Some history of historic plants

One of the goals of Growing History is to propagate plants from historic sites, and to then share those plants among places with historic, cultural or horticultural significance, or just simply with places and people who love plants and history.

The idea of propagating specific plants of historic significance, however, isn’t new.  In the 1917 catalog for Meehan’s Nursery, there is an advertisement for “Historical Elms”, that were “Not seedlings, but scions actually cut from the historical trees …” and the listing in the catalog goes on to say that “This is the only lot of similar plants known to exist in this country.”  (This catalog and others like it are at the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, in Philadelphia)

There were 37 different such elms offered in the 1917 catalog, and they were mostly from England, from sites associated with the upper class such as high end schools (e.g, Oxford, Harrow, Eton) and other kinds of places like that, including Windsor Castle and Westminster Palace.

But historical elms weren’t just for anglophiles – the nursery also had Penn Treaty elms, that is, descendants from the Penn Treaty elm (it was an American elm), under which William Penn engendered his treaty with the Lenape at what is now Penn Treaty Park, by the Delaware River in Philadelphia.  That tree is pictured here (in Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, painted 1791-1792; image from the website of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts:–2609/):

To give a bit more background on the Penn Treaty elm, and a bit of foreground, too, we can turn to Edward Embree Wildman’s book “Penn’s Woods: 1682 – 1932”.  Published in 1933, this book attempted to document all the trees in the area that were alive at the time of William Penn’s arrival in 1682 and were still living at time of the 250th anniversary of that arrival.  [Note: as of 1979, there were only two “Penn trees” remaining in Philadelphia county, according to an article in the Ocala Star-Banner published on the 11th of June 1979 (there were 24 documented in 1932)]  And the Penn Treaty elm was, to Wildman’s view, “Pennsylvania’s Most Historic Tree”, and on pages 128-129 he covers what it was, where it was, and where it went:

“Penn Treaty Elm at Shackamaxon (now Kensington)

Preserved for us on canvas by Benjamin West in his famous painting, “Penn’s Treaty With the Indians,” now hanging in Independence Hall.  When blown down by a storm on March 3, 1810, its circumference was twenty-four feet, its main branch one hundred fifty feet in length and its ring count showed its age to be 283 years.  Dr. Benjamin Rush had an armchair made from its wood.  General Simcoe, during the Revolution, when firewood was scarce, placed a guard of British soldiers around the tree to protect it from the axe.

Scions of the Great Treaty Elm

The only recorded scion of this famous tree was moved about a century ago to the Oliver Estate at Bay Ridge, N. Y.  In 1887 this tree was again moved to the present Oliver estate near Wilkes-Barre, where it stands opposite the Town Chapel at Oliver’s Mills

Scions of the Second Generation
(Grandchildren on the Great Treaty Elm)

1. North of College Hall on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, planted on April 10, 1896, by Governor Hastings.

2. South of Founder’s Hall on the campus at Haverford College.

3. On the grounds of the Pennsylvania Hospital, Eighth and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia

4. Beside Bacon Cottage at Westtown School, four miles east of West Chester.  Planted by Dr. Wills

5. In front of Johnson Library, Camden, N. J. This seedling was carried in her apron by a nurse from Shackamaxon to Elizabeth Cooper, who with her two brothers built and gave Cooper Hospital to the city of Camden.

Scions of the Third Generation
(Great Grandchildren of the Great Treaty Elm)

Developed from cuttings taken from the grandson on the Haverford campus, we may now see on the same campus, about two hundred fifty feet southeast of Roberts Hall, seven great grandsons of the Penn Treaty Tree, presented by an alumnus in 1916.  Thus followed an old English custom of planting seven trees of the same species in a group.”

Katharine Stanley Nicholson also discusses these trees, in her 1922 book Historic American Trees:

“Descendants of the Penn Treaty Elm

General Oliver’s Tree

When the land where the Treaty Elm had stood came into the possession of General Paul A. Oliver’s ancestors, a shoot was discovered springing up from the old tree’s roots.  This was transplanted to Bay Ridge, N.Y., where it flourished until after fifty years it had almost reached the size of the parent tree. Then the General removed it to his home at Wilkes-Barre Penn., where it has continued to thrive.

