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: http://www.pafa.org/Museum/The-Collection-Greenfield-American-Art-Resource/Tour-the-Collection/Category/Collection-Detail/985/mkey–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: https://www.ursinus.edu/offices/sustainability/sustainability-on-campus/grounds-and-trees/penn-treaty-elm/ 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. http://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/Detail.aspx?assetId=9508

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)

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2 thoughts on “Some history of historic plants

  1. I have in my possession the cast plaque of the scion planting event by General Paul A Oliver dated “April 10th 1896” that says that it was “PLANTED FOR THE PENNSYLVANIA FORESTRY ASSOCIATION by Governor DANIEL H HASTINGS”. PLEASE correct the above description of who it was planted for. I can supply a picture of the casting. Robert W. Piper, Jr. PA Forestry Association President (2014,2015)

  2. Pingback: Notes Found On The Refrigerator May 2017 | ZoralinQ

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