The yard of the Wagner Free Institute

The Wagner Free Institute is in the midst of Philadelphia, surrounded by houses and stores and shops, surrounded by sidewalks and asphalt streets, surrounded by walls and roofs and other constructed pieces and parts – interspersed with vacant lots and parks, yes, where plants and non-human animals do grow and roam quite freely, but overall the ecology nearby is people .  Temple University is just over to the east, the Broad Street line is about a 5 minute walk away, and people are just about everywhere, walking and talking all around.  This isn’t, perhaps, where you’d expect to find a historic landscape, and most wouldn’t look for one here.  But it’s here.

In the yard of the Wagner are some very large trees – London planes (Platanus x acerifolia, we’ll call them) and silver maples (Acer saccharinum) are the largest that are there.  They ring the yard and just from their size you can see they’ve been there for a pretty long time.  But just how long have they been there and where did they come from?

The first question, as to how old they are, is reasonably straightforward to answer.  To find out how old a tree is, you either cut it down and count its rings, or you take out a sliver of it and count the rings you’ve sampled by doing that.  The latter leaves the tree standing, so we did that for some of the trees in the Wagner yard.  And we were able to do this because plants keep their history a bit more readily than humans do.

Plants are not like people.  As we (people, that is) grow, we continually regenerate and renew our cells.  There’s turnover of bone cells and sloughing of skin, so that even though there are some parts that remain, we are a perpetual agglomeration of old and new.  Plants, however, grow by accretion – new cells are laid down on top of the old, and the old ones aren’t done away with to make way for the new.  They just get covered over and stacked upon.  And this happens in all directions – plants can grow up, down and out.  Herbaceous plants (plants that aren’t woody, that is) primarily grow up and down – they extend their axes towards the sky and via roots through the ground.  Trees and shrubs (woody plants), however, while they do grow up and down, just as herbaceous plants do, they also expand outwards, adding layers outward in ever widening concentric circles, every year adding a new ring, on top of the old, covered with the new.

And so, we can count those rings – and if we have a corer, we can do that with little harm to the tree.  A corer is a machine, a simple machine, in the sense that it simply changes the direction and magnitude of the force applied to it (the definition of a simple machine that you may or not remember from high school physics).  It has a screw tip end, a bit, that is attached to a long hollow stem.  At the far end of that long metal piece (these can be of varying lengths, by the way – we used an 18″ corer at the Wagner), is another metal piece, at a 90° angle to the stem.  This provides a grip and more importantly provides the leverage that allows one to turn the stem – to provide torque, if you will.  You turn the corer, it drives the bit into the tree, and because the stem and bit are hollow, this cuts out a long narrow piece through the tree, a core that you can then pull out of the corer, mount on another piece of wood for stability, sand down, and then count the rings that were laid down year after year by the tree.

Ned Barnard, tree corer non pareil, and I and a crew from the Wagner did some coring at the Wagner in October of 2011.  (I should say that I use the words “I” and “work” together somewhat metaphorically – Ned and the others did the vast majority of the work, as is generally the case).  We cored a silver maple and one of the London planes (since the other London planes were roughly the same size we only cored one of them) – then Ned labored over them, mounting them and sanding them, and then counted their age lines.

It turns out that both of those trees were in the range of 110 or 115 years old, and so this gave us a target date to use to search the Wagner’s records, to try to find out where these trees had come from.  And so I got to take a look at the Wagner’s old meeting reports, access to which was kindly granted by the Wagner, via Lynn Dorwaldt, librarian and archivist of the Wagner.

Since we’d dated (by coring) the silver maple and London plane in the yard to about 110 to 115 years old (with a lower bound of 110 years), I looked at the 1890s-1901 records. And it seems that the trees we cored most likely came from Meehan’s nursery, in Germantown, Philadelphia.

In the meeting report (of the Wagner) of the 3d January 1900 , there’s mention “that the actuary prepare a scheme for planting young trees”, this is followed by the report of the 7th of February 1900, which says “That the actuary be authorized to consult with Mr. Thomas Meehan as to a scheme for the treatment of the grounds around the Institute”.  This scheme was approved at the meeting of the 7th of March, 1900, and was “revised by Mr. Gridland” (as per the 7 May 1900 report).  Things moved quickly, at the turn of the last century.

In the Wagner archives, Ms. Dorwaldt found a letter from Thomas Meehan (dated 22 February 1900) where he mentions that he’s been ill and doesn’t do much day to day work with the business (the nursery, that is) anymore, but that his son’s handle that work – he also mentions that he’d help out with the landscape plan.  Meehan died in the autumn of 1901, so the Wagner yard may well be the last landscape that he worked on.

There’s a receipt from Meehan’s (dated 7 July 1900) for 12 trees – these most likely include those trees that are currently in the yard (the ones we cored, plus the other London planes).   Don Azuma, of the Wagner, and I took a look in the yard, and it looks like, from the arrangement of the trees, that there might have been 12 in the original planting (though this still requires further confirmation, I should say).  It looks like the planting would have been in three lines, to the east, west and south of the building (respectively) – there’s a depression in the soil at the southwest corner that is probably where one of the trees was, and that marks where the west and south lines of trees probably met.  There’s another depression west-adjacent to the SE tree, and that gives a good idea of what the original spacing of the planting would have been, if all the above suppositions are correct.

An additional note of interest on the Wagner yard – in 1895, the Wagner wanted to re-do their landscape and asked Frank Day to do the design.  Frank Day was an enormously successful architect of the late 19th and early 20th century, and he was also a founding member of the Philadelphia Botanical Club.

He (Day, that is) agreed to do the Wagner yard in 1895 – but I don’t see evidence that he produced it.  He was a pretty busy guy (for example, there’s a letter from him, written in the 1920s, in the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences [access to which was generously provided by Clare Fleming, archivist of the Academy], where Day says he can’t serve on a committee because he’s too busy with his architectural work).  Clearly the Wagner had had grand plans for the yard’s plantings and design (and they also wanted a greenhouse), but those plans don’t appear to have been implemented, and there isn’t evidence that Day had further involvement in the Wagner’s landscape.

Ultimately, though, even though these majestic plans for the yard were not realized, as we know the yard was redone, with trees from Meehan’s – and this provides a useful piece of horticultural history, too.

London planes and American sycamores and Oriental planes can be difficult to differentiate from one another – this is the case now, and it was the case a hundred years ago.  And so, if we look at an old nursery catalog, for example from Meehan’s Nursery, how can we know if a tree listed as an American sycamore, or an Oriental plane, or a London plane actually is what they say they are?

Well, we can look at a tree that came from Meehan’s, one that is still growing, for example in the yard of the Wagner Free Institute, and we can identify it – if we see that it is a London plane, then that is pretty good evidence that this nursery was selling London planes when that tree was planted.  And since we know when that tree was planted, which we know from having cored it, we can say quite confidently that Meehan’s was selling London planes at that time.  And so, from the trees in the Wagner yard, we are supplied excellent evidence that trees that Meehan’s was selling at the turn of the last century were, truly, London planes.

However, Meehan’s was not listing London planes in their catalogs at that time.  A visit to the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (guided by librarian Janet Evans), and a look at their collection of Meehan’s Nursery catalogs, shows that in 1899 only Platanus orientalis (Oriental plane) is listed therein.  In their spring 1900 catalog, “Sycamore, Oriental plane” is listed, including the note “This is the European variety of our Button-ball”, and it is the only Platanus species listed.  In the fall 1900/spring 1901 catalog, both occidentalis (American sycamore, that is) and orientalis are listed – London plane, however, is not.  In that catalog, of occidentalis, Meehan’s says “This, our native plane, can hardly be distinguished from the Oriental plane when young”, implying that perhaps these two plants as listed might have been sold somewhat interchangeably at the time.  In the 1905 catalog, Meehan’s still only had orientalis and occidentalis, and the London plane was not to be seen listed in the catalog.  Even as late as 1917, Meehan’s still did not have the London plane listed (though that catalog does include Platanus orientalis)

And so, from evidence gathered in the yard of the Wagner and from these old nursery catalogs housed at PHS, it is clear that while London planes were being sold by Meehan’s, they were misidentified (or perhaps, rather, just “differently identified”), most likely as Oriental planes.

History is everywhere, and so are plants.  The two are intertwined, and even in the middle of the city they tangle together, and the one can tell us about the other, the trees can tell us what was there before, and what was there before tells us about the trees that are there today – and even though they may be layered over and it may take some digging and coring, they all have something to say, and they all can say it, if you just look.


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