On Arbor Day, April 10, 1896, a shoot from General Oliver’s tree was planted on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, by Governor Hastings of that State, in honor of William Penn, first Governor of the Commonwealth.  The tiny sapling grew into a healthy tree which has rounded out its first quarter century. It is one of the youngest of the Great Elm’s descendants.

Another scion of the old tree stands on the grounds of the Pennsylvania Hospital Philadelphia and yet another in the yard of the Friends’ Meeting, in Twelfth Street, in the same city, silent witnesses to the memory of the Great Treaty, which Voltaire described as the only agreement “between the Christians and the Indians that was never sworn to and never broke.”

As Robert Piper, President of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association notes, there is solid evidence that the tree at Penn was planted for that organization –

Penn Treaty Elm Scion Plaque_photo by Robert Piper

Image courtesy the Pennsylvania Forestry Association.  Photo by Robb Piper, PFA President 2014-2015

(NB: the 1896 planting mentioned above was mentioned in the March 23, 1896 New York Times; the piece reads: “A Cion of  the Penn Treaty Elm/ From the Philadelphia Times/ Gen. Paul A. Oliver of Laurel Run has shipped an elm tree to Philadelphia, where it will be planted on Arbor Day, April 10, by Gov. Hastings.  The Governor will plant the tree in honor of the first Governor of this Commonwealth, William Penn, on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.  The tree is a branch taken from a tree grown in the log chapel yard at Oliver’s Mills, in which Gen. Oliver takes much pride, as it is fifty-six years old and was grown from a branch of the original Penn treaty elm.”; there is also, according to this: an offspring of the Haverford treaty elm, at Ursinus College – “Our tree was planted in 1976-77 from a seedling from Haverford College’s grandchild tree.  The tree on campus, which is located by BPS, near the power plant, the knitting woman statue and Corson Hall, is a fourth generation tree from the original Penn Treaty Tree.”)



And so, if we follow Wildman’s and Nicholson’s histories, the Treaty elms that were sold in Meehan’s catalog had first made a detour to Bay Ridge, and ultimately ended up for sale back home, here in Philadelphia.

These Penn Treaty elms were $8 each for the 1 inchers and $5 a piece for the half inchers. (The elms from England were 10 each, by the way).

We don’t know what became of these trees, nor how many were sold and to whom they were sold – as of now, all we have is this record of the listings from Meehan’s Nursery catalogs (there’s a similar listing in the 1916 catalog), a record of an early 20th century interest in historic plants, and an attempt to make some commercial value from that.

Meehan’s Nursery itself is now a part of history.  The nursery was in two sites, one in Dresher, PA and one in Germantown (in Philadelphia).  The Germantown nursery had its northwestern boundary at what is now East Vernon Road, and its southwestern on Chew Avenue; and as is mentioned in Meehan’s 1881 nursery catalog (which is accessioned in the collections at the McLean Library), it was of substantial size: “We have forty acre in nurseries in the city of Philadelphia”, they write.  If you walk along East Vernon Rd today, and you walk northeast from Chew and you see rows of Cedrelas, tall trees with enormous panicles of white flowers in June, planted along the sidewalk, you are on the street where the offices of Meehan’s Nursery were, a hundred years ago and more.  (Note that Cedrela was here in the 19th century, as is indicated in John Harshberger’s 1899 The Botanists of Philadelphia and their Work: “Here, too, is a fine specimen of Cedrela Sinensis, nearly thirty feet high.”)

The nursery was founded in 1854 by Thomas Meehan, who is quite a historical figure himself – in addition to developing his enormously successful eponymous nursery, he was also a founding member of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, a Philadelphia City Councilman, an avid developer of city parks throughout Philadelphia, the rediscoverer of the pink dogwood, and a correspondent of Charles Darwin, Asa Gray, and other luminaries of the 19th century.  And prior to his arrival in the US in 1848, he’d led an interesting life as well; as Edwin C. Jellett writes in his 1914 book Germantown Gardens and Gardeners, “Thomas Meehan was a Chartist, therefore a marked man, and finding it impossible to hold a position in England, he decided to emigrate to Pennsylvania”.  Thomas Meehan died in 1901 and the nursery was then run by other members of his family.  It closed in the 1920s, and shortly thereafter a housing development was built where the nursery once stood.

