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 Michael Martin Mills
When it comes to the plants cited in this week’s installment of Edwin Jellett’s “A Flora of Germantown,” there is something of a divergence from his past habits of citing dozens of this, that and the other. Two groups of late summer and early fall bloomers command his attention, asters and goldenrods.
Yikes! Who knew there were so many asters at all, let alone just in Jellett’s corner of North America? He wisely quotes Asa Gray, the great 19th-century botanist, as writing, “Never was there so rascally a genus.” Indeed this author has seen the figure 450 as an approximation of the number of species, worldwide, in the genus Aster.
That however was then. In the later decades of the 20th century, various botanists and taxonomists came to the conclusion that many of the species belonged in other or newly named genera (that’s the plural of “genus,” by the way). The greatly reduced genus Aster ended up being a European grouping – with A. alpinus subsp. vierhapperi as the only “true aster” native to North America, in isolated mountainous areas far from Philadelphia.
The largest number of American asters are now in the genus Symphiotrichum, with another group in Eurybia. (This author was once at a Hardy Plant Society sale that had two or three mysterious Eurybia species among the choices. What ho!? Some choice rarities for the garden? Ha! Just some of those stoloniferous field asters with small flowers and way too many seeds.)
Here are two on-line lists of old and new Latin names for asters: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Aster_synonyms and http://www.guynesom.com/WhereHaveAllOurAstersGoneWEB.htm. Neither is by any means complete. The Wikipedia list is Latin only; Guy Nesom’s is for some Saskatchewan natives, with common names. If you try to match an aster from Jellett’s list with modern lists, there is the further confusion that some of the species names (second half of the Latin) were previously changed – and then, owing to nomenclatural and Latin gender rules, some endings have been tweaked; Aster laevis is now Symphyotrichum leave.
Yes, too much information. But Dr. Nesom, an American botanist with a specialty in native asters, nicely cuts to the chase: “So what does this really mean to the average naturalist? Not necessarily very much. The plants themselves remain unchanged, and we may continue to call them by the same common names as before.”
The goldenrods, on the other hand, remain basically all together in the genus Solidago. Almost all of the species, and there are many, are native only to the Americas. Intriguingly, one of them, S. ptarmicoides, used to be Aster ptarmicoides, the white upland aster/goldenrod, but it’s not native to Jellett’s turf.
Edwin C. Jellett – September 18, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
The nurseries of Philadelphia is a fruitful theme, and I have long thought if properly written would make an interesting and valuable book, for the love of plants and flowers and culture are synonymous, and the culture of the early American metropolis was, as it is now, the crowning glory of its intellectual life. But this subject, though exceedingly rich, I shall pass, to briefly mention a few nurseries of our own, which form a part of the greater group I have indicated.
Before the days of “progressive” abuses, when upper Broad street, from Columbia avenue to ‘‘Markley’s,” was a “dirt road;” when the slowest horse took the dust, and every driver hailed his neighbor as he passed; when the “Punch Bowl” was a “country hotel,” and far reaching fields extended east and west of the main road north of Montgomery avenue — then Peter McKenzie kept a nursery at northwest corner of Broad street and Columbia avenue, where he made a specialty of growing camelias; “Bill Murphy near Germantown road was growing general bedding plants, and near him on the “lots” “Jimmie” McGill was engaged in a like occupation; Campbell at Nicetown, and Bright on York road; Wolf and Ferguson on Ridge road, all “florists and nurserymen,” with others “north of Market street” and south of our selected territory, were each active and independent, catering to his own particular trade, and preparing the way for the development to follow.
The few original settlers of Germantown, as we have seen, were not an agricultural people, but their immediate followers were, and early means were taken to improve the “native stock,” fruit trees were planted, flowers were grown, and the long narrow farms were systematically cultivated. Soon we find the people becoming interested beyond the bare necessities of life, and at least one “professional” place was opened for the growing of more than “garden erbs” and “setts.” This was the nursery of Christian Lehman, located on west side of the main road, almost opposite our present Armat street, and whose home, unchanged, is now occupied by Edward Manley.
In 1731 Godfred Lehman and his son Christian landed in America, and came to Germantown. The father died in 1756, and, as John F. Watson records, was buried in his garden, the site of which is now occupied by George Weiss’ coal yard. In 1856 this grave was uncovered, and the remains, with the memorial stone remarkably preserved, were placed in the burial ground of the Brethren, near the extreme wall. Christian Lehman, the son, became a scribener, notary public and surveyor, and much of his work, including his copies of Zimmerman’s maps, is with us to testify to his activity and skill. He also was associated with Dr. Christopher Witt and like his accomplished leader “cast nativities.”
But in this direction we shall go no farther, for his connection with our present subject is that so far as I know he was the first to regularly establish a nursery in Germantown. Before Lehman’s time plants needed being supplied by collectors, or obtained by direct importation from other parts of America or from abroad.
Townsend Ward, whose halting walk 25 years ago was almost as familiar to Main street frequenters as was Charles J. Peterson’s green umbrella, gives in the Pennsylvania Magazine an interesting account of of Lehman, which in part is as follows:
“Pennsylvania Chronicle, April 12, 1768. To be sold, a choice parcel of well grown young English walnut trees as well as pears and apricot and a curious variety of the best and largest sorts from England of grafted plum trees fit for transplanting this spring or next fall as well as a great variety of beautiful double hyacinths and tulip roots, next summer season, and most other things in the flower or fruit tree nursery way by Christain Lehman. N. B. He likewise (on bequest and if bespoke in time) maketh up parcels of curious plants, shrubs and seeds of the growth of this climate in such a manner as best secures them according to what country or climate they are designed to be transplanted.”
Following Lehman was Matthias Kin, a noted collector, who had no established stand, but as depositaries had several places in Philadelphia where his plants were kept until disposed of. Kin was a peculiar character, averse to civilization, liking best the wilds, into which he made frequent and long journeys, and to which he returned upon the discharge of his wares. His home was Germantown, and his friends were Kurtz and Meng, whose adjoining gardens were favored by his collections, and Meng’s garden, now Vernon Park, is yet enhanced by the product of his labor.
From our first public garden under Kelpius in the Wissahickon to his immediate follower, Dr. Christopher Witt, who, although not a professional in a commercial sense, was an enthusiast to such an extent that he made a journey into Virginia to add to his garden; to Christian Lehman, Mattias Kin and Peter Baumann, and from these to John Kinnier, James Barnes and others of our own memory in the chronological thread leading directly to Meehan and Saunders, the first of a “new order of things.”
Philip R. Freas, founder and long time editor of the Germantown Telegraph, a writer and agriculturist whose reputation was so widely and favorably known that President Grant urged him to accept in his cabinet the portfolio of agriculture, was known to Thomas Meehan through the medium of his newspaper, and it was upon the recommendations of Major Freas that he decided to locate in Germantown. Associating himself with William Saunders, “Meehan and Saunders” began business on Main street, Meehan street now being a reminder of the nursery which it cleft in twain, the house immediately below this street or avenue, numbered 6811, being the residence of Thomas Meehan until the growth of his trade required more land, when the place was disposed of, and the present well-known grounds were secured.
William Saunders did not follow, but opened a place on Johnson street, near Greene street, which at a later time became known as Grassie’s nursery.
We all have known Thomas Meehan so long and so well, and he was so generally beloved, that sometimes it seems superfluous to continually refer to him, but he was so thoroughly identified with our everyday life, so alive, sensitive and magnetic, that it is difficult to consider any contemporaneous home movement of worth without eulogizing him. But this pleasure we shall now deny ourselves, and simply refer to his office and house, which became a mecca towards which scientific visitors of note directed their steps for information and genial good company.
Among a very few of this number was Dr. John A. Ryder, the celebrated embryologist, whose discoveries placed the preservation of oysters beyond doubt; Prof. Austin C. Apgar, the author of “Trees of the Northern United States;” William Falconer, one time editor of “Gardening,” author of a book on “Mushrooms,” and now head of the Shenley Park Conservatories, Pittsburg; George Nicholson, editor of “Dictionary of Gardening,” and indeed a majority of American horticulturists of contemporary note. The modest “gardener,” who in 1853 was in charge of John Bartram’s garden, and who in John Bartram’s work house wrote and dedicated to “the patriarch of American arboriculture” his “Handbook of American Trees,” lived to himself become the nestor of American floriculture, an incomparably greater man than his forerunner and guide.
William Saunders was a Scotchman and studied for the ministry, but finding this calling not congenial, he abandoned it for landscape gardening, becoming a fine draughtsman and designer. Sailing for America he, like many of the “old country” gardeners, came to and settled in Philadelphia. His first work here of importance was that of Clifton Park, now occupied by Johns Hopkin University, afterwards he was the designer of the beautiful national cemetery grounds at Gettysburg, Pa., and later was one of three commissioners who made the streets of Washington the pride of every American and the admiration of the world. For many years, and until his death, William Saunders was the chief of the United States Experiment Gardens at Washington, constantly engaged in important and notable work, and, in addition to other activities, he was the founder and an enthusiastic worker in the widely known order, “The Patrons of Husbandry.”
Miller and Hayes, and Andorra Nurseries, the last two of the great nurseries within our borders, are both too well-known to require detailed mention. The senior partner, Charles H. Miller, was a noted landscape gardener, whose work is well known to Philadelphia. It was he who had charge of the Centennial grounds and planned the surroundings of Horticultural Hall, our Fairmount Park conservatory, and this building and section had in charge until his death. Charles P. Hayes, his associate, was at one time a coal merchant, but being a lover of flowers he abandoned his original business and connected himself with Mr. Miller. Some years ago Mr. Hayes retired, when his place was taken by A.G. Yates, who it will be remembered had charge of the ticket department at the Centennial Exhibition.
Andorra, the beautiful nursery on the Wissahickon, was the creation of Samuel F. Houston, for whom William Warner Harper, its present owner, at first conducted it. In recent years it has been greatly extended, and its magnificent situation is unequalled.
With but few exceptions all our asters or starworts and golden-rods are now in bloom, and those I have collected I shall endeavor to briefly outline, for on paper it is useless to attempt to do more. Prof. Asa Gray was long bothered by these difficult sections, and it was only when he reached his 76th year that he finally mastered them. To a friend he wrote of asters, “Never was there so rascally a genus,” and the same may be said of golden-rods. To conquer these one must study in the fields with specimens for companions, for flowers plucked but a short time entirely lose their characteristics. As simply and as concisely as possible, then, we shall endeavor to present them. Our asters and golden-rods resolve themselves naturally into several groups, those which bloom from late July to September, from August to October and from September to November, in the last group there being but few representatives. These groups subdivide according to habits of growth and color of flowers, so that it is difficult to compass them, and quite impossible to fairly present them within restricted bounds.
New England aster and woodland white aster we have already noted, and among those of the second group named is large-leaved aster, a strong growing plant with large base root leaves, bright blue flowers, and growing in Wister wood and throughout the Wissahickon; small white aster, a robust grower on the edges of woods, with small white or light blue flowers, common near Papermill on the Pennypack creek; showy aster, a low spreading grower, with few large bright purple handsome flowers, appearing sparingly in the Wissahickon near Price’s Mill lane; spreading aster, resembling showy aster, but more slender in habit, and with light purple or lilac flowers, one of our most beautiful and common varieties, appearing everywhere in Franklin and the Wissahickon woods; calico aster, a strong hardy bushy grower appearing in fields and along roadsides everywhere, producing an immense number of small white flowers; panicled, or tall white aster, a sturdy grower from 3 to 8 feet in height, producing flat clusters of white flowers, a common plant on moist shaded banks; long leafed aster, a plant with a smooth, branched stem, 1 to 5 feet in height, producing large light purple flowers, and common in moist places; New York, or willow leaved blue aster, with smooth, or slightly hairy stems, a plant growing to a height of 2 feet, producing large violet blue showy flowers, and appearing rarely in the upper Wissahickon; red-stalk, purple stem aster, having rough heavy stems which grow to a height of 7 feet, and bear light purple flowers, a plant not common, but appearing on Chestnut avenue, near the old “Indian burying ground;” and bog aster, a slender grower with hairy stems rising to a height of 2 feet, bearing light purple flowers and appearing in Miles’ meadow.
Other asters which bloom during the same period, but which ordinarily start later than the foregoing, are wavy leaf aster, a plant of low growth, having grayish hairy stems, large pink or lavender purple flowers, and growing near the “pipe bridge,” Wissahickon; heart-leaved or wood, blue aster, growing to a height of 2 feet, bearing small lilac or light purple flowers in dense clusters, and appearing in Logan’s meadow; smooth aster, a stout stemmed aster from 2 to 4 feet in height, with smooth thick leaves, and with sky-blue flowers, appearing in the upper Wissahickon; and slender aster, a smoothbranched stemmed variety growing to a height of 3 feet, bearing lilac or nearly white flowers, and common everywhere in woods. Usually the latest asters to appear are michaelmas daisy, or heath-aster, a plant with a smooth stem, spreading top, with numerous small white flowers, which soon change to lilac, and appearing everywhere over dry fields; and double bristled, or linear leafed aster, a rough bristly plant growing to a height of 2 feet, bearing beautiful violet flowers, growing on Price’s Mill road, near the Wissahickon. These comprise our principal asters, but by extending our limits the list may be greatly augmented.
Golden-rods in bloom, and heretofore noted, are lance leaved goldenrod; bitter weed, or rough stemmed golden-rod; silver rod or white golden-rod; and early, or yellow-top, or plumed golden-rod. These are our earliest golden-rods, and usually first appear late in July. Closely following is large leaved golden-rod, a plant 1 to 4 feet high, frequenting rocky woods, and growing at “Paper mill” and also in the Wissahickon woods; broad leaved, or zigzag golden- rods growing to a height of 3 feet, producing flowers from the axils of the leaves, a plant common to the upper Wissahickon; bog golden-rod, having a stout stem 2 to 4 feet, with lance shaped leaves, appearing sparingly in damp fields; elm leaved golden-rod, a slender stemmed grower to a height of 4 feet, flowers somewhat resembling bitter weed, and appearing in like situations; slender golden-rod, as its name indicates, a slender grower, bearing small, delicate flowers, and appearing in dry or sandy places; river bank golden-rod, a low growing variety, native to the banks of rocky streams, and appearing in the Wissahickon west of Thorp’s lane bridge; dyers’ weed, gray, or field golden-rod, rising to a height of 2 feet, of a rusty, shabby appearance, the richest and most brilliant bloomer of our home golden-rods, and common in open fields everywhere; Canada golden-rod, or yellow weed, and its close relative, hairy golden-rod, classed as distinct by Gray, but not so recognized by all others, both erect plants growing to a height of 6 feet, with rough hairy stems, and common in fields everywhere; swamp golden-rod, a stout grower to 3 feet in height, with large crowded heads, and appearing in marshy places; and seashore golden-rod, one of the largest and most striking of the golden-rods, a native to the eastern part of New Jersey, but now quite common with us in cultivation, George Redles possessing some very fine plants, and also Mrs. Hobson, who has a number of these plants for over 20 years, the bloom of which she periodically exhibits at the Horticultural Society meetings.
The remaining golden-rods to be noted are late golden-rod, a smooth stemmed straight grower to a height of 6 feet, appearing in thickets or low grounds, and bearing light yellow or sometimes lilac tinted flowers; and blue stemmed, or wreath golden-rod, with bluish or purple stems one to three feet in height, with flowers produced at the axils of the leaves, and appearing in the upper Wissahickon.
All the foregoing golden-rods, with the exceptions noted, bear yellow flowers of various shades, which, as well as the asters, change when mature and in declining fade or pass to another color.
In the field these plants are exceedingly interesting, especially where there is an opportunity for comparative study, and this may be had upon almost every undisturbed field. Many varieties of golden-rods have terminal flowers, others produce their bloom from the axils of the leaves, several of the varieties are erect and pyramidal in growth, while others are bush like, others again are low and spreading. All are beautiful, and not one is unworthy our closest attention.
Attempts have been many times made to have golden-rod classed as our “national flower,” and notwithstanding it is one of our most widely known and generally distributed plants, all efforts to this end have so far failed, as indeed they must fail, for the family lacks distinctness. no member of it is sufficiently unique, and personal assumption or local preference, vulgar or learned, pitted against a spontaneous growth of worth to recognition, is doomed to come to naught.
For many years the neighborhood of Wayne and Manheim streets was a centre for nurseries and greenhouses. We have already noted the nursery of Peter Baumann, and this, afterwards curtailed and divided, was continued by his grandson, George Laughlin, and on part by Thomas Weiss on Manheim street and by Harry Weiss on Seymour street. On the west side of Wayne street, immediately south of Hansberry street, was the greenhouses of George Bauman, on and on the east side of Wayne street or “Old Plank road,” was for over 30 years the largest and most popular floral establishment in Germantown, that of Louis Clapier Baumann, whose houses covered the entire section of Wayne street to Henry street and from Manheim street over 100 yards north, an area now entirely modernized.
Here under an immense spread of grass was grown in quantities roses, camelias and assorted cut flowers for the Philadelphia markets, and a general variety of select flowers for the home trade. So large was the business of Mr. Baumann that at one time, in addition to his own growing, the entire surplus product of William Morris Davis, George C. Lambdin, William Berger, David Cliffe, Thomas Meehan & Sons, William Billger and Miller & Hayes was taken by him, and his output was farther increased by frequent contributions from Frederick Knapp, Daniel Curtin, Alexander Newitt, Edwin Lonsdale, Mrs. Woltemate and John Burton.
Now “Old Plank road” has gone, trolleys have taken the dummy’s place, dwellings occupy the space where flowers flourished, and the moving spirits of the busy mart have disappeared. Perhaps the change is for the better, and regrets are selfish or narrow. When a “progressive” train comes along it is easier to get on board, for if we do not we may be left behind with a few old “croakers” as miserable as ourselves, but on “Baumann’s corner” I labored for 10 years, and whenever I pass it my “thoughts are with the dead,” and I yearn for the fullness of the irrecoverable past.
For a long time Louis C. Baumann was the largest grower of camelias in Philadelphia, and so late as 1880, when fashion had pushed this flower into obscurity, Robert J. Halliday was obliged to come from Baltimore to this place to secure data and specimens wherewith to complete his book, “Camelia Culture.” Roses followed, and although the favorites of 1885 are hardly now known the production at that time was continually pressed by the demand, and contracts for large daily supplies were with difficulty furnished. Mr. Baumann introduced smilax to Philadelphia, and was the first to use it in floral decoration, and in certain kinds of “making up,” particularly in bouquets, he was in a class by himself, no one in nearby “trade” being able to approach him.
Further details we shall pass to note a few of the many who had connection with the place, some of whom have become widely known. Among this number are William G. Shields, one time Register of Wills of Philadelphia; Robert Crawford, Eugene Weiss, Harry Weiss, George Laughlin, William Billger and Albert Woltemate, well known florists; George Kooker and Leedom Kooker, now popular druggists; Frank Hamilton, an extensive traveller through foreign parts, and now a favorite member of Engine No. 9; Harry Hamilton, his brother, now in charge of the freight section at Wayne Junction; the sons of A.W. Harrison, secretary of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society; Alexander, the now famous artist of Paris, and Binge, the artist, traveller, writer; William E. Meehan, the pioneer of the “wholesale cut flower” business in Philadelphia, editor, traveller, writer, lecturer and now Fishery Commissioner of Pennsylvania; Charles E. Meehan, son of Joseph Meehan, and now manager of the “Philadelphia Flower Market;” William G. Holt, now Judge of the Circuit Court of Kansas City, Kansas, active in law and higher politics, and others of less prominence too many to name.
To list all “apprentices” or to note all visitors would carry us far beyond our limits, for as Meehan’s was the resort for men of science, so Baumann’s was the cut flower trade headquarters, and such men as W. Rolker, Robert J. Halliday and Peter Henderson will give an idea of the class which frequently called. But the past has crept upon it, old things have had their day, the spot where myriads of blooms once flourished as a “green bay tree” knows its place no more. Time “moves in a mysterious way,” and grown old “hath forgot itself,” so,
“We all are changed by still degrees,
All but the basis of the soul.”
Camellia. Camellia Japonica.
English walnut. Juglans Regia.
Pear. Pyrus Communis.
Apricot. Prunus Armeniaca.
Plum. Prunus Domestica.
Double hyacinth. Hyacinthus Orientalis.
Tulip. Tulipa Gesneriana.
New England aster. Aster Novaanglicae.
Woodland white aster. Aster Corymbosus.
Large-leaved aster. Aster Macrophyllus.
Small white aster. Aster Vimineous.
Showy aster. Aster Spectabilis.
Spreading aster. Aster Patens.
Calico aster. Aster Diffusus.
Panicled aster. Aster Paniculatus.
Tall white aster. Aster Paniculatus.
Long-leaved aster. Aster Longifolius.
New York aster. Aster Novae Belgii.
Willow-leaved blue aster. Aster Novae Belgii.
Red stalk. Aster Puniceous.
Purple stem aster. Aster Puniceous.
Bog aster. Aster Nemoralis.
Wavy leaf aster. Aster Undulatus.
Heart leaved aster. Aster Cordifolius.
Wood blue aster. Aster Cordifolius.
Smooth aster. Aster Laevis.
Slender aster. Aster Tenuifolius.
Michaelmas daisy. Aster Ericoides.
Heath aster. Aster Ericoides.
Double bristelled aster Aster Linariifolius.
Linear leaved aster. Aster Linariifolius.
Lance leaved golden-rod. Solidago Lanceotata.
Bitter weed. Solidago Rugosa.
Rough stemmed golden-rod. Solidago Rugosa.
Silver rod. Solidago Bicolor.
White golden-rod. Solidago Bicolor.
Sweet golden-rod. Solidago Odora.
Early golden-rod. Solidago Arguta.
Yellow golden-rod. Solidago Arguta.
Plume golden-rod. Solidago Arguta.
Large leaved golden-rod. Solidago Macrophylla.
Broad leaved golden rod. Solidago Latifolia.
Zizzag golden-rod. Solidago Latifolia.
Bog golden-rod. Solidago Ulinginosa.
Elm leaved golden-rod. Solidago Ulmifolia.
Bitterweed. Solidago Rugosa.
Slender golden-rod. Solidago Tenuifolia.
River bank golden-rod. Solidago Humilis.
Dyer’s weed. Solidago Nemoralis.
Gray golden-rod. Solidago Nemoralis.
Field garden golden-rod. Solidago Nemoralis.
Canada golden-rod. Solidago Canadensis.
Yellow golden-rod. Solidago Canadensis.
Hairy golden-rod. Solidago Altissima.
Swamp golden-rod Solidago Neglecta.
Seashore golden-rod. Solidago Sempervirens.
Late golden-rod. Solidago Serotina.
Blue stemmed golden-rod. Solidago Caesia.
Wreath golden-rod. Solidago Caesia.
Smilax. Myrsiphyllum Asparagoides.
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.”