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)


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