Chionanthus in bloom at the College of Physicians

There are two fringetrees flowering now in the garden of the College of Physicians, on 22d Street just below Market.  One of them, Chionanthus retusus, is Asian and the other, Chionanthus virginicus, is from North America, and both live and flower quite well here in Philadelphia. The flowers of the fringetree are what give the tree its name – they are white and straplike, arranged in fours, like a plus sign or a cross, and they extend out about a half inch or so from the center of the flower, thereby creating a fringe effect, and so, hence, the name.  The fruits are also recognizable – these trees are in the olive family, Oleaceae, and as the flowers get pollinated and develop into fruits those fruits end up looking like olives, dangling from the tree.  Those will arrive later in the season.  We’ll have to wait for them.

And so, the Chinese fringe tree, Chionanthus retusus, and the American fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus, both have white fringey flowers, and also they both have fruits that look like olives, and also both are woody plants, and also both grow in Phladelphia. So does one tell them apart, one asks?  For one, in 2012, the Chinese fringe tree flowers earlier – this year, the one at the College of Physicians started blooming last week, on the 17th of April.  I had walked by on the 16th and saw the buds were swelling, and when I went back on the 17th, the following day, they were wide open. The flowers of the American fringetree weren’t open at all yet, at that time – they didn’t start to open until the 19th, and didn’t hit full stride until a few days later.  And now, on the 25th, now that the American fringetree is in full bloom, the Asian one, while still rich with blooms, is beginning to pass its peak blooming time.

Another way to tell them apart is their size – retusus becomes a somewhat larger tree, up to 30 feet or so, while virginicus stays a bit smaller, to maybe 15 or 20 or so feet, and can often be more of a shrub.  Also, their barks differ – retusus is more strongly ridged, while virginicus has bark that is a little bit smoother.  Additionally, the flowers in retusus are at the ends of the branches, with the leaves proximal to that, whereas for indicus it is the opposite, with leaves distal and blooms proximal.  One more way to differentiate them, and a way that seems to be a bit more definitive, is their leaves – virginicus has pointed leaf tips whereas retusus has rounded leaf tips.

There is, I note, a passing medical connection with the Chionanthus, and one that has long since passed – in William Darlington’s 1826 Flora Cestrica: an essay towards a catalogue of the phaenogamous plants, native and naturalized, growing in the vicinity of the Borough of West-Chester, in Chester County, Pennsylvania, he writes of the the American fringe tree: “Marshall says (Arbust. American.) the bark of the root bruised, and applied to fresh wounds, was accounted by the aborigines a specific, in curing them without suppuration: but such specifics are pretty much discarded, in modern surgery.”

There aren’t many of the Chinese fringe tree planted around Philadelphia – there is one planted on the grounds of the Barnes Arboretum, in Merion, and one at the Morris Arboretum (thanks to Elinor Goff for letting me know about that one), but otherwise I’m not aware of any more than that.  The American fringe tree, however, is quite common – for example, there are a number of them at the Azalea Garden, behind the Art Museum, that are a variety of sizes, up to about 20 feet or so, and all of which are blooming now, some in full peak, others just starting; and there’s on up at Juniata Park, too. And at the College of Physicians, we have both these trees, right next to each other, so it’s easier to learn how to tell them apart, or just to enjoy them together.

(As of the 5th of May, 2013, both of these trees have just begun to open, with the C. virginicus a bit more advanced; and as of the 10th of May, they’re both in full bloom; on the 9th of May 2014, the C. virginicus is just starting to open its buds, while the retusus is not, yet; on the 28th of April 2015 both are in leaf with the retusus being more advanced – and on the 6th of May the retusus is in flower and the virginicus is just beginning to flower, and on the 9th the virginicus flowers are nearly all opened, and the retusus isn’t dropping petals yet – on the 11th, the virginicus is fully in bloom.  On the 12th of May 2015, the Chionanthus virginicus at Three Logan Square Park is in full bloom.  On the 10th of May 2016, at the College of Physicians, the Chionanthus virginicus is in full bloom, and the Chionanthus retusus is a bit past its prime (some of the petals are browning).)

Paulownia tomentosa, the empress tree

Paulownia trees are blossoming across the city now.  If you ride the El to Frankford,  northeast out from center city, and you look out over the rooftops, you’ll see bright purple flowers growing on trees, all the way along the way, coming up in vacant lots, or in backyards, or from cracks in buildings high above the ground, or from cracks in the sidewalk down among the feet, with pretty much all of those trees having gotten where they are on their own, or with just the help of the wind.  Or, if you walk the Benjamin Franklin Parkway northwest out from City Hall, you’ll also pass Paulownias there – these ones planted by people, in Logan Circle, halfway up the way to the Art Museum, and though having arrived there with help from humans, they also, just as well, are flowering fully in profusion here in Philadelphia, now.  Anywhere they can get a hold, the Paulownia trees will grow, and the Paulownia trees will blossom, usually in May, or also in April, as they are doing this year.

This tree was originally from Japan, and arrived in Britain in 1840, having arrived in France a few years prior to that. The Paulownia got there because of Philip Franz von Siebold, and it was named for Anna Palowna, the hereditary Princess of the Netherlands, who was also the daughter of the Empress of Russia.  And so it was an empress tree from the very beginning of its nomenclatural life.

Philip Franz von Siebold was a physician from what is now the south of Germany, who worked for the Dutch military in the far east.  Working in Japan in the early part of the 19th century, he was at first restricted in his ability to leave his post and travel around the country because Japan was mostly closed to westerners at the time, but his medical skills ultimately gave him access to areas that others did not have – and so he was able to indulge his passion for natural history, in addition to others.  Taking full advantage of this capacity to collect, Siebold sent back plants and plants and plants upon plants, sending them back home to Europe, and one of those plants was the Paulownia.

And so the Paulownia arrived in France in the 1830s.  Daniel J. Browne, in his 1846 Trees of America, notes that the Paulownia was in the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris, and had hit a height of twenty feet by 1842, with leaves two feet in diameter, and had survived the winter of 1838-1839 “without any covering”.  It had arrived, survived, and thrived.

We know an impressively large amount about how this tree came to be there.  Joseph Henri François Neumann, the man who took care of the hothouses at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, wrote about the Paulownia, and what he wrote was translated and published in Andrew Jackson Downing’s journal, the Horticulturalist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste, in 1846:

“Some time ago I received a foreign seed, which produced a tree. This tree I kept two years in the hot-house because I had but a single specimen, and I was fearful of losing it.  But soon after finding that the shelter did not suit its habits, I planted it in the open air.  There it found a temperature similar to that of its native country. It soon developed itself with great luxuriance.  The leaves became at least ten times larger than when in the hot house, which was probably too warm for it.  Here it soon showed its flower and fruit and was in fact the fine tree from Japan to which botanists have since given the name of Paulownia imperialis.  I am far from wishing to boast of having naturalized or acclimated it, since we cannot say that its nature has changed, or that it would not have stood at first with the greatest facility in our climate.  But we can say that it finds at Paris almost the same temperature as in Japan, and that it thrives very well here.”

The Paulownia arrived in America soon thereafter.  Daniel Browne (again writing in his 1846 Trees of America) says the introduction of Paulownia to the US was via Parson’s in 1843.  Its presence at the Parson’s Nursery in Queens (NYC) by 1843 is noted in the American Agriculturalist of August 1843, and so we can be reasonably sure it was there, but it most likely also came into the US via other avenues as well.

William Kenrick, writing out of Boston, in his New American Orchardist in 1844 writes of “Paulownia… A new and splendid tree from Japan” and provides the following background:

“At the Garden of Plants in Paris the tree blossomed for the first time early in May 1842 the parent tree of all in France.  In Normandy, the tree, while young, is tender, afterwards hardy.  Such is my account, from the distant but most authentic resources The trees first sent me from France, early in 1842, being lost in the wreck of the ship Louis Philippe, new specimens were again sent early in 1843.”

And so it sounds as though it arrived in Boston at about the same time it would’ve gotten to Parson’s.

Well within twenty years of its introduction, the Paulownia was recognized as the vigorously growing tree it is – in the Transactions of the American Institute of the City of New York for the Years 1859-1860, a discussion is reported in which it is discussed how an inquirer might “prevent his maple trees from being destroyed by worms” and one answer given is “He must give up the Maple and plant Ailanthus.”, to which William Robert Prince, nurseryman of Queens, NYC, adds “Or Paulownia.”

This tree’s speedy growth is something that Thomas Meehan noted in his American Handbook of Ornamental Trees, writing that “It is as rapid a grower as the ailanthus, the wood and trunk of the tree also resembling it”, in 1853.

Andrew Jackson Downing also recognized the similarity to Ailanthus – “The Paulownia is an entirely new ornamental tree very lately introduced into our gardens and pleasure grounds from Japan and is likely to prove hardy here wherever the Ailantus stands the winter, being naturally from the same soil and climate as that tree.”  Downing also writes of the Paulownia: “In its growth this tree while young equals or exceeds the Ailantus …”  (from A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 2d edition, 1844)

Downing noticed its amazingly fast growth, too – “In rich soils near Paris it has produced shoots in a single season 12 or 14 feet in length.” – but given that rapid expansion who wouldn’t have noticed how speedy it grew?  Downing also records the Paulownia’s flowering time as being about the same as now, “Its flower buds open during the last of April or early in May…” and also that it was “yet very rare”.

Downing believed that if the Paulownia were to end up being as hardy as they “confidently anticipate”, that “it will be worthy of a prominent place in every arrangement of choice ornamental trees.” (the above quotes from Downing are all from the 2d edition of his Treatise, in 1844)

But at this point, no one really knew the plant, and just how large and fast it could grow – Joseph Breck wrote in his Breck’s Book of Flowers in 1851: “To all appearances it will not grow to a very large size in our climate”.

And William Darlington writes in his book “American Weeds and Useful Plants” (2d edition, 1863), that the Paulownia is “A tree of very rapid growth and having a strong resemblance to the Catalpa.  The young trees are remarkably vigorous and bear leaves of an enormous size.  It is a little too delicate for the climate of New York, for three years preceding the present (1858) the flower buds have been very generally killed by the severe winters.  The capsules remain on the tree for a very long time and injure its appearance.”

At its earliest days in the occident, as you might expect, the attributes of this tree were unknown – again from his Book of Flowers in 1851, Breck quotes Andrew Jackson Downing as writing: “When the Paulownia was first introduced into the Garden of Plants, at Paris, it was treated as a delicate green house plant.  It was soon found, however, that it was perfectly hardy on the Continent and in England.”  Nobody at that time knew just how well this tree could grow in the temperate cities of Europe and North America, but they tried it out nonetheless, and found it to be able.  Very able.

The Paulownia, early on after its first introduction into the west, was seen as having enormous potential for horticulture, being a tough, fast growing tree with beautiful flowers, and it was predicted that it would soon be everywhere.

The tree likely came into Philadelphia through Robert Buist, the nurseryman who had a garden called Rosedale in what is now southwest Philadelphia.  Meehan writes of the Paulownia (in the American Handbook of Ornamental Trees, 1853):  “There are many fine specimens, though but recently introduced in some of our streets at Rosedale and many other places in the vicinity.” (thanks to Joel Fry, of Bartram’s Garden, for pointing me towards this quote – Joel also mentions that “This book by Meehan is largely a catalogue and description of the mature trees at Bartram’s Garden ca. 1851. The Paulownia does not seem to have been at Bartram’s then, or at least Meehan doesn’t specifically note it was here.”)

And so the Paulownia was rapidly being planted broadly.   And it was also being planted in places of prominence.  Thomas Meehan writes in his Gardener’s Monthly in September 1882, of the Paulownia:

“One of the first trees, perhaps among the very first trees introduced into the country, is now in Independence Square, Philadelphia. It must be about thirty-five years old. It was one of the first lot imported by the late Robert Buist, and presented by him to the city. It is probably eight feet in circumference, and may be sixty feet high.”

That tree was still there at the end of that century, as Meehan wrote in 1899

“Probably the largest specimen Empress Tree – Paulownia imperialis – in America, is in Independence Square, Philadelphia.  It is one of the first lot introduced into America about fifty years ago, and was a gift to the city by the late Robert Buist, one of America’s famous nurserymen.  It is now eleven feet in circumference, equalling in girth some of the old American Elms that were in the plot before the Revolution.”

But a tree isn’t just a trunk – it also has flowers.  Meehan also wrote, in that 1882 article mentioned above, when he writes about the Paulownia, that “This magnificent tree has been in bloom abundantly everywhere this season”.  He attributes this abundant blooming to attributes of Paulownia floral development: “The flower buds are formed in the autumn and are more or less injured by the winter. The past season being mild the flowers are unusually abundant.”

We, today, here in Philadelphia, had a mild winter this past year, perhaps providing us with pretty much the same thing as Meehan saw in the fall of 1882.   A mild winter that would have led to less frost and cold damage to the overwintering buds means we may well be seeing more blooms than usual this year, in 2012, due to last year’s warm wintry months.

The flipside to this is that the overwintering flower buds of the Paulownia could also be seen as a problem – Thomas Meehan, in his Gardener’s Monthly, in 1865 (volume VII no. 6), writes:

“Upon the rural estate of S.G. Sharpless, Esq., on the Philadelphia and Westchester railroad, one of the finest in Chester county, there is a Paulownia Imperialis Tree, growing very thrifty; it forms blossom buds plentifully every year, but never blooms; and it is supposed that the cutting winds of winter so injure the buds that they cannot expand in spring.”

A similar concern was raised elsewhere, and later – in 1908, Angus Duncan, writing in England, in his book Hardy Ornamental Flowering Trees and Shrubs, sung the praises of Paulownia, but lamented that “Though perfectly hardy in other respects it is unfortunate that the season at which the Paulownia flowers is so early that, unless the conditions are unusually favourable, the flower buds get destroyed by the frost.”

There were other concerns – in another issue of Meehan’s Gardener’s Monthly from 1865 (volume VII, no. 2), Thomas Meehan also recommends “Paulownia, for those who like sweet or showy flowers regardless of an ugly growth.”  So the habit was not necessarily considered attractive.

But into the 20th century, the Paulownia was still fully able to take a place of prominence.  In the 1920s, in Philadelphia, when Logan Circle was set out with plants, this circle having been placed in the midst of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the grand boulevard that is our own Champs Élysées, our own reminiscence of France, of Paris, this parkway that is the Philadelphia passage from city to parkland, designed by Paul Philippe Cret to be our cultural boulevard stretching outwards from the center of our town to the heavens of art and nature – when Logan Circle was set like a gem within this diagonal jewelry of a drive, it was set with trees, and those trees were Paulownias.

And those trees lasted for decades – every spring sharing their blooms with the Parkway, and with the Academy of Natural Sciences right across the street, and with the main branch of the Philadelphia Free Library right there on the other side.  These trees were taken down a few years ago, due to concerns related to their old age, and they were replaced shortly thereafter with new Paulownias, and those are the ones that are blooming there now.

But, however, to get back to the past, there were additional problems noted of the Paulownia, in addition to its “ugly growth” and the potential loss of its blooms due to too cold winters or late frosts – something that made this tree so attractive early on, its ability to thrive and survive in our climate, and more precisely in human constructed habitats in our climates, also gave it the potential to spread wildly in our cities, and, perhaps more of a cause for concern, to spread in yards and nearby uncultivated areas.

By 1905, it had “Escaped from cultivation”, as was noted in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s “Handbook of the Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity”, and even earlier, Nathaniel Lord Britton, in his 1901 “Manual of the Flora of the Northern States and Canada” mentions that Paulownia had “Escaped from cultivation N. Y. and N. J. to D. C. and Ga.” (the similarity in wording between Keller and Brown and Britton is not coincidental, by the way – Keller and Brown cite Britton’s Manual as their source, and also I transcribed the Britton commentary from Brown’s copy of the Manual, that he (Brown) had bought in 1901, fresh off the press – that copy is now at the Academy of Natural Sciences).

And by the 1920s, there were localities where it had fully filled in – such as occurred in northwest Philadelphia: “More than twenty years ago the late Alexander MacElwee collected the Bird Cherry in the northwestern part of Philadelphia, along Gorgas Lane in Germantown. In 1921 there was an opportunity with Mr. MacElwee’s assistance to re-explore this region which is near the head of Wingohocking Creek.  He selected a position along the Philadelphia and Reading Railway just northwest of where Washington Lane Station is now located as probably the spot where he made his collection in 1899.  Here, escaped the processes of “improvement,” are still remnants of natural woodland, now, however, filled up solidly in many places with the Empress Tree and the Gray Birch (a naturalized species here), as well as with an equally weedy growth of the Wild Black Cherry.  Seedlings of the Bird Cherry and young trees up to six or seven feet high may be found scattered through the woodlands for at least a quarter mile.  Near a picturesque, ruined old springhouse in these woods is a thirty-foot tree of the Bird Cherry. The large size and the proximity to the springhouse suggest the possibility of its being a relic of cultivation and the “mother tree” of the Bird Cherries in this vicinity.” (from Bayard Long’s “Naturalized Occurrence of Prunus padus in America”, Rhodora vol. 25, October 1923); I note that this is just northwest of where Meehan’s Nursery was, as one can see in a 1910 map, and that the above cited paper came out just before that nursery closed.

In the 1940 Andorra Hand-book of Trees and Shrubs, it is noted of the Paulownia that “It originally came from China, but has escaped from cultivation, and only when the great panicles of flowers, in May, pick it out of the landscape, do we realize how wide and general is the escape.”

And so, as time rolled on, the Paulownia fell from favor for many in horticulture – Michael Dirr in his Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs (2011) calls it a “total loser” (“In the standard frame of reference for shade trees”, at least).

In the 1980s, the Paulownia was still being sold, such as here.  Its extraordinarily rapid growth was still a selling point, as were its brilliant flowers.  And its valuable wood made it a target for criminals, such as the case of the “Fairmount Park chainsaw massacre” that was reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the 20th of May, 1983.

The prior year and a half had seen a spate of Paulownia thievery, with rustlers cutting down the trees to sell the wood in Japan to be used for “bridal trousseau chests, jewelry boxes and coffins.”  This happened at least four times, with up to dozens of Paulownias being taken down – and in broad daylight, too.  One arrest was made at 9:30AM on the 9th of May (in 1983).

In the Inquirer report of the above story, William Mifflin, the horticulturalist for Fairmount Park at the time, is quoted as saying that the Paulownia had never been planted intentionally by city landscapers and that the tree was introduced because its seeds were used as packing for porcelain shipped from China and that those seeds were then discarded as the packages were unpacked, thereby disseminating the seeds.

The article also mentions “Probably the most majestic display encircles the Logan Square fountain.”

None of those trees encircling that fountain were ever stolen, so far as I’m aware.  They were also all planted there.

But it wasn’t only Philadelphia that saw this arboreal larceny.  There was also a report in the New York Times, on the 18th of May 1989, of Paulownia thievery – “Several trees were lost on Riverside Drive a few years back, and the population of paulownias at Winterthur … has also been reduced by theft.”

And so there were, and are, a number of problems with growing Paulownias – they grow too fast, they flower too early, their wood proves too tempting for thieves… from its initial high hopes upon its introduction, reality intruded and the Paulownia, the empress tree named for royalty, has been found to be a tree like others, with some qualities that people like, and others that people do not.

Paulownias are still sold – for their colorful flowers and for their extraordinarily rapid growth, and sometimes with the caveat that they can take over a yard.  And they also grow on their own, in vacant lots and along train tracks, up on the roofs of buildings and also in their concrete capped backyards, in all these places and many others, they come up on their own, without help from the hand of man or woman.

You can look out the window of a train going through North Philadelphia, you can look out the window of the El as it goes through Kensington and Frankford, you can look out the window of a car as it goes along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, at Logan Circle – through all these windows, in all these places, you can see the Paulownia; and at Cloverly Park, in Germantown, there is an especially large one, and there is also very large one at the Barnes Arboretum in Merion.  It is a very democratic tree, growing throughout Philadelphia – sometimes put where it is by us, sometimes not, but it is all over the place, either way.  Seemingly sometimes everywhere, the Paulownia grows and does so regardless of whether we put it there, or not.

To read about some other trees, see here:

The saucer magnolia

American Chestnut

American elms

“Penn treaty” elms

The Callery pear

The Caucasian zelkova

London planes and American sycamores

The sophora

Fringe tree

[note: Paulownia trees are just beginning to flower in Philadelphia on the 8th of May 2014; they’re in full bloom throughout the city on the 9th of May 2015 – after a very late and cold winter, too]

The trees of Monument Cemetery

There used to be an enormous cemetery right in the middle of what is now Temple University’s main campus in North Philadelphia.  Filled with bodies and lined with trees, it stretched from its entrance at Broad and Berks all the way over to just about 17th Street – its northern boundary was Norris Street, it dipped south nearly to Montgomery Avenue, and it is nearly all gone today, covered over by pavement and playing fields, with some buildings that have been built there, too, and also evidence, that very few notice, of what was there before.

Those remains, all that remains there now, so far as we are aware, of that cemetery are two trees and a wall that hundreds if not thousands of people walk by everyday, not knowing what they are.

Monument Cemetery was founded in the late 1830s, before the extension north of the lines of Philadelphia’s central grid.  Those grid lines, from Front Street westward – Second, Third, on up, were laid out by Thomas Holme, William Penn’s surveyor, in the 1680s and imposed a European sense of order on the wilds of the new world.  Initially constrained by the limits of South Street to the south and Vine Street to the north, those lines later extended outwards, and now dominate North Philadelphia (and South Philadelphia, too).

But Monument Cemetery was built to a different set of angles – right ones coming off of Ridge Avenue, which lies to the south and to the west.  And its angles never quite fit with those that came along later, it always maintained its old fashioned skew, its borders were at a different angle from its beginning until its end.  Though it did get clipped by Holmes’ lines, it held on to its diagonality, with borders running Baroquely along their ways.  One border ran at roughly a 45 degree angle connecting Broad Street and Norris Street and another went along a similar angle from just east of 17th Street up to Norris – those borders, these two, are still there as property lines that you can see just southeast of George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, and that you can walk along just southwest of the houses at, on and near the corner of Broad and Norris.

This was a very different place when the cemetery was established.  In 1839 as Daniel Bowen wrote in his History of Philadelphia, Monument Cemetery was “sufficiently remote to prevent the apprehension that it may ever be encroached upon by our growing population”.  This part of the county was rural, but not too distant.  It was far enough away from the city to provide a country tone to the cemetery, however, it was still close enough to the city to allow people to walk there “without experiencing a sense of fatigue”, as Bowen put it.

And people would walk there – not only to visit passed relatives and other loved ones, but also to admire the landscape.  Hundreds of trees were planted there, and a variety of shrubs and other lower growing plants were there – flowers, evergreens, it would have been verdant even in winter.  The broad undulating landscape stretching out, carpeted with grass and green, spiked with trees and shrubs – it would have been a beautiful pastoral.

By the 1840s, it was already being drastically altered – as Wellington Williams notes in his 1849 Hand-Book for the Stranger in Philadelphia, Broad Street had been lowered by 8 to 10 feet, thereby effectively raising Monument Cemetery to well above the heads of any passersby.

And in the 1870s, streets were cut right through the cemetery – 15th Street, and 16th Street, and Norris Street were opened up “for the improvement of the neighborhood and the convenience of the public” (as per the Philadelphia Reports, 1879).  The managers of the cemetery had not buried bodies where the streets were to be, and so graves wouldn’t have had to have been moved, but the lines cut through would have irrevocably changed the uninterruptedly open character of the site.  North Philadelphia was no longer rural – the city had arrived.

At about this time, McKenzie’s nursery, which had been on the corner of Broad and Columbia (now Cecil B. Moore), was torn down.  This nursery had most likely supplied much of the greenery that made Monument Cemetery the beautiful landscape that it was, but the land values would have gotten too high to continue economically justifying an agricultural use for land in this urbanizing district.  And so it passed.

But Monument Cemetery was still there, its massive gate towering above Broad and Berks, its tree lined central avenue leading west from there.

And near the turn of the last century, in 1903, there were rows of what look to be American sycamores along that avenue –

Berks Street through Monument Cemetery, looking west, March 1903 – image from

These large trees look quite a bit like American sycamores, though it is very difficulty to tell without seeing the leaves and fruits – however, the rough bark going high up the trunk and the whitish underbark suggests that those trees are American sycamores.

There are also, one may notice, smaller trees interspersed among those larger trees. From the photograph, it is impossible to tell what they are.  However, if you go there now, to just east of 16th Street, where Berks would once have passed through, you’ll see two tall and thick London planes, about 15 or so feet from each other, oriented east-west, and right next to where the road through Monument Cemetery once was.  They are roughly the same size as trees we cored in the yard of the Wagner Free Institute, right around the corner from here, and so are probably about the same age – those ones at the Wagner were over 110 years old, and so those London planes at 16th and Berks probably are, too, and so would have been planted roughly around 1903, and at roughly the same spacing as the saplings in the picture above.

It is difficult to differentiate London planes from American sycamores, especially when they’re young, and so it may well have been that the landscape was intended to continue having American sycamores, but London planes were planted instead.  But for whatever reason, they are what is there now, these London planes – the only trees that remain from the time of the cemetery.

But they aren’t all that remain from the cemetery’s days – the tall wall along Broad Street, going north from Berks, and also south from Berks, is part of the old cemetery walls.  If you walk west from that now, the road will slope gently up – the same slope that led gently up as hearses brought the dead and carriages brought mourners here so very long ago.  How do we know it’s the same slope as then?  Well, trees don’t move much, and so from those London planes that are there now and were here when the cemetery was, they tell us the original grade of the cemetery – and it is about equal with the top of the slope of that streetway currently stretching west from Broad and Berks.

There are also walls on either side of that road, but they weren’t there in 1903.

Monument Cemetery gate, from the inside, looking east – March 1903. Image courtesy

Just inside the cemetery gates, where that central avenue sloped down to the Broad Street that had been lowered some 60 years earlier, gentle banks led upwards to the cemetery’s ground level.  The walls that are there now, were not there then.

The cemetery continued into the 20th century.  Into the 1930s, there was still a treelined avenue passing through Monument Cemetery, with scattered trees to either side.  And the cemetery walls were still there, as was the cemetery itself.

Then, in the 1950s, Temple University was expanding and wanted to expand onto this site.  And they did.  Bodies were removed, tombstones were, too (to here, for example: ), and yet again the landscape changed entirely, well, nearly entirely.  A couple of trees remain, as did the walls that once extended north and south from the cemetery’s main gates at Broad and Berks.  But the site is otherwise unrecognizable as the graveyard it once was.

Things change, as they always have.  Monument Cemetery was established in the 1830s on land that had not been a graveyard before, and through the 19th century, roads were cut, nurseries moved, bodies were buried –  and as the 20th century rolled forward, walls were built and the entire, nearly the entire, cemetery was removed.  But even through massive change, evidence of the past persists.  The trees and wall are still there, borders are still there as extant property lines.  Even though you wouldn’t notice it just from looking, the evidence is there, that a cemetery was here.  The evidence persists.

To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban planning, see here:

To read about some more natural history and open areas, including cemeteries, nearby – see here:

Oakland Cemetery

Wissinoming, including Mt. Carmel cemetery

Cedar Grove

Hunting Park

Some Plants and Insects of the Woodlands

A different zelkova (Woodlands Cemetery)

Feral landscaping (Woodlands and Mt. Moriah cemeteries)

The yard of the Wagner Free Institute

Chrysosplenium americanum

Some things last, some things don’t.  A tree like an oak, or a Sophora, or an elm that’s survived Dutch elm disease, these might last for decades, or even into centuries.  A wetland, however, and its concomitant plants, is very often a consistency of change, and this is especially true of the kind of wetland found in the lower areas of Philadelphia – as a stream winds and moves itself through the sand and gravel of the coastal plain, as the ebb and flow of the tides moves the soil here and there, as storms come and go, these wetlands change and shift, perpetually, as they always have.  They can also, especially if they are broad and flat, as many wetlands tend to be, get built upon.  If this happens, if a wetland is gone and built on, it can be difficult if not impossible to reconstruct just where it was, or what it looked like, or what grew there.  But this, sometimes, can be done.

There has been an ongoing effort in Pennsylvania to document the plants of this state, and this effort has led to collections of plants from across PA, and publications based on those collections (including the Plants of Pennsylvania by Ann Rhoads and Tim Block, now in its second edition), and to a database listing these collections – the Pennsylvania Flora Database.  In this database are thousands of plant records for Philadelphia, including one for Chrysosplenium americanum, the American golden saxifrage.

This collection was made by Bayard Long on the 1st of January, 1951, in East Oak Lane, near 2d St and 65th Ave.  Bayard Long was a botanist who worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences for about 50 years, up until the early 1960s, though he never took a paycheck – he was independently wealthy, loved plants, and devoted his time to learning about them, to studying them, to writing about them, and to collecting them.  He was extraordinarily well regarded – Merritt Fernald, botanist at Harvard University and author of the last two editions of Gray’s Manual of Botany (which was the guide to the plants of northeastern North America for most of the 20th century), considered Long a colleague.  Bayard Long’s expertise was well known to anyone who worked on or was interested in the botany of North America at the time, and it still is.

And Bayard Long, on new years day, 1951, went to collect plants in North Philadelphia.

He collected this little plant, Chrysosplenium americanum, and documented it.  This species is a smallish plant, maybe a few inches high, with greenish flowers generally less than a quarter inch across that bloom in spring to early summer – it grows in shady, muddy areas, and would be walked over, if walked by at all, by most people.  And Bayard Long collected it on a winter day, the first winter day of 1951.  And 60 years later, I found out about it, as I looked through the Philadelphia county records of the Pennsylvania Flora Database.

This plant, the American golden saxifrage, is an obligate wetland plant – it is a plant that is not found in drier, upland areas, but is only found in areas regularly inundated with water. This is where it needs to live, and so we know that if it was growing at 2d and 65th, and we do know that it was, then there was a wetland there.  And so I wondered where Bayard Long collected it, where was the wetland that he went to on that cold day in January, over half a century before?  I thought at first it might have been at the Oak Lane Reservoir, between 3d and 5th Streets and between 65th and Chelten Avenues.  Perhaps there had been a wet area associated with the reservoir, a seep perhaps, or a bank or a bit of overflow, where the American golden saxifrage could’ve taken hold.  And, perhaps, 2d Street and 65th Avenue was just the closest street crossing, or where he’d started collecting that day, and so that was what was written down as the locality data.  But Bayard Long was precise, and he was accurate.  If he had collected it at the reservoir, he would have written that he had collected it at the reservoir.  So that wasn’t it.

And so there had to be a wetland very close to or right at 2d and 65th – and there was.  If you look at the G. W. Bromley map of Philadelphia from 1910, you’ll see two streams reaching around, encircling 2d and 65th, and inbetween them, inbetween those streams, would have been a wetland – habitat for this obligate wetland plant.

I’ve never seen this plant in Philadelphia, and so I looked to see if the site might, somehow, still be open, and perhaps Chrysosplenium americanum might, somehow, still be there.  But it’s now covered over.  In the 1950s, Cardinal Dougherty High School was built on top of that site – and after looking at the old maps, the first thing I wondered is what that place looked like before the building was built, when it was open, and the wetland was there.  Well, the school’s website provides.  Cardinal Dougherty history includes a photograph of the groundbreaking for Cardinal Dougherty High School, four and a half years after Bayard Long collected there, and we can see what it looked like then:

Cardinal Dougherty groundbreaking 28th of June 1955

Cardinal Dougherty groundbreaking, 28th of June 1955
Photograph from:

And so the first thing I wondered about, what it looked like, is in part answered.  There was a wooded area there, as we can see from the background, and so the entire area wasn’t always flooded.  This is also evidenced by the people standing there – none of them are wearing heavy boots and so the meadow they’re in most likely wasn’t flooded at least at the time this photograph was taken.  But late June is a bit past the time to get spring floods, and so while this area was not a wet meadow in the summertime, it may well have gotten wet in the earlier springtime.  And even though right then and there it was reasonably dry, we know from the old 1910 map that there were streams running nearby and we know from that old plant collection of Bayard Long’s that there was a wetland there into the early fifties.

And so the second thing I wonder about is if the high school’s basement floods.  Because flowing beneath this school, below the buildings, are streams, as flow beneath many sites in Philadelphia.  Packed away, covered from the daylight, they still flow beneath the city as sewers, or seeping through the ground.  Through pipes and through dirt, the water still runs, it still moves – and when that water moves, those ancient streams will flow, and when they flow, they will flow, and the water will wander where ever it will, even into a Catholic school’s basement, if there are cracks or holes in the walls or the floors, which there may well be.

Cardinal Dougherty High School is now closed.  It’s last class was graduated in 2010.  The buildings still remain, but the school is no more – it no longer is what it once was, and it no longer does what it once did.  This was a wetland sixty years ago, and then it was a school for decades, and it will be something else next.  But things will get left behind as evidence of what was here, or perhaps they won’t.  Things change, but often some things stay.  Even though the wetland where Cardinal Dougherty’s buildings now stand is itself now gone, a memento of it remains, in the Chrysosplenium americanum that Bayard Long collected in 1951.  And so we know what was here, because someone kept it.

There are other wetland plants with histories in Philadelphia – plants such as Micranthemum micranthemoides, Aeschynomene virginica, Zizania aquatica, Sagittaria latifolia (also known under a former name, engelmannia) – all of them tracking historic wetlands that are no longer there, or if they are there, they are changed from how they were in the past.  We can still, sometimes, track back to see how they were, to see where the water flowed above and saturated into the ground, and maybe even to find a picture to see what they looked like, back then.  But like everything, those wetlands are no longer as they were.  However, we can still piece together these little puzzles to think about what they once might have been when they were assembled so differently than they are today.



(Note: in 1860, Joseph Darrach reported Chrysosplenium americanum as flowering in April in Philadelphia; this was reported in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia)