet able to recall its general appearance. The high trees on the open ground remaining are the survivors o£ a deserted colony, and osage orange hedge, once a bristling, thorny, repelling wall, is contracted to but a fraction of its original length. Peter Baumann’s dwelling was the frame house on Manheim street now numbered 220, and it alone continues unaltered to remind us of days gone by. In “the nursery” at the corner of Pulaski avenue stands a twin plastered house. In the southern house long lived “Al.” Kooker after the abandonment of Township line toll-gate. In the other, now occupied by Mrs. L.C. Baumann, John Richard, the popular sexton of Calvary Church, whose interest and skill have preserved to us the appearance of many of the interesting spots of “old Germantown,” dwelt for many years, and in this house the plates we know so well were drawn and etched.
John Richard was not a finished artist, but his drawing, persevered in under great difficulty as a hobby, reflects to his honor, and in many instances his work alone preserves to us scenes and haunts which have been “changed” beyond recovery. John Richard I well knew, and if there be any among us worthy of special remembrance it is he, for beyond his retiring, unobstrusive ways, beyond the products of his skill, he was a child of nature, a lover of flowers, a sincere, thorough, struggling man, which yet is “the noblest work of God.”
White pine. Pinus Strobus.
Apple. Pyrus Malus.
Pear. Pyrus Communis.
Plum. Pyrus Domestica.
Quince. Cydonia Vulgaris.
Hazelnut. Corylus Americana.
Walnut. Juglans Nigra.
Hickory. Carya Tomentosa.
Pignut. Carya Porcina.
Butternut. Carya Cinerea.
Shellbark. Carya Alba.
Chestnut. Castanea Sativa, var. Americana.
Wheat. Triticum Vulgare.
Buckwheat. Fagopyrum Eculentum.
Corn. Zea Mays.
Sunflower. Helianthus Annuus.
Portulacca. Portulaca Oleracea.
Oxybaphus. Oxybaphus Nyctagineus.
Oleander. Nerium Oleander.
Snowberry. Symphoricarpus Racemosus.
Stone crop. Sedum Ternatum.
Ribbon grass. Panicum Virgatum.
Paper plant. Papyrus Umbellatus.
Pampas grass. Gynerium Argenteum.
Aspidistra. Aspidistra Lurida.
Blue plumbago. Plumbago Larpentae.
Boltonia. Boltonia Glastifolia.
Prince’s feather. Amarantus Caudatus.
Sweet scented clematis. Clematis Paniculata.
Virgin bower. Clematis Virginiana.
Matrimony vine. Lycium Barbarum.
Barbary. Berberis Vulgaris.
Candy tuft. Iberis Umbellata.
Pelargonium (oak leaved). Pelargonium Quercifolium.
Ivy-leaved geranium. Pelargonium Peltatum.
Stock. Matthiola Incana.
Bouvardia. Bouvardia Triphylla.
Artillary plant. Pilea Microphylla.
Cigar plant. Pilea Microphylla.
Cape jasmine. Gardenia Florida.
Catalonian jasmine. Jasminum Officinale.
Bur grass. Cenchrus Tribuloides.
Hedge hog grass. Cenchrus Tribuloides.
Sand-bur. Cenchrus Tribuloides.
Wild rice. Zizania Aquatica.
Indian rice. Zizania Aquatica.
Beard grass. Polypogon Monspeliensis.
Wood-reed grass. Cinna Arundiacea.
Wire-grass. Panicum Sanguinale.
Crab-grass. Panicum Sanguinale.
Low spear grass. Poa Annua.
Scarlet pimpernel. Anagallis Arvensis.
Tall thistle. Cnicus Altissimus, var. Discolor.
Fall dandelion. Leontodon Autumnalis.
Swamp thistle. Cnicus Muticus.
Monkey flower. Mimulus Ringens.
Iron weed. Vernonia Noveboracensis.
Joe pye weed. Eupatorium Purpureum.
Sneeze weed. Helenium Autumnale.
Actinomerous. Actinomerous Squarrosa.
Slender sunflower. Helianthus Augustifolius.
Large sunflower. Helianthus Giagnteus.
High gerardia. Gerardia Pedicularia.
Prickly poppy. Papaver Argemone.
Hare-bell. Campanula Rotundifolia.
Blue-bell. Campanula Rotundifolia.
Common juniper. Juniperus Communis.
Red cedar. Juniperus Virginiana.
White cedar. Chamaecyparis Sphaeroidea.
Cypress. Chamaecyparis Sphaeroidea.
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.”