Today, if you walk up E. Phil Ellena Street or E. Hortter Street, from Chew Avenue, under the oaks that were planted when the development was built, you are on the grounds of what was once one of the major nurseries in eastern North America.

The oak trees that are now there can be seen, as youngsters, in this picture:

View looking along Hortter Street in 1927, after the development that replaced Meehan’s Nursery was developed.

And Meehan’s is linked further and deeper into horticultural history.  Prior to his many accomplishments, at the start of his career, Thomas Meehan was a gardener at Bartram’s Garden.  In the late 1840s, soon after he came to the US from England, he worked as a gardener there. This relationship comes around again in the 1890s, after Meehan had made his fortune as a nurseryman and become a politically influential member of the Philadelphia community, when he fronted the movement to keep Bartram’s Garden as a garden, thereby preventing it from becoming built upon by developers.

And so, nothing is new.  Today, we propagate historic plants, and we find that Meehan’s Nursery did that nearly a hundred years ago.  Today, those of us who are interested in gardens and natural history spend time with others who feel the same, and we want to preserve the historic sites that are key to these interests.  And, as we do today, Thomas Meehan linked sites and institutions in the 19th century and worked to preserve them.

And so, nothing is new.

For more about pre-colonial trees (“Penn trees”), see here:

Hemlocks (along the Wissahickon)

American chestnut (and others)


A visit to Bartram’s Garden with the Philadelphia Botanical Club

The first Philadelphia Botanical Club field trip was to Bartram’s Garden on the 14th of February 1892. To commemorate that, on Saturday the 25th of February, 2012, beginning at 10AM, we revisited the site, discussed its history, and looked for plants that would’ve been seen on that first trip, such as Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite), Ptelea trifoliata, and Aralia spinosa.  (there’s also historical interest related to rhubarb and hawthorns, there)

The meeting minutes for the Philadelphia Botanical Club are in the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences (filed under “Philadelphia Botanical Society” – collection #88; NB: the Philadelphia Botanical Society was a different organization from the Philadelphia Botanical Club), and the meeting minutes for February 25th 1892 include the following:

“Mr. Crawford for the Field Committee reported that a trip had been taken to Bartram’s Garden’s [sic]

Ptelea [‘Tillia’ is stricken and replaced with ‘Ptelea’] trifoliata was reported growing on the Railroad above Bartrams Gardens [sic], opposite the block tower, at the intersection of the West Chester Branch with the P. W. & B R.R. but it is fast disappearing.  Aralia spinosa was also reported.

Mr. Frank Day suggested the advisability of having such rare occurrences noted in the herbarium so that they would not be [?buried?, ?burned? – this word is partially illegible] up”

NB:  Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown, in their 1905 Hand-book of the Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity, published by the Philadelphia Botanical Club, note Bartram’s Garden as a locality for Aralia spinosa; that species doesn’t appear to be there anymore (we didn’t see it), though Aralia elata is reasonably common there.  And as for Ptelea trifoliata, as Joel Fry, curator, Bartram’s Garden, notes “There isn’t any Ptelea trifoliata left on the railroad cuts around Bartram’s although other interesting things still grow there. [We have one rather sickly plant of Ptelea in the garden, I assume, planted in the 1920s or later.]”.

There isn’t an Aralia spinosa collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences (here in Philadelphia) from Bartram’s in 1892, though there is one (by Clyde F. Reed) from 11 August 1977, and so for that species, we don’t have a physical record of it being there for that first field trip, though we do have the written record above, of course, and so it’s pretty clear it was there.  Additionally, in a letter dated “June the 21st, 1743”, from John Bartram to Peter Collinson, he writes “The Aralia spinosa I brought from Virginia. It grows well with me.” (from William Darlington’s Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall, 1849).  Barton (1818) notes of this species: “Easily recognised by its thorny stems and branches. It is common in gardens where it sometimes attains a great size, as at Lemon-hill. It grows wild in a stony thicket not far from Mantua-village.” [he also gives it the following common names: “Thorny Aralia. Shot-bush. Pigeon-weed. Angelica-tree.”]

