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 Mark Sellers
As students of Edwin Jellett must surely realize by this late date, you simply have to be ready for anything to pop out of his weekly column. Jellett’s September 4, 1903, installment suggests fall may have arrived a little early that year. He opens with a mention of the bright color of “the fruited Indian turnip,” which was enough to send this reader to Wikipedia, wondering whether there was some previously unknown antique food source in the underbrush of Germantown. I was surprised to find we now know the Indian turnip as jack-in-the-pulpit.
Jellett seems to have a nearly endless store of anecdotes. He lingers on vines, in particular, grapes. This provokes Jellett to retell the story of the creation of the Philadelphia National Cemetery, a lovely burial ground and green space created in the mid-1880s that still exists at the corner of Haines Street and Limekiln Pike. Apparently, Jellett was acquainted with the superintendent of the cemetery, who was charged with gathering up the remains of various soldiers scattered around this part of Philadelphia in smaller graveyards and bringing them to a single, more dignified site. Visitors to the cemetery today will find an attractively manicured place with row upon row of standard-issue white marble slabs marking the graves of the soldiers.
In the 19th century there was a large Italianate house on the property known as the superintendent’s lodge (demolished in 1939), which was occupied by Jellett’s friend, Frederick Kauffmann. It appears that after having gotten the cemetery squared away Mr. Kauffmann turned his attention to growing grapes — in the cemetery. Jellett reports he had many labeled varieties and when Kauffman needed a new tag written out he sent for Jellett because of his excellent penmanship.
Jellett leaves us hanging on how cultivating grapes squared with the dignity that would normally be accorded America’s fallen soldiers, but as Jellett hastens to tell us everything he knows this question is simply lost in the rush.
Edwin C. Jellett – September 4, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
Woodland paths are now a native carnival of growth and color, the maturity of spring vying in its brilliancy with the greater growth, more profuse and more intense blooms of late summer.
Go where we may in woods, the vivid vermilion of fruited Indian turnip is conspicuous in the undergrowth; bending berried tops of false Solomon seal gradually and surely changing from a creamy white to its ultimate red, are midway on the journey, coursed by a network of sanguinous veins of the most delicate, beautiful tracery; above them, shining, sparkling blackberries, as bright as rodent eyes, weight supporting stems into festoons of grace and beauty; over them sheep-berry, with clusters of emeralds, are rapidly becoming settings for solitaires of red; higher yet silky cornel is displaying its cymes of berries blue, and over all beneath the higher trees is wild grape climbing to light and heat and life and color, and now in places hang with generous promise.
Cultivated grapes are ripe, but our native grapes, their parents, develop more slowly, and their season is more extended. With vegetation as with other life, cultivation has produced a more sensitive organism and an earlier maturing progeny.
It is interesting to note how early the cultivation of our native vines occupied the minds of the first settlers, and the value they set upon its increase. John F. Watson says: “About the time William Penn was thus urging the cultivation of the vine, his enlightened friend Pastorius, the German and scholar, was experimenting, as he expressly says, on his little vineyard in Germantown.”
Before the planting of this vineyard, which occupied the ground between that on Daniel Geissler and John Doeden on east side of Main street, and over the dividing fences of which Dr. Witt and Pastorius exchanged letters in verse, Pastorius was interested in “nature” and grapes, as a letter written to his parents, and in 1894 discovered by Henry S. Dotterer in Switzerland, distinctly shows, and it as well illumines an interesting fact in connection with our main avenue, and explains its devious, tortuous course.
This letter is dated Philadelphia, Mar. 7, 1684, and in it Pastorius states: “On the 16th of Octobcr I found pretty March violets in the woods, also after I had laid-out Germantown on the 24th of October and when returning the day following, the 25th, with seven others to this place, we saw on the way clinging to a tree a wild grapevine upon which hung about 400 bunches of grapes. To get the grapes we cut down the tree, and the eight of us ate as many as satisfied us, after which each of us brought a hatful home with us.”
The path by which these pioneers travelled is recorded and often quoted as an “Indian path,” but Pastorius further writes: “Two leagues from here lies Germantown, where already dwell 42 persons in 12 families, who are mostly linen weavers unaccustomed to husbandry. The path to Germantown has by frequent going to and fro been so thoroughly beaten that a road has been formed.”
In this same letter Pastorius shows himself familiar with the fruits and nuts of field and forest, a close observer, and open to the uses to which they might be put. Francis Daniel Pastorius, as we all know, was the agent of the Frankford Company, and the founder of Germantown. He was a man whose intellectual attainments would lead us to imagine him a recluse, or at least a student of close habits, but one who makes a study of his character will soon discover his native shrewdness, his practical habits, his “progressiveness,” which was not at all times able to bear the “light,” but whatever his faults, his knowledge and influence tended to the betterment of the colony, and in his unknown grave let all his shortcomings lie.
Gabriel Thomas, who followed, in 1698 wrote: “I shall proceed to instance in the several sorts of wild fruits, as excellent grapes, red, black, white, muscadel and fox, which upon frequent experience have produced choice wine, being daily cultivated by skillful vinerows.” And after noting the making of wine, and brewing, and giving a list of native fruits and nuts, he continues: “All sorts of very good paper are made in the Germantown; as also very fine German linen, such as no person of quality need be ashamed to wear; and in several places they make very good druggets, carpets, camblets” and serges, besides other woolen clothes, the manufacture of all which daily improves; and in most parts of the country there are many curious and spacious buildings, which several of the gentry have erected for their country-houses. As for the fruit trees they plant, they arrive at such perfection that they bear in a little more than half the time that they commonly do in England.”
Peter Kalm, the next observing traveller, writing in 1748, wonders at the plaintiveness of the wild grape everywhere, and especially along the roads to Chester and Germantown. But we desire not to pursue grapes to the “bitter end,” for we wish to follow the path the German-Towne settler first trod, and, as they did, rest at the top of the hill to view the “promised land.” Loudoun, which commands the entrance to Germantown, is one of the finest estates, and from the days of Thomas Armatt and “Commodore” Skerritt to those of the Logan family, its present owner, its imposing and conspicuous mansion has served as a genial host to the multitudinous admiring toilers who have climbed Negley’s Hill. Famed in prose and song, it serenely and confidently rests, and like “a city built upon a hill” which cannot be hid is viewed by every comer, and it from its high lookout complacently views the world.
New England is celebrated for, and justly proud of, its noble elm trees, and Pennsylvania should be proud of its oaks, tulip-poplar, buttonwood and pine trees. Germantown fortunately is highly favored, and I sometimes wonder if some of our specimens did not stand at the time of the settlement. At Loudoun are several pine trees, and although these are not as large nor as fine as others we have, they yet are notable ones. During the time of George Logan, the first Logan occupant, John Hart was gardener at Loudoun. John Hart afterward became well known as a landscape gardener and investor, accumulated a substantial and honest competency, and spent his declining days on his estate at corner of Greene street and School lane, where his row of four frame houses will be well remembered, in the corner one of which he lived, the adjoining one being occupied by “Harry” Grarenstein, the happy beloved sexton of St. Luke’s Church; and in another, “Indian Jake,” whom everyone knew as the sexton of Market Square Church, long lived, and here died. All are at rest, their dwelling places have disappeared, and on the site now stands the residence of Miss Jane Hart, surrounded by an attractive well-kept garden, both ever an ornament to this historic neighborhood.
Gardens are “ever bright and fair,” and even if these consist of but a clear strip of earth along a shaded bricked sideyard walk, they possess great possibilities, for the garden which most appeals to us is always the one at home, and a garden which does not brighten and contribute to the happiness of home has no value whatever. Daily as I pass and repass our Germantown Gas Works I admire the care and the taste shown by its superintendent, Charles T. Macarthur, for here was a waste made to “blossom as a rose,” an unpromising hillside, terraced, with beds bordered by white-flowering sweet allysum, blue-flowering ageratum and yellow-flowering nasturtiums, and behind these low circular elevations of bloom, flowering mountains of snow, geraniums in variety, flowering phlox with larkspur and coryopsis, cannas red, with white-flowering tobacco and blue agapanthus, the whole one of those pleasing homemade gardens which bees and birds delight in, and, like a happy child, ever smiling to touch responsive souls.
Another pleasing garden of a semi-public nature is that furnished by George W. Russell, and located at corner of Seymour and Morris streets. In this garden there is a constant succession of striking exhibits, which as mounted tablets give notice, “This garden is maintained largely for the enjoyment of the public, and it is left to their protection.” Those who did not view the magnificent spring display of crimson rambler roses there shown can form no idea of their number or bewildering beauty, and should view it now for its wonderful late summer color effects.
We all admire many things, and we all love something, but it is a wise man who can draw a line between selfishness and love. As making a noise and waving a flag on the Fourth of July is no evidence of patriotism, nor dying for one’s country creates neither a hero nor a martyr, so devotion may become the quiet essence of selfishness, for it is “not what we give, but what we share” which counts, so those who have learnt “the law” no longer put high walls about their gardens to make prisons of their homes; no longer shout on holidays when they may be seen and heard, and are silent the rest of the year under preposterous civic corruption; no longer able-bodied veterans absorb unearned pensions; nor “respectable” citizens vote to protect their “interests” in dividend bearing stocks.
Trumpet-vine, which has been in bloom for some time, as joyful as “Airy Fairy Lilian,” is flowering over many a porch; crape myrtle, long housed or otherwise protected, is now weighted by its increase of delicate pink bloom, and everywhere the soft white panicles of hardy hydrangeas, never finer nor more profuse than this season, are “a sight to behold.” Amarantus, variegated red and yellow; achyranthes, dark and bronzed, with golden feverfew for borders, and rose-flowering balsams, blue-flowering fuchsias, and red, white and mottled flowering four o’clock plant, corralled within the enclosure. Calidums’ in infinite variegation and variety of colors, from green to rosy red with all the intervening shades, and in indescribable of forms; with those large sober elephant ears, long, green, contemplative, have brightened to enjoy the warm weather. Flowering begonias, distinct from the earlier and smaller flowering begonias, are now as happy and as lovely as a maid at Eastertide, with their large, soft chaste white, red and other colored flowers; golden banded lily of Japan, a strong grower, a generous bloomer and a most valuable acquisition, is blooming in its perfection. Bush-like, trumpet-shaped, white-blooming datura; slender, wiry, heavy-topped and as heavy scented white-flowering tuberose; and red-flowering hibiscus, like a beau gallant, is sporting among white airy flowering lilies, his vivid color making him a conspicuous object, and giving no evidence of the concrete blackness within.
On porches, especially upon George Redles’ noted porch on Wister street, gloxinas in variety, from white to downy luscious purple, show their marvelous tinted alabaster tubular blooms, and at Frank Neilson’s on Duval street, and numerous places elsewhere, that nocturnal mystery of purity and form, the night blooming cereus, is opening its white-petailed, curious yellow-stained flowers. Indeed, in gardens it would seem that the “new wine” has been left until now.
In meadows iron weed, a sturdy bushy plant with numerous heads of dark or light purple flowers, according to its position, is in bloom, and in its company will usually be found one or more varieties of eupatorium. Climbing boneset, or hemp weed, a plant closely related to the eupatoriums, a strong heavy climber over bushes and low shrubbery, is bearing intense pink or purple flowers, and though not common to our territory, is abundant throughout Southern New Jersey. We have several varieties of eupatorium, under a scattering array of popular names. These are white snake root, a common plant 1 to 3 feet high, with smooth leaves, soft white flowers, a plant appearing plentifully in the lower Wissahickon, and also common in garden and greenhouse cultivation; upland boneset, a strong grower 3 to 6 feet in height, having rough lance shaped sessile leaves, thick dull white flowers, and common to low grounds; thoroughwort, or boneset, a vigorous grower 2 to 4 feet in height, with wooly pointed clasping leaves, and topped with a profusion of dull white flowers; Joe Pye or trumpet weed, a plant previously noted, with lilac or purple flowers, and a variety of it more sparsely clothed, producing fewer flowers, and both appearing together. Other varieties in bloom, but appearing only rarely in our territory, are dog fennell, a small, white-flowering variety; hairy boneset, a plain narrow-leaved wooly plant with white flowers, and round-leaved boneset, a plant 1 to 2 feet high, with downy leaves and white flowers; these with the first named appearing at “Paper Mill” on the Pennypack creek, at Vineland, Millville and other parts of Southern New Jersey.
Water hoarhound or bugle-weed, a square angled stemmed plant, bearing highly colored bronzed leaves, appearing everywhere in swampy places, is in bloom, and shows its rings of small white flowers at the axils of the leaves. Also in bloom in the Wissahickon woods, and common below Hermit lane bridge, is fire-weed, a tall odorous plant, with lance-shaped notched leaves, and producing greenish white or bright purple flowers, a plant in no way suggesting its name, which comes from the fact that it usually appears upon burnt over grounds. Also along the borders of woods, and in open places in woods, wild senna or sensitive plant everywhere shows its delicately formed leaves, and at its best is showing its bright yellow flowers; Indian tobacco, a name given to many plants, but now applied to our common lobelia, a plant long in bloom, but which yet continues to show its small light blue flowers; great lobelia, a vigorous grower, pushing a flowering stem to a height of one to two feet, thick with attractive light blue flowers; and cardinal flower, an intense flame flowering member of the same family, one of our most striking native plants, is, with the other representatives of the family named, growing near Thorp’s lane and the Wissahickon.
Rough stemmed golden rod in bloom is now common in fields, and the second member of its family to conspicuously join it is lance-leaved golden rod, a rough growing plant with fine pointed leaves, with small heads of dull yellow flowers, and blooming near Logan Station. Early golden rod, a slender grower with small leaves, and sweet golden rod, a delicate odorous leaved variety, are blooming in the Wissahickon near Kitchen’s lane, each having yellow flowers, and near them white golden-rod, the only white-flowering variety with us, is showing its yellow centred white boom near “Toleration” monument, and throughout the Wissahickon.
Golden aster, not an aster in fact, but belonging to the same general family, is bright with golden-rayed heads in Franklin and other woods, and though not common, the plant is by no means rare, and its merits entitle it to a place in every garden. Two true asters are, however, in bloom, one large-leaved aster, a low grower with large, heart-shaped root leaves, and with beads of white to lilac colored bloom, now in flower at Walnut Hill, and in the upper Wissahickon; and New England aster, a sturdy heavy bushy grower to a height of 6 to 8 feet, and producing a profusion of rich purple yellow centered flowers, is in bloom under John Warr’s care at “Wakefield,” in many other gardens about Germantown where it is cultivated for its beauty, and naturally at Spring Mill near the famous spring, where at this season of the year it is a prominent feature of the landscape.
Along banks of streams Hercule’s club, or angelica tree, a shrub which reaches the proportions of a tree, is showing its large bunches of white flowers, a plant more familiar to us as an introduction to lawns. In open fields and on borders of woods common night shade, more sturdy than bittersweet, shows its rather attractive white flowers, and is now in bloom near Pittville. Horse-balm, rich-weed or stone weed, a smooth lime-scented plant 1 to 3 feet high, with open panicles of small yellow flowers, is in bloom near Price’s Mill lane, and generally throughout the Wissahickon.
In the same district other plants sparingly in bloom are white lettuce, an erect plant 2 to 4 feet high, having smooth dissected leaves and drooping heads of creamy white tubular flowers, and rattlesnake root, two to five feet high, with lilac or purple tinted flowers. Great willow herb, sometimes known as fire-weed; trailing willow herb, and hairy willow herb, all appearing in the upper Wissahickon, are plants from two to four feet in height, with lanced-shaped leaves, and with slender honeysuckle like tubular flowers, varying in color from pink to white, are in bloom. Compared with spring, the woods have entirely changed, and soon the entire assembly of asters and golden rods will appear, after which until a new season there will be with general flowers “oblivion and profound nonentity.”
We have by no means exhausted grapes, and I shall not enlarge, but will simply venture to mention a grape enthusiast unknown to fame, and to give a little unknown history in connection with a cemetery garden. Frederick Kauffmann, the first superintendent of our home National Cemetery, was “before the war” the manager of one of the paper mills at Manayunk. Enlisting, suffering heavily, and partially disabled, he was continued in the Government’s employ, being assistant and for a time superintendent of the beautiful National Cemetery at Arlington. About the year 1880 he was detailed to place in order all neglected graves of soldiers in the vicinity of Philadelphia, and was also commissioned to select a site for a national cemetery.
I became acquainted with Mr. Kauffmann on the day he came to Germantown, and have a knowledge of his subsequent movements. After frequent visits to Bristol, Olney and other near places, Mr. Kauffmann finally selected a site for the cemetery on Second Street pike, near Crescentville, and Louis C. Baumann, his closest friend, was asked to visit and criticise the selection. A visit was made, the place in every way appeared desirable and the choice was approved, but on the return the friends turned oft York road into Haines street, and on reaching Limekiln pike Mr. Baumann, pointing to the Longstroth property, said: “There’s a better site tor the cemetery than the one you hare selected, and it can be bought for less money.”
The place was at once inspected, the suggestion was approved, and at once the pair proceeded to the office of Potter & Seymour, where the price was found to be less than half that asked for the site originally selected, and so the place was secured, and with it the wealth of rare and beautiful trees which grace its sacred precincts.
At the National Cemetery Frederick Kauffmann grew many varieties of grapes, taking the greatest interest in their development and care, and it may amuse my “Independent-Gazette” friends to learn that he thought my penmanship the clearest he had ever seen, and always when he had new specimens to label I was sent for to do the work.
The grapes yet grow and bear, but the hand which planted them is stilled, the thought and care which aided in their development have ceased, and now when I stand before a well-known grave I linger in silence to wonder.
Indian turnip. Arisaema Triphyllum.
False Solomon seal. Smilacina Racemosa.
Blackberry. Rubus Villosus.
Sheep berry. Viburum Lentago.
Silky cornel. Cornus Sericea.
Wild grape. Vitis Labrusca.
Cultivated grape. Vitis Labrusca.
March violet. Viola Blanda.
Red grape. Vitis Labrusca.
Black grape. Vitis Aestivalis.
White grape. Vitis Vinifera.
Muscadel grape. Vitis Rotundifolia.
Fox grape. Vitis Labrucsa.
Elm. Ulmus Americana.
Oak. Quercus Alba.
Tulip poplar. Liriodendron Tulipifera.
Buttonwood. Platanus Occidentalis.
Pine. Pinus Strobus.
Sweet alyssum. Alyssum Maritimum.
Blue ageratum. Ageratum Conygoides, var. Mexicanum.
Nasturtium. Tropaelium Majus.
Mountain of snow. Euphorbia Variegata.
Geranium. Pelargonium Zonale.
Garden phlox. Phlox Drummondii.
Larkspur. Delphinium Elatum.
Yellow Coreopsis. Coreopsis Lanceolata.
Canna. Canna Indica.
White flowering tobacco. Nicotiana Affinis.
Agapanthus. Agapanthus Umbellatus.
Crimson Rambler rose. Rosa Multiflora (Polyantha.)
Trumpet vine. Tecoma Radicans.
Crape myrtle. Lagerstroemia Indica.
Hydrangea. Hydrangea Quercifolia.
Amarantus. Amarantus Melancholicus.
Achyranthes. Achyranthes Verschaffeltii.
Golden fever-few. Chrysanthemum Parthenium.
Balsam. Impatiens Balsamina.
Blue flowering funkia. Funkia Ovata.
Four o’clock plant. Mibabilis Jalapa.
Caladium variegated. Caladium Marmoratum.
Elephant ear. Caladium Eculentum.
Flowering begonia. Begonia Rubra.
Small flowering begonia. Begonia Gracilis.
Lily of Japan. Lilium Auratum.
Garden datura. Datura Arborea.
Tuberose. Polianthes Tuberosa.
Red flowering hibiscus. Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis.
White flowering lily. Lilium Candidum.
Gloxinia. Gloxinia Speciosa.
Night blooming cereus. Cereus Nycticaulus.
Iron weed. Vernonia Noveboracense.
Climbing bone-set. Mikania Scandens.
Hemp-weed. Mikania Scandens.
White snakeroot. Eupatorium Ageratoides.
Upland bone-set. Eupatorium Sessillifolium.
Thorough wort. Eupatorium Perfoliatum.
Bone-set. Eupatorium Perfoliatum.
Joe pye weed. Eupatorium Purpureum.
Trumpet weed. Eupatorium Purpureum.
Trumpet weed. Eupatorium Purpureum, var. Amoenicum.
Dog-fennel. Eupatorium Foeniculatum.
Hairy bone-set. Eupatorium Hyssopifollum.
Round leaved boneset. Eupatorium Rotundifolium.
Water horehound. Lycopus Virginicus.
Bugle weed. Lycopus Virginicus.
Fire-weed. Erechtites Hieracifolia.
Wild senna. Cassia Nictitans.
Wild sensitive plant. Cassia Nictitans.
Indian tobacco. Lobelia Tuflata.
Common lobelia. Lobelia Inflata.
Great lobelia. Lobelia Syphilitica.
Cardinal flower. Lobelia Cardinalis.
Rough stemmed golden-rod. Solidago Rugosa.
Lance leaved golden-rod. Solidago Lanceolata.
Early golden-rod. Solidago Juncea.
Sweet golden-rod. Solidago Odora.
White golden-rod. Solidago Bicolor.
Golden aster. Chrysopsis Mariana.
Lance leaved aster. Aster Corymbosus.
New England aster. Aster Novae angliae.
Hercules club. Aralia Spinosa.
Angelica tree. Aralia Spinosa.
Common night shade. Solanum Nigrum.
Bittersweet. Solanum Dulcamara.
Horse balm. Collinsonia Canadensis.
Rich weed. Collinsonia Canadensis.
Stone-root. Collinsonia Canadensis.
White lettuce. Prenanthes Alba.
Rattlesnake root. Prenanthes Racemosa.
Great willow herb. Epilobium Angustifolium.
Trailing willow herb. Epilobium Coloratum.
Hairy willow herb. Epilobium Hirsutum.
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.”