A history of natural history at the Woodlands

On Sunday, the 16th of September, 2012 there was a joint program of the American Entomological Society, the Philadelphia Botanical Club, and the Woodlands Historical Mansion, Cemetery, and Landscape – “Plants and Insects of the Woodlands”.  However, this was by no means the first exploration of the natural history there…

The Woodlands was originally the estate of William Hamilton, where in the late 18th Century he established a large collection of native and imported plants and he lived until his death in 1813, having influenced landscapes through his plant introductions and landscape design (for example the Lombardy poplar, seen in the background of this print here, from 1800, was a Hamilton introduction; the tree of heaven was, as well). [to read more about Hamilton’s extensive plant introductions in the 1780s, one may look here, or at the series of papers in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, (“Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary”), published sequentially in numbers one, two and three of volume 29, in 1905] The estate was purchased and transformed into a cemetery in 1840, and now forms The Woodlands National Landmark District (also quite a bit of the land was sold, including some of it to the University of Pennsylvania). It has been continuously planted with native and introduced plants for over two centuries (and included a commercial greenhouse in the late 1830s and 1840s, run by Henry Dreer) and has been maintained as a cemetery (primarily in the rural cemetery style) for over a century and a half.

The site has an area set aside for a small apiary, with various flowers in bloom in the fall; there is an edge environment along the perimeter, and many older native and imported trees are found throughout the cemetery.

On the 16th of September in 2012, we did a broad survey of the insects and plants (woody and herbaceous) of this site and met in front of the main house at 11 AM – from there we surveyed the insects on the rare zelkova in front of the house, and then looked at other habitats (including the seven English elms, and towards the large mulberry in the back). Here are a couple of the insects we saw (and in addition to the ones shown below, and many others as well, we also saw a Locust Borer beetle on its favored food of goldenrod):

Black Swallowtail

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), the Woodlands, 16 September 2012; photograph by Larry Henderson

Chinese mantid

Chinese Mantid (Tenodera sinensis) on goldenrod, the Woodlands – in the meadow near the apiary, 16 September 2012; photo by Larry Henderson

There are historic records of insects here, as well, well prior to when we were there in 2012, including one from over a hundred years ago of the species of mantis pictured above – documented at the Woodlands in the Entomological News and Proceedings of the Entomological Section of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia: ”A meeting of the American Entomological Society was held October 25, 1906, Dr. Calvert, President, in the Chair.” “Dr Calvert said five specimens of Tenodera sinensis were seen in Woodland cemetery, West Philadelphia, during the second week of October, which had probably been introduced from the adjoining grounds of the Botanical Garden of the University of Pennsylvania” (NB: Tenodera sinensis, of which an example is in the photograph above, has also gone under the name Tenodera aridifolia at other times)  This species, originally from Asia (as its name indicates), was first discovered in North America right here in Philadelphia, by Philip Laurent, as he reports in the Entomological News in June 1898: “The specimen was captured on the 16th of last October at Mt. Airy, Philadelphia, by my neighbor, Mr. Joseph Hindermyer, who found the insect resting on the upper part of one of his tomato vine. Mr. H., not being familiar with the insect’s harmless nature, was afraid to touch it, but at last managed to secure it in a paste-board box, in which condition it was brought to me.” (thanks to Ken Frank, for sending me that reference)  Later, in Mark Vernon Slingerland’s 1900 The Common European Praying Mantis, he writes that “Three or four years ago a specimen or two of a large Mantid were found in the nursery of Thomas Meehan & Sons at Germantown, Pa” and that “Last year it was reported that there was no doubt that this large Oriental Mantid had gained a firm foothold in Meehan’s nursery and was well established there.” But back to the 21st century … we noted there were remnants of insects on the plants, too:

Hemiptera eggs from Z carpinifolia_6333 Sept 16, 2012 Ken Frank photograph

Hemiptera eggs from a leaf of the Woodlands Zelkova carpinifolia, photographed by Ken Frank, 16th of September 2012

We also noted a small, recently planted southern magnolia that is there, right in front of the mansion, and note that this species, though southern, as its name alludes, was here in Hamilton’s time, as we see from a quote from the botanist Francois Andre Michaux’s 1818 North American Sylva (English translation by Hillhouse, 1859): “In the garden of the late Mr. W. Hamilton, near Philadelphia, I saw a Big Laurel [=Magnolia grandiflora] which bore uninjured the rigorous climate of this part of Pennsylvania”.  This tree was reasonably commonly planted in Philadelphia by the late 19th century, as Joseph Meehan notes in 1897: “There are several trees about this city some of them of very large size.” (Gardening magazine, Aug 1st, 1897; thanks to Joel Fry for pointing out this reference)

Another tree that was here in Hamilton’s time that was also noted by Michaux was the black gum, also known as the tupelo – latin name: Nyssa sylvatica.  Michaux writes: “In the park of Mr. W. Hamilton at the Woodlands, near Philadelphia, I first observed the Black Gum. The river Schuylkill in this vicinity may be assumed as its northern boundary, though it is common in the woods on the road from Philadelphia to Baltimore.” (Michaux, North American Sylva, vol. 3)  Barton (1818) also notes it as being here, “On the Woodlands.” There was also a white oak (Quercus alba) here with a curious tint: “Some stocks produce acorns of a deep blue color; but I have found only two indications of this variety, one a flourishing tree in the garden of Mr. W. Hamilton, near Philadelphia, and the other in Virginia” (Michaux, North American Sylva, vol. 1).  He also noted that Quercus prinoides (“Small Chesnut Oak”) was here: “It grows spontaneously in the park of Mr. W. Hamilton, near Philadelphia.” [However, Keller and Brown (1905) don’t list Q. prinoides as being in Philadelphia, though they do have it for Bucks, Delaware, and Chester counties, and Lancaster and Northampton counties, too] There were also ginkgos there, in Hamilton’s time, this tree having been introduced by him in 1785 – and as John Thomson Faris wrote in 1932, in Old gardens in and about Philadelphia and those who made them: ‘To-day one of these is more than six feet in circumference, while the other is more than seven feet, and seventy-five feet tall.  In 1919 Professor Sargent, of the Arnold Arboretum, spoke of these as among the most noteworthy of exotic trees that have been planted in the United States.  Then he said that both trees are males, and come into flower about May twenty-eighth or May thirtieth. “Synchronously with them a female tree three miles away in Overbrook is ready to receive the pollen which may be accidentally blown from the male trees in the Woodlands” ‘ [to read more about the ginkgo, see here: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20141109_A_Philly_tradition_fades__Asian_immigrants_and_ginkgo_picking.html]

There were other plants here as well: “No catalogue of the treasures in Hamilton’s Garden would be complete that fails to mention the papaws, the English elms, the first ailanthus tree planted in America in 1784, whose descendants lived in the garden for many years, the buckeye, the catalpa, the honey-locust and the mossy-cup oak.  Then there were specimens of the princess tree, the cypress, the purple beech, the box elder, the persimmon, and the yellow jasmine which was attached to the mansion.

The rarest species in the garden, of course, except the ginkgo tree, were the four representatives of Zelkova crenata, from the Caucasus.”  (John Thomson Faris (1932); Old gardens in and about Philadelphia and those who made them) Plants grown from seeds collected on the Lewis and Clark expedition grew here as well, in Hamilton’s time, as is related by Faris, again, but this time quoting Rodney True (botany professor at Penn): “The seeds collected by the expedition seem in a measure to have been taken in charge by Jefferson, who divided the major part of them into two portions, which were given to Bernard McMahon, a botanist and nurseryman living in Philadelphia, and to William Hamilton of the same place, the wealthy landowner of the famous gardens known as the Woodlands, by whom they were successfully grown.”  (John Thomson Faris, 1932, Old gardens in and about Philadelphia and those who made them)

Additionally, historically, there were greenhouse plants here, thousands of them in Hamilton’s time, and beyond, as is described in a 1908 article on Henry Dreer (whom you’ll remember from above ran a commercial operation at the Woodlands), in Gardening magazine (vol. XVI):

“In 1839 the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article eulogizing a fine display the young firm had made at Parkinson’s saloons, then a favorite gathering place for fashionable folk of the city.  It is interesting to note, from the clipping, which is reproduced in the book, that 8,000 dahlias were included in the decorations, the date being September 26, 1839.  These and the other flowers used came from the greenhouses of the firm which were then located on the Hamilton estate, Woodlands, where is now Woodlands cemetery”

According to the history of Dreer’s in their 70th anniversary Garden Book, published in 1908:

“Parkinson’s Restaurant was then at 714 Chestnut Street. Twenty-four years later, Mr. Henry A. Dreer purchased this building where he had made his first public exhibition of flowers and removed thither his seed store which had outgrown its former location. There it has remained until the present day, a period of 45 years. Numerous additions and enlargements have been necessary and a few years ago a large new seed warehouse was erected nearby on Washington Square [this was at 710 South Washington Square – the building is still there] , but the old store with its many associations is still retained.  The ground where it stands was formerly owned by Robert Morris, financier of the Revolution. “

If you go there today, or look on Google Street View, you can see that the building at 714 Chestnut is still there:

If you angle up you can see that top part of 714 Chestnut looks to be quite similar to how it was a century ago, also for 716; and for 714, if you go there in person, you will see that the words you can see in the areas just below the second floor windows (“Seeds” to the left, “Plants” to the right) that were there in 1908 are still there today. The Dreer nurseries ultimately moved to Riverton, NJ (and this was the site of the first known US introduction of the Japanese Beetle, in 1917) – they also had nurseries at 35th and what is now Wallace, in Mantua (as one can see from the 1862 Smedley map here) and also at Belmont Avenue and Ford Road near where Belmont Reservoir is now – this is noted in the 1862-3 Dreer catalog; and can be seen in the 1895 and 1910 Bromley maps where one can see that in 1895 the Dreer nursery was just south of the Belmont Reservoir, where the filter plant now is, and by 1910 it was replaced by that filter plant.

But back to the Woodlands…

There’s historic records of other plants there, as well – in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s 1905 Hand-Book of the Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity, we find Artemisia absinthium, Aster paniculatus, Cynanchum nigrum, Duchesnea indica (Indian strawberry), Erigeron philadelphicus, Lamium purpureum (deadnettle), Papaver somniferum, Silphium perfoliatum, Solidago flexicaulis (seen by Thomas Githens [specimen not at PH]), Verbesina alternifolia, Xanthorrhiza apiifolium (“reported at one time along Schuylkill near Woodlands” – the current binomial for this plant is Xanthorrhiza simplicissima, but it is still called yellowroot in the common parlance), and Xanthoxylum americanum, all listed with locality of the Woodlands. [NB: this is a complete list of plants from the Woodlands that are listed in Keller and Brown] And in the herbarium of the Botany Department of the Academy of Natural Sciences, there is a collection from Sept. 21, 1943, by N. A. Erisman, of Impatiens biflora (=capensis), whose habitat and locality is listed as: “moist ground along streamlet, between University Boulevard & Woodland Cemetery” Also at the Academy are collections of wild strawberry (Fragaria virginica) from the Woodlands, from the 8th of May 1887 (collected by Alexander MacElwee) and the 14th of September 1894 (collected by Thomas S. Githens).

And in William P. C. Barton’s 1818 Compendium Florae Philadelphicae, he notes of Sonchus floridanus (what we would call Lactuca floridana): “On the bank walk of the Schuylkill from Gray’s Ferry to Kingsess Gardens.  Also on the Woodlands near the Schuylkill; not common.”  And of Callitriche heterophylla – “In springs, rivulets and brooks, where the water is clear – on the bank-walk to the Woodlands most abundant”.  And there were carnivorous plants, the round leaved sundew, or Drosera rotundifolia: “Common in sphagnous and cranberry swamps in Jersey, and in bogs this side of the river.  On and near the Woodlands, frequent.”  And another wetland plant, Eriophorum virginicum, Virginian cotton-grass, “In boggy grounds, common.  On the Woodlands, abundant.”  And Heteranthera reniformis, “An aquatic plant, with broad kidney-shaped floating leaves…” that was “In the neighborhood of Philadelphia, common; in the stagnant shallow waters, on yellow clayey soil, opposite to the entrance to the Woodlands, and close to the road, abundant”.  And Pycnanthemum incanum: “It possesses the fine odour of Origanum vulgare.  On a bluff bordering the Schuylkill, Woodlands; abundant.”  And Comandra umbellata – bastard toadflax – which was “Very rare in this neighborhood [i.e, Philadelphia]; I have only found it at the Woodlands along the banks of the Schuylkill.”  And Virginian speedwell, Leptandra virginica, what we’d now call Veronicastrum virginicum – “Somewhat rare, though plentiful where found.  Woodlands, on the bluff of a hill bordering the Schuylkill; and in a shady wood near Powellton.”  And Sisyrinchium anceps (what we would call S. angustifolium), a blue-eyed grass, “In fields, not infrequent, particularly on the Woodlands.”  And Liatris spicata, the blue blazing star “…a very elegant plant.  Flowers purple, in long crowded spikes.  Near Frankford, and on the Woodlands; rare.  Possesses medicinal vitrtues.”  And Elymus villosus (hairy wildrye) – “On the rocky eminences near the Schuylkill, west side, between Market street bridge and the Woodlands.  Rare.”  And Trifolium reflexum (Buffaloe Clover): “On the bluff bordering the Schuylkill, Woodlands ; rare.”  And, Fedia (Valerianella) radiata, or “beaked cornsalad”, as it is called by some, or “Lamb’s lettuce”, as it is called by others (including Barton): “Often met with in fields west of the Schuylkill, but most abundant between the upper-ferry bridge (near Lemon-hill) and Kingsess Gardens, along the course of the Schuylkill, and not far from its margins.  In great profusion between Market street bridge and the upper-ferry, along the declivity of the high bank.”  For a geographic note here, under Collinsonia, Barton notes: “Also in the woods between Kingsess Gardens (Bartram’s) and Gray’s Ferry”, and so, presumably, “Kingsess Gardens” refers to Bartram’s Garden.

The Woodlands was, in general, extraordinarily well regarded botanically in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as we can see from Frederick Pursh’s description of it, in his Flora Americae Septentrionalis (1814), which immediately follows his description of Bartram’s:

“Not far from the latter place are also the extensive gardens of William Hamilton, Esq., called the Woodlands, which I found not only rich in plants from all parts of the world, but particularly so in rare and new American species. Philadelphia being a central situation, and extremely well calculated for the cultivation of plants from all the other parts of North America, I found this collection particularly valuable for furnishing me with a general knowledge of the plants of that country, preparatory to more extensive travels into the interior, for the discovery of new and unknown subjects. Mr. John Lyon, (of whom I shall have an opportunity to speak hereafter,) who had the management of these gardens, was then about to give them up : having the offer of being appointed his successor, I embraced it, and accordingly in 1802 I entered upon the situation. During my stay in this place, which was until 1805, I received and collected plants from all parts of North America ; and when Michaux’s “Flora Boreali-Americana” appeared, which was during that time, I was not only in possession of most of his plants, but had then a considerable number not described by him.”

The landscape was a bit different, in Hamilton’s time, more pastoral, in parts, as we see from a letter he wrote to his gardener, sent on the 12th of June 1790: “After the immense pains I took in removing the exotics to the north front of the House by way of experiment, & the Hurry of coming away preventing my arranging them, you will naturally suppose me anxious to know the success as to ye plants and the effect as to appearance in ye approach & also their security from cattle.” (from “Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary (concluded)”; The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1905), pp. 257-267) [according to John Thomson Faris (Old gardens in and about Philadelphia and those who made them; 1932), Benjamin H. Smith, the author/compiler of the above cited work, was “the grandson of the secretary who bore the same name.” (that is, he was the grandson of Hamilton’s ‘Private Secretary’ of the paper’s title); he also collected hawthorns at Bartram’s Garden]

There’s also a historic record of insect-plant interactions at the Woodlands (an interesting counterpoint, perhaps, to the mammal-plant interactions just mentioned); from the Asa Gray Bulletin, vol VI  (1899), John Harshberger notes: “On June 29, 1894, while walking in Woodland Cemetery, Philadelphia, where Scutellaria pilosa grows abundantly, I saw an humble bee at work perforating the flowers of this pretty skull-cap.” There is even a record of a Turbellid, a planarian like worm, called Phagocota gracilis, as we see in Roman Kenk’s Freshwater Triclads (Turbellaria) of North America IV: the polypharyngeal species of Phagocota (Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology, Number 80, 1970), where he cites a locality for this species as “Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia (*Hyman 1937a: 399)” [the “Hyman” refers to Libby Hyman and the “1937” refers to her 1937 paper in the Transactions of the American Microscopical Society [56:298-310] ).  This species was named by Joseph Leidy, in 1847, ‘who indicated its geographic distribution as “springs in Eastern Pennsylvania” ‘

And minerals, too – in volume one of the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, published in December of 1818, Isaac Lea writes “An Account of the Minerals at present known to exist in the vicinity of Philadelphia”, and includes “Mica.  Glimmer.”:

“This occurs exceedingly abundant in the primitive formation of our neighbourhood. We find it in hexaedral prisms and tabulated, on the Schuylkill, near Germantown, and on the Wilmington road near the Woodlands, where I have found hexaedral crystals of black mica, circumscribed by those of a light brown, forming curious specimens.”

There is, additionally, a history of slime molds here, as is noted in John Harshberger’s 1901 paper in the Botanical Gazette (Vol 31), “Observations upon the Feeding Plasmodia of Fuligo septica” (Harshberger was a botany professor at Penn):

“While searching for Mycetozoa [=slime molds] in the wooded valley incorporated as part of Woodlands cemetery, West Philadelphia, a luxuriant growth of Pleurotus sapidus was found upon some partially decayed logs, which had been piled up in a loose manner preparatory to burning. In removing several large pieces of this fungus, small patches of yellow plasmodium were found upon the lamellar surface of the fully expanded pilei.  These protoplasmic masses had moved out from the rotten log where they were seen in the crevices, and had invaded the gill surface of Pleurotus sapidus.”

As we move forward in the 20th century, there’s also aerial photos that include the Woodlands, as can be seen here, from 1936, and here from 1939, and another from 1936, and yet another from 1936.  And if you look in the back in this one:

West Phila 1939_Library Company Digital Arachives

West Philadelphia, 1939 – Aero Service Corporation. Image from the Library Company of Philadelphia digital collections; the Woodlands can be seen in the upper left of the photograph

you can see how the Woodlands, by the 1930s, was a swath of green in a heavily urbanized environment. The Woodlands has been maintained and managed since Hamilton’s time, as we see from this quote, in a letter he wrote on the 12th of June 1790: “Common sense would point out the necessity of my having constant information respecting the grass grounds at Bush Hill [another Hamilton property in Philadelphia] and at the Woodlands which must be now nearly in a state for mowing. . . It would have been an agreeable circumstance to me to have heard the large sumachs & lombardy poplars as well as the magnolias have not been neglected.” (from “Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary (concluded)”; The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1905), pp. 257-267) And so then, as today, the grounds were mown, trees were tended – though now there is less acreage, it is still thoughtfully taken care of today.

On the 30th of May 1955, Edgar T. Wherry collected Festuca elatior from a “Sandy mud-flat at west end of campus, U.P., [=University of Pennsylvania] / Woodland Ave. near 38th St.” (that collection is now in the herbarium of the Botany Department of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia).

Following a long tradition that dates from Benjamin Smith Barton in the early 19th century and goes on to John Harshberger in the early 20th century, and that I continue today in the early part of the 21st, of taking Penn classes to the Woodlands, I took my City Planning class to the Woodlands on the 21st of March 2014 – and we saw a Woodcock (Scolopax minor), right in front of the house and whinnying as it flew away. [For an earlier and nearby record of a Woodcock, see Samuel Scoville’s “The Wildness of Philadelphia“, written in 1925, wherein he writes thusly about what have elsewhere been called the spruce street swamps: “In that same enchanted spot, where one could step from a crowded city street and be safe among the sweet wild folk in another world, I roused my first woodcock, who had dropped there one March day to rest.”]

On the 10th of February, 2015, we did a survey of the Woodlands, primarily focused on winter fruit and winter birds.  We noted that the Taxus baccata behind the house had no arils, and that the Chinese holly right nearby it had no fruit on it (Jessica Baumert mentioned that American Robins had eaten the fruit from that tree not long before the day we were there). There were sapsucker holes in the Pinus nigra near the house and in the Ilex opaca near the carriage house, and in a Chamaecyparis, too.  In a row of hollies just beyond the fence on the western side (in the area currently used for recreation), there were abundant fruits on the trees, and we saw a Mockingbird, an American Robin, and a gull flying overhead.  We shortly thereafter heard a nuthatch call.  There were hornets nests in the yew near the western fence and in a hackberry closer to Woodland Avenue and another in a black cherry.  In a set of four yew (Taxus baccata) trees – numbers 106, 107, 108 and 109 – we saw three Golden-crowned Kinglets actively feeding at the outer edge of the canopy crown; we watched for over 15 minutes (they were at and just slightly above eye level), and at times the birds flew in our direction, and we easily approached within 1.5 meter of them, and they continued to eat and flit.   We heard male and female cardinals chirping to each other across the drive just west of the entrance, and further east, across another path, we heard another pair doing the same (M in Chamaecyparis, F in Cryptomeria).  Pieris japonica was in fruit.  Three chickadees were actively feeding in an ash tree near the scrubby area near the VA hospital.  Nearby to that, in that aforementioned scrubby area, was a nest that looked like that of a hawk’s (it was similar to a squirrel’s, but it was made of sticks instead of leaves).  A redbud had fruit on it, as did a Chinese holly near the carriage house.  At the back fence a Hedera helix vine had fruit on it.  There was a robin’s nest in a hackberry near the carriage house, and as we left, at about 2PM, a Carolina wren was calling and singing in the meadow, perched up high as we watched.

There’s also a long history of birding at the Woodlands, as we see from George Nitzsche’s 1917 article in the Penn Gazette (“Bring Song Birds Back to Campus!”), where he notes a list of 72 birds compiled in 1906 by Cornelius Weygandt (Professor of English at Penn) and his compatriots, and he notes that there were additional birds found at the Woodlands (Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Indigo Bunting, Magnolia Warbler, and House Wren).  [to look at modern bird lists for the Woodlands, see here] And he describes Hamilton Walk as “shaded with tall poplars, weeping willows, maples, oaks and other American shade trees planted as memorials to eminent Pennsylvanians…”

Nitzsche notes the changing environment, from bucolic, to the one we see in the photo above, and mentions the loss of bird species on the Penn campus, and encapsulates that sentiment in a line “…even the robins now seem to consider our campus an unfit place to rear their young.” He also notes:

“The peaceful atmosphere of Woodlands Cemetery and the primitive nature of the ravine which separates Woodlands from our Botanic Gardens should bring many attractive songsters [=birds] to the University grounds.”

For directions and more information on the Woodlands, visit: www.woodlandsphila.org

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


To read about some more landscape history and natural history of cemeteries  – see here:

Wissinoming (including Mt. Carmel Cemetery)

The Trees of Monument Cemetery

Oakland Cemetery

A different zelkova (Woodlands Cemetery)

Feral landscaping (Woodlands and Mt. Moriah cemeteries)

2 thoughts on “A history of natural history at the Woodlands

  1. Pingback: Woodlands meadow | Flora and Fauna of Philadelphia

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