In southwest Philadelphia, there is a tree, an extremely large tree, that was planted when this land was a nursery, many years before it became the densely populated area that it is today. On Hobson Street, between Elmwood and Buist Avenues, right across from Buist Park, this tree has stood witness to the development of packed in housing, to the consumption of the surrounding farmland, to the construction in the early 1920s of the General Electric Plant right up the street, and to the deconstruction of that plant, some seven decades later.
Bartram High School, right up the street and around the corner, didn’t exist when this tree was a sapling, and the city streets have grown up around it like a web around a bug. My father went to Bartram, in the 1950s, but because he was coming from the north (he grew up at 58th and Thomas), he wouldn’t have gone by this tree on the way to school, but he might have if he was walking over to Buist Park, which he may well have done, and so he may have seen that tree, just as I did in early March 2012, though it would’ve have been a little smaller, over a half century earlier.
This tree, Styphnolobium japonicum (though still commonly called by its former generic name, Sophora) spreads broadly across Hobson, and a sign on Buist Avenue points towards it, signalling the historic tree that was spared the ax as the land it was on transitioned from horticultural to urban.
The Buist Nursery was here. While primarily known for his roses, Robert Buist (and his nursery, which was named Rosedale) grew as many kinds of plants as he could sell, and though he died in 1880, the nursery, which was established in 1850 in the area where this Sophora still stands, was carried on by his son Robert, Jr. who in turn passed away on the 13th of December, 1910, a “millionaire seedsman”, as described in the New York Times.
Upon the death of Robert Sr., an appreciation of his life was published in the December 1880 issue of the Gardener’s Monthly, and that piece closed with the following:
“The city is fast growing towards Rosedale, and in a few years the chapter of his immediate work will be closed, and streets and buildings occupy the ground where the rare trees he planted and loved still interest the lovers nature.”
Having worked at Landreth’s (a prominent seedhouse at 21st and Federal streets, in what is now south Philadelphia) and Lemon Hill (which would go on to be the beginnings of Fairmount Park, but prior to that was a major horticultural site), Robert Buist, Sr. was well grounded as a plantsman. Originally from Scotland, Buist came to the US, as did many other botanists and horticulturalists in the early days of the country, to seek opportunities that just weren’t to be found in the old world. And he found them, and he capitalized on them, becoming one of the most well regarded horticulturalists in America, and also becoming a very wealthy man in the process. [to read more about Robert Buist, see here]
The Sophora also traveled. It was introduced into Europe by Pierre Nicolas D’incarville, a French missionary working in China, when in 1747 D’incarville sent seeds to France from China, and 30 years later, according to a recounting by the 19th century botanist, Jean Henri Jaume St. Hilaire, it was growing in Saint Germain, and by 1824 the Sophora was grown throughout Europe.
For some reason though, it didn’t catch on in America – in Daniel Jay Browne’s “Trees of America” in 1846, it doesn’t have an entry. And, according to Henry Winthrop Sargent, in the 7th edition of the “Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening”, Andrew Jackson Downing, in his earlier edition of that work (the 4th in 1849), classified Sophora as a shrub because it was quite rare in Downing’s time, and there were no large trees of it then, in this country.
In 1919, Samuel Baxter, at the time the arboriculturalist for the city of Philadelphia, wrote an article in the National Nurseryman on this Buist Sophora, the one on Hobson Street – he mentions that it was endangered by the construction of nearby housing, and he writes that “It is the largest in the vicinity of Philadelphia, where several fine specimens are to be found”. And so we know that the Sophora was planted in various places in Philadelphia by the early 20th century, but it it doesn’t sound like it was abundant.
The Sophora, today, is reasonably common in Philadelphia – along Windrim outside of the Wayne Junction train station, along the 7th Street side of McCall School in Center City, and a number of other places, its bright white flowers blossom in summer, and its rich foliage greens from spring to summer, and its sturdy branches hold high through the winter.
And on Hobson Street, the largest and quite possibly oldest Sophora in the city drops its seeds all over the sidewalk. Sitting on the pavement, those seeds won’t germinate and grow, but placed in some dirt and given a little bit of care, these descendants of a tree that has outlasted General Electric, that is there due to one of the most important nurseryman of his time, these seeds that are genetically linked back to France and from there onwards back to China, given just a small amount of tending, they can grow again, and make new trees with historic roots.
(NB: the tree pictured here might be the tree described above; The National Nurseryman, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, April 1919: “Incidentally, the tree illustrated might well have been a candidate in the recent competition of the Genetic Society to locate the largest tree of a species, for the trunk is three feet in diameter, and the spread of branches seventy feet across. It is the largest in the vicinity of Philadelphia, where several fine specimens are to be found. This particular tree may have been planted by Robert Buist, the well known horticulturist, who died in 1880 and whose place is not far from that of John Bartram, the botanist to whom we are indebted for the discovery of the rare Franklin tree – Gordonia pubescens. The writer “found” this Sophora recently on the old Buist estate where it narrowly escaped being cut down to make room for the housing of Uncle Sam’s ship builders at Hog Island on the Delaware River. Uncle Samuel’s representatives, however, were appreciative of the value of trees to a community and so the layout was adjusted and a certain area set aside for the worthy twofold purpose of providing a small park and the preservation thereon of the existing fine old trees.”)