Also, not mentioned in the minutes quoted above, but in the herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences, there’s a collection of Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite) from Bartram’s Garden, dated 14th of February 1892, collected by Alexander MacElwee – from that first field trip, mentioned above.  (I thank Joel Fry here, for suggesting I look for that collection – I would not have found it otherwise.)  There are other collections of winter aconite from Bartram’s Garden – on the 28th of April 1894 Alexander MacElwee collected it again there, and on the 19th of April 1896 Dr. Ida A. Keller collected it there, as did Albrecht Jahn on the 14th of February 1895, and M. E. Eastwick on the 19th of March in 1880 (this collection arrived to the Academy via the Charles E. Smith Herbarium), and Joseph Crawford on the 30th of April 1892, and J. Bernard Brinton on the 16th of February 1890, and John Harshberger on the 6th of March 1889, and associated with that Harshberger collection is a handwritten letter from George Vasey, of the Division of Botany of the US Department of Agriculture (in DC), dated 29th of March 1889, in which he writes “I wish to thank you for the specimen of Eranthis hyemalis which we received this morning from you.  We have in the herbarium another specimen from the Bartram garden [sic] collected by Mr. E. C. Smith many years ago, with the note on the ticket that it grows also at Media, Penn.”.  This is most likely a duplicate of yet another collection of the Bartram’s winter aconite at the Academy, whose label notes the collector as C. E. Smith, with a collection date of March 1882.  Also, to make a Quaker connection – there are collections at the Academy from Westtown School (by Edgar Wherry, 6 May 1954) and “Naturalized in wooded tract around house of Humphry Marshall.  Marshallton.” (by Edgar Wherry, 30 April 1954).  Finally, there is a collection by Miss M. Eastwick, from the 28th of February 1880, with a label stating “Escaped from Bartram’s Garden and well established there – near Philadelphia. also found at Marshallton Chester Co. + elsewhere about old gardens.”  (Keller and Brown also list an Eranthis hyemalis (as Cammarum hyemale) locality of Bartram’s Garden; it’s also mentioned here and here)

Given how picked over by eager botanists the winter aconite patch was at Bartram’s, it is a testament to this plant’s strength that it is still there – and we saw it flowering on the 25th of February, 2012, still going strong, after all these years.

And they are still there in 2014, as is clear from the following photo:

BartramsGarden_15951 March 10 2014

Honeybee (Apis mellifera) on winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), Bartram’s Garden, 10th of March 2014, mid-afternoon; Photo credit: Ken Frank

There were many honeybees on the flowers there, on the afternoon of the 10th of March – we saw at least a dozen, actively crawling on the blooms (these bees were most likely from the beehive that is kept at Bartram’s).

On the 11th of January 2016, Joel Fry wrote: “We had winter aconite in bloom on the west side of the Bartram House at the end of December [2015], struggling up through the construction debris. We removed most of the plants along that side of the house before the work began, but a few stragglers remained. I don’t think I ever saw any of the winter aconite in bloom before February here.”

That first field trip, of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, was noted elsewhere – the following is from Stewardson Brown’s “A Brief History of the Philadelphia Botanical Club” (Bartonia 1:2-4; 1909):

“February 14, 1892, the Club held its first field trip at Bartram’s Garden, but little was noted other than the condition of some of the trees.”

Who was at that field trip?  Well, it would’ve been members of the Club.  Who were members of the Club?  To find that out, we go back to the literature.  This is the opening line of the above mentioned article (Brown 1909):

“On the afternoon of December 1, 1891, eight men, Dr. J Bernard Brinton, Thomas Meehan, Isaac C. Martindale, Uselma C. Smith, Witmer Stone, Joseph Crawford, George M. Beringer, and Stewardson Brown, met in the Council Room of the Academy of natural Sciences.”

The next paragraph includes:

“The second meeting found six additional prospective members present, Dr. A. W. Miller, Benjamin Heritage, Charles D. Lippincott, Albrecht Jahn, Frank Miles Day, and Richard H. Day.”

A later paragraph:

“December 22d another meeting was held, when five additional members, John W. Harshberger, J. Bernard Morris, Edward Pennock, Morris E. Leeds, and Arthur N. Leeds, were added to the roll.”

That seems to be the last meeting before the 14th of February 1892, and so suggests who might have been there, at Bartram’s Garden, on Valentine’s Day 1892.

Others might have been there that day as well, as there were certainly others going there around that time, to botanize – if we look in the herbarium of the Academy of Natural Sciences, at the collections of Ptelea trifoliata, there’s one without a date that was from the Charles E. Smith herbarium (which arrives at the Academy in June 1900) that says “Grays Ferry and Bartram’s” and there’s another one, collected by Biddle on 3 June 1892 “near Bartram’s Garden”.

And so then, as is still the case now, there were lots of people going to Bartram’s Garden to look at the plants, and to enjoy a beautiful locale.

For more information see here:

or here:

And for another piece of botanical history related to Bartram’s, see:

The Identity of the Genus Adventina Raf., by S. F. Blake, in Rhodora, Vol. 24, 1922.

“In 1836 Rafinesque described under the name Adventina a new genus of Asteraceae which he had found growing as a weed in the Bartram Garden at Philadelphia. …it is clear that he was describing with considerable accuracy the characters of Galinsoga, and that his two species correspond to the plants now generally known as Galinsoga parviflora Cav. and G. aristulata Bicknell.

Rafinesque’s notice of these two species is of further interest as affording the first record of either plant in the United States “

And here:

And here:

Michaux Grove

In West Fairmount Park there is a grove of oaks, standing tall and discreetly in and around a low wet area that a creek runs through, just south of Montgomery Drive and just east of Belmont Avenue.

This grove, now overgrown with wineberry and multiflora rose and Japanese honeysuckle and ivies both poison and English, is a living and somewhat secret monument to not one but two of the premier botanists and explorers of the earlier and earliest days of the US.

André Michaux came to the US in 1785, to search for plants of the new world that would or could be of use to his native France.  He traveled broadly across the east of North America with his son, Francois André, collecting plants and sending many back to Europe for cultivation, and writing two seminal books on North American natural history, Histoire des chênes de l’Amerique septentrionale (“Oaks of North America”) which included illustrations by the renowned artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté, and Flora boreali-americana (“Flora of North America”).

Michaux the elder died in 1802, but the younger Michaux (Francois André, that is) continued in his father’s line of work, exploring widely and cultivating plants in the US and France, and in the 1810s publishing the 3-volume North America Sylva, a work which would go on to be a primary reference for foresters throughout the 19th century, and that to this day contains valuable ecological and sylvicultural information on the trees of North America.

However, like his father (and like everyone else will or has, for that matter), Francois André Michaux ultimately expired.  This was in 1855, and in his will he left funds to the American Philosophical Society, and they in turn decided that the best way to remember him would be to use those funds to plant a grove of oaks in his honor, and in that of his father’s.  Because of the special interest the Michaux’s held for oaks, it was decided that this would be a grove of oaks and planting was done in 1870 (“Many oak trees, of 16 different species”, according to the 1878 Annual Report of the Commissioners of Fairmount Park, in the section “Improvements made in 1870”), to grow up alongside the spectacle of creation that was the development of the 1876 International Exhibition grounds for the Centennial of the United States.  These young trees shared a landscape with Horticultural Hall, and with the buildings and pavilions constructed for the individual states of the US and for other nations, and with the thousands upon thousands, the millions of visitors that were drawn to the Centennial.  (Note that it does appear that the Grove was still being planted as late as 1899, as is indicated in the “Short Sketch of Philadelphia Trees”, from John Harshberger’s 1899 The Botanists of Philadelphia and their Work: “A grove called the Michaux Grove has been begun in West Park, near Horticultural Hall.”)

There was, additionally, a nursery of oaks included in this deal.  In vol. 12 no. 86 of the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (Dec. 15, 1871), it was noted :

“On motion of Mr. Price, the following resolution was adopted:

Resolved, That the Treasurer be authorized to pay to the Treasurer of the Fairmount Park Commissioners, three hundred dollars ($300) of the interest or rent lately on the Michaux Legacy, to be applied towards the Michaux Grove and Michaux Nursery of Oaks in the Park, agreeably to the resolution of March 18th 1870 (see page 312, Vol. XI., Proceedings A. P. S.)”

By 1937, however, if not well before, the grove had become overgrown and “lost”, until Rodney True, a botanist at Penn, rediscovered it – in April of that year he led an expedition that included such botanical luminaries as R. D. Forbes, the Director of the Allegheny National Forest Experiment Station and the landscape gardener of the entirety of Fairmount Park, Samuel N. Baxter (Sammy, to his friends and colleagues).  They rediscovered the grove, and determined the ages of some of the trees to ascertain that yes, these were the trees of the Michaux Grove.  The newspapers (well, one newspaper at least, the Philadelphia Ledger) covered this event, and the grove was rediscovered and celebrated with the headline: “Lost Oaks Found in Fairmount Park”.

By 2011, however, the Michaux Grove had become yet again forgotten, until a group interested in plants and history rediscovered it yet again.  The first step in this rediscovery was simply reading about the Michaux Grove in a paper Eli K. Price wrote in 1876 for the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society.  In it, he detailed the planting of the grove, and the history that led up to that.

The next step was to use a document written and researched by Jack McCormick, an ecologist who was investigating the environmental implications of using West Fairmount Park, site of the Centennial in 1876, as the site for the Bicentennial in 1976.  One thing that McCormick did for his research was to map out the trees (all of them) in West Fairmount Park – using those maps, we were able to find a section of the park with a high density of oaks and with some species of oaks that we didn’t see elsewhere in McCormick’s maps.

Upon visiting that site and struggling through the brush that has grown up and around it, we saw the enormous sizes of some of the trees, and it became quite clear that this was the Michaux Grove we had read of.  And also that this was not only a historical find, but a botanical and horticultural one as well.  One of the more notable trees in the Grove is a water oak (Quercus nigra) that is well over 3 feet in diameter.  This is remarkable for a tree that not only is rarely, if ever, found in the area, but as far as we are aware, never approaches that kind of size this far north [a note: in Thomas C. Porter’s 1903 Flora of Pennsylvania, he notes of Q. nigra: “Locally introduced in the southeastern part of the State”; additionally, there are some planted in the Michaux Quercetum at Longwood].  This southern oak also can hold its leaves even well into Philadelphia’s winter time – a visit in February 2012 found hundreds of green leaves on the lower branches.  There are other species of oak in the Grove, as well, including: English oak (Q. robur), swamp white oak (Q. bicolor), bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), and, of course, Quercus michauxii (swamp chestnut oak – also, there are saplings of this species underneath a large planted one).  There is also a putative Bartram oak there, but this awaits confirmation (there are two confirmed Bartram oaks in Philadelphia: one at Bartram’s Garden, appropriately enough, and the other at the golf course at FDR Park in south Philadelphia, interestingly enough.  This has never been a common tree in Philadelphia, or elsewhere, as Francois Andre Michaux notes in his 1818 North American Sylva (English translation by Hillhouse, 1865) “Several English and American naturalists who, like my father and myself, have spent years in exploring the United States, and who have obligingly communicated to us the result of their observations, have, like us, found no traces of this species except a single stock in a field belonging to Mr. Bartram, on the banks of the Schuylkill, four miles from Philadelphia.”, and then we read of this tree in Barton (1818): “The only individual of this species known ; supposed to be a hybrid.  On the banks of the Delaware, at Kingsess.”; and then, as was noted in Thomas Nuttall’s 1853 vol. IV of the North American Sylva: “This curious tree which in 1837 had attained the height of 50 feet and a circumference of 3 feet 9 inches was inadvertently cut down …”).

As is clear from the above examples, while the historic interest of the Grove stands out immediately, it is also a site to see what these oaks look like, and just how well and how long they can survive in Philadelphia (and with very little maintenance over the years).

This might provide some inspiration for others to plant these trees in their yards or parks, perhaps as a direct monument to two of the most highly esteemed botanists in United States history, but even moreso, and perhaps more in keeping with the memory of the Michauxs, simply as beautiful trees.

For maps of West Park, see here: