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.

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