Hunting Park

Hunting Park, which is worth a visit, is a wide open area of green comprising about 87 acres in North Philadelphia, and while it has certainly changed through the years, it has always been filled with plants.   Originally part of the James Logan estate (that included nearby Stenton), this particular parcel was sold in the early part of the 19th century and soon thereafter there was a racetrack here that was active and running up until the mid-1850s, when the land came to the city to be used as a park, and by 1937 Hunting Park had a “music pavilion, tennis courts, a lake, and a carrousel“.  

In 1872, the park came under the Fairmount Park Commission, and it stayed there until 2009, when the combination of the Fairmount Park System with the Department of Recreation made what is now Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, a department in the city that manages thousands of acres of natural lands, playgrounds, and much, much more, including Hunting Park.

The lake there (mentioned above) was a wading lake, a lot of it less than knee deep, depending on the depth of your knees, and pretty much all of it below the waist, given that it was a “wading” lake, and it was huge – as can be seen in the aerial photo here, the lake stretched about a block and half’s length north to south, and about the same, roughly, from east to west, forming somewhat of a boomerang shape, pointing towards the west, with a smaller pool, perhaps for smaller children, at the northern tip of it.  You can further get a sense of its size by the aerial photo here, from 1939.  Also note from the 1843 map here that the site where Hunting Park is now didn’t have much in the way of streams or creeks running through it, which says that the lake most likely wasn’t a dammed waterway, but was more likely simply a large expanse dug down until groundwater was hit and that then filled the pond.  The pavilion at the crook of the boomerang’s elbow, on its east side, is still there, but the lake is not.

There is a magnificent tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) just to the west of where the lake once was, and across the way from where that pavilion still stands:

Hunting Park tupelo; photograph by Ned Barnard, 25th of August 2013

Hunting Park tupelo, with historic pavilion visible at the far side of the soccer field; photograph by Ned Barnard, 25th of August 2013

Given its size, this tree was mostly likely there when the lake was – shading bathers from the summer sun, and providing brilliant red foliage in the autumn to give a vivid signal of the end of the swimming season.

Now there are playing fields there, where the lake once was, and a swimming pool, too, at the lake’s historic center, and on a warm summer day those fields will be filled with people, playing soccer, playing baseball, and watching others do the same, and just enjoying being out of doors.  At the southern part of this area, next to the baseball field, is an old cedrela, or toon tree.  It’s roughly the same size as ones growing along West Vernon Rd in Germantown, along the former border of where Meehan’s Nursery used to be, and the one in Hunting Park may well have come from Meehan’s, as they were a major tree supplier in Philadelphia, and also they sold Cedrela trees from 1896 onwards and through to the 1910s, as a look at their catalogs (many of which are in the PHS McLean library) shows; and they were pretty excited about this tree in 1905, writing that it is “Such a good plant that we intend to make a great feature of it as soon as we can grow a stock large enough to meet the demand its merit will create.”

In the 19th century, William Saunders, partner of Thomas Meehan (proprietor of the eponymous nursery, mentioned above), laid out a design for Hunting Park, and there are trees there still that look, from their size, to be from that time, and therefore perhaps from his design.  There’s a huge sugar maple, for example, just to the east of the community garden, in the western part of the park, and oaks, including scarlet, red, and white, in the southern section of the park, all of which look to date from the late 19th century based on their heights and widths.

And there is even a tree that pretty clearly pre-dates the park itself – a willow oak that’s pretty hard to miss, given the sign pointing right at it:

Hunting Park historic tree sign, photograph by Nick Tenaglia, 25th of August 2013

Hunting Park historic tree sign, photograph by Nick Tenaglia, 25th of August 2013

This sign, similar to the one pointing towards the Buist Sophora in Southwest Philadelphia, points to this Quercus phellos:

Hunting Park willow oak, just south of West Hunting Park Ave, just inside the park, Old York Road side (west side); photograph by Nick Tenaglia, 25th of August 2013

Hunting Park willow oak, just south of West Hunting Park Ave, just inside the park, Old York Road side (west side); photograph by Nick Tenaglia, 25th of August 2013

It’s enormous, as you can tell from the apparently tiny people who are at the base that are, I can tell you, all over 5 feet tall, and some a fair bit more than that.  Based on its size, we can pretty confidently say that it dates to the mid, if not early, 19th century, if not before, and it has accompanied the historic building (at the very southwest corner of the park) through the centuries, and through to today.

Across Roosevelt Blvd from the park is the Logan Triangle, a site where houses once were.  This development was built in the 1920s, on top of what was once the Wingohocking Creek (or see here) but has now all been filled in and covered over.  However, it wasn’t filled in sturdily enough, not strongly enough to hold the houses built above it, and in the 1980s houses tragically exploded, and the city, along with the Logan Assistance Corporation and the federal government, worked towards relocating the nearly thousand households impacted by this and removing most of the buildings that were there, and about 16 blocks there are now open green space – some butterflies fly there (e.g, sulphurs, that we saw on the 25th of August 2013), and there are open fields that look like rural fields, and also a bit of short dumping where people have left their trash for others to clean up after them, and the area today forms a curious counter image of green space to the park, Hunting Park, on the south side of the Boulevard.  (These kinds of problems have also occurred elsewhere in Philadelphia: in Wissinoming, Mill Creek (in West Philadelphia), and Roxborough and Wynnefield)

From J. Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott’s History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884:

“The Wingohocking (Winge-hacking) is thought to mean “a good place for planting.”  This stream is also called “Logan’s Run,” because it flows by Stenton, the country seat of of James Logan, Penn’s secretary; it rises near Mount Airy, and the Tacony in Montgomery County.”

As a side note – upstream from here, as the Wingohocking flows (underground, today), is where Charles Willson Peale‘s house once was (it is now part of LaSalle‘s campus), and there was beryl, a gemstone, there, too: “This mineral is found on Mr. C. Peale’s farm near Germantown” (Isaac Lea, “An Account of the Minerals at present known to exist in the vicinity of Philadelphia”, Vol. 1, Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, December of 1818) [and for more about some plants that grew along the headwaters of the Wingohocking in the 1920s, see within here: https://growinghistory.wordpress.com/2012/04/22/paulownia-tomentosa-the-empress-tree/]

If you walk over to Logan Triangle from Hunting Park, and you decide to go via Old York Road, perhaps to walk over the ground where the Excelsior Brick Works was (as can be seen in the 1895 map here), take a look just a little bit to the east, just south of the Boulevard, and you’ll see the apple tree that Joe Rucker discovered there recently, and if you’re there in late summer or early fall, you can eat the apples off of it, too  (just be careful of the poison ivy growing on and near it)

To read about some other parks in Philadelphia, see here:

Wissinoming

West Fairmount Park (Michaux Grove, specifically)

Cresheim Creek

The Wissahickon (its hemlocks, specifically)

And for further reading about Hunting Park…

http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/news-and-opinion/cover-story/Hunting-Park-Bounces-Back-80763797.html

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William Hamilton, Lombardy poplars, and the landscape of cemeteries

From Erica Maust, of the Woodlands Historic Mansion, Cemetery, and Landscape:

“In 1784, William Hamilton introduced the Lombardy poplar to North America on his Philadelphia estate, The Woodlands. In 1788, a visitor to The Woodlands wrote that Hamilton’s walks were “planted on each side with the most beautiful & curious flowers & shrubs. They are in some parts enclosed with the Lombardy poplar except here & there openings are left to give you a view of some fine trees or beautiful prospect beyond…”

Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut was the first private, non-profit cemetery in the world. Organized in 1796 as “the New Burying Ground in New Haven,” it was one of the earliest cemeteries to have a planned layout with privately owned family lots, named streets and avenues, and arrangements of ornamental plantings. The original 1796 planting scheme of the cemetery featured regular rows of–you guessed it!–Lombardy poplars (the very same tree Hamilton introduced to North America 12 years earlier), along with a poplar grove and meadow at the rear of the cemetery.

44 years later, in 1840, Hamilton’s very own landscaped Woodlands became a planned, rural cemetery, preserving his landscape and horticultural pursuits.”

For more, see here:

https://www.facebook.com/woodlandsphila

And for more about William Hamilton and the Lombardy poplar:

http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/904.pdf

Wissinoming

Just to the north of where the Frankford El ends, there is a set of cemeteries, and a park that nearly entirely circles one of them.  Those cemeteries, Cedar Hill, North Cedar Hill, and Mt. Carmel, have been there since this was a rural area just outside of Frankford’s urban core.  And the park, Wissinoming Park, while not quite as old as those cemeteries, has history that does reach a bit further back.

The site of Wissinoming Park was originally the estate of Robert Cornelius, a chemist and an early photographer who began his work in the latest part of the 1830s and took one of the earliest photographs, ever, of a living human.  Mr. Cornelius was a very wealthy man, and in the 1850s he wanted an estate in one of the finest parts of Philadelphia, and he situated it just to the north of Frankford, to enjoy the space and the rural setting he found there.  And it remains open to this day – a swath of green and trees that has been a neighborhood treasure for well over a century.

In an undated piece by Thomas Creighton, from the archives of the Historical Society of Frankford (and thanks to Susan Couvreur for finding this and bringing it to my attention), we find the following:

“One of the most pleasing and attractive of the new parks of Philadelphia is Cornelius Park, situated a short distance above Frankford, and on the western outskirts of Wissinoming it will in due course of time be greatly appreciated.  There are fine forest trees, open glades, and a lake that always adds to the beauty of the landscape”

In this article, they mention that the park had just opened, and that “There some 34 members of the society gathered on Saturday afternoon, October 14…” and:

“Mr. Robert T. Corson, Esq., read a very complete history of the ground comprising the estate, from the time that it was a part of the glebe lands of Oxford church to the present time, of its purchase by the city for a public park.”

This suggests that this article was published (by the Historical Society of Frankford) in 1911 (the 14th of October fell on a Saturday in 1911; also you’ll note that the park is not on the 1910 map here, but it is on the 1929 map there), or perhaps 1912 (since there might have been a delay in publication to the following year after the visit mentioned above).

The paper goes on to say:

“In May 5, 1850, Lawndale, the estate of Edward Lukens and wife, was purchased by Mr. Cornelius for $18,500.  Mr. Cornelius was a great lover of trees and it is stated that he planted about 4000 trees on the place.  There are some very old walnut trees still standing, one large one that stood before the mansion is dead and will soon have to be taken down.  The mansion was torn down recently owing to its neglected condition.”

This mention of walnuts is interesting to me because there are a few black walnuts in Mt. Carmel Cemetery, the cemetery at the northeast corner of Cheltenham and Frankford Avenues, whose land used to be a part of the Cornelius Estate.  In the late 19th century, a portion of the estate was cut off to become Mt. Carmel cemetery, and as an interesting aside, the owner of the first matzah factory in Philadelphia, Werner David Amram, is buried there.  He also was my great great grandfather.

[Note: to read more about a couple other nearby cemeteries, see here]

But back to the trees…

I’d assumed that those black walnut trees at Mt. Carmel had simply seeded in on their own and that no one had removed them; that is, that they’d just weeded their way into the landscape, since it seemed a bit odd to me to plant black walnuts in a cemetery, given that these plants shed nuts prolifically, nuts that are time consuming to pick up from the ground and discard.

However, on a visit to the Frankford Arsenal this past July (which was kindly organized by Cynthy and John Buffington, by the way), I saw that there is an enormous black walnut near the reflecting pool in the southwest corner there, and there are also two smaller ones (black walnut trees, that is) arranged at the far corner of the pool from it.  I was surprised to see them there (for a similar reason that I was surprised to see the ones at Mt. Carmel), and based on the placement of the larger tree (relative to the pool, and also relative to those other two walnuts also near the pool), I’m quite sure it was planted there, and that those two smaller ones are, too.  Since those black walnuts at the Arsenal are pretty clearly planted, and since it is noted that walnuts (which may well have been black walnuts) were noted to have been planted on the Cornelius estate, I have had to reappraise my thoughts on black walnuts being planted (and not seeding in on their own), in landscapes in Frankford (and most likely elsewhere), such as Mt. Carmel Cemetery.

But back to the park…

In the late 19th century, the estate had an open, park like aspect to it, much as it does today – this I saw in photographs from the archives of the Historical Society of Frankford, access to which was kindly granted to me by Susan Couvreur and Diane Sadler.

And if we look at old maps, we see that there were two streams running through the estate – one ran in a roughly southwesterly direction, the other went roughly southeast.  The two joined in the southern part of the estate, and then crossed what is now Cheltenham Ave (but at the time was Dark Run Rd).  The southwest running creek has since been covered over, but there is now a long low area running above where that creek once ran – I talked to some people at the park and they call it “the creek”.  It dries out when the rain doesn’t come, so it isn’t totally a creek, but when the rain comes, the creek fills up, and so it does have a flow at times, and so colloquially calling it a creek makes sense to me.

The southeasterly running stream started just across Frankford Ave, in the eastern part of the property owned by North Cedar Hill Cemetery, but in an area that is, so far as I’m aware, unburied with bodies.  It’s just a bit southwest of what might be the oldest community garden in Philadelphia, which is in turn just a bit southwest of Benner St, on the north side of Frankford Ave.

I’ve talked to people, such as Robert Penn, who’ve lived in the area in decades past, and they’ve told me that there used to be a spring there, where that creek began, just north of Frankford Ave, just west of Comly, where people would go to get drinking water. But it was closed down in the 1950s or so, due to concerns about its cleanliness.

There were many springs in the parks of Philadelphia, in former times, such as the one described in the “Conchologists’ Exchange“, where John Ford (Philadelphia, PA) describes a locality in West Fairmount Park, in 1887:

“On the eastern embankment of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad about 200 yards below Belmont Landing, the remains of an old spring house may he seen with the water still bubbling up among its ruins, across which rests the trunk of a fast decaying tulip poplar.”

The stream that came from that spring in Wissinoming was dammed up, in Cornelius’s time and on Cornelius’s property, to make a large pond – the area where that impoundment was is now covered by concrete and is part and parcel of the park that is there today, and kids now play street hockey there, above where a pond once was.  There is a drainage that still runs underground there, with an entranceway to it that you can see at the southwest part of the cemented play area, and there is a little bridge that stands to mark where a stream once was.

It was not unpopular, in the late 19th and early 20th century, to install water features in parks, as we see from the 1901 “Twenty-Ninth Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Zoological Society of Philadelphia” [or “the Philadelphia Zoo”, as it is more commonly called today]:

“Through the interest of a generous patron of the Gardens, means were provided for converting the upper portion of the stream in rear of the deer park, into a pond for otter, which has proved to be one of the most attractive features of the collection. At the lower end of the same stream, adjoining the beaver, another inclosure has been made for wood ducks.”

But these water features don’t last forever – things come and things go, like water under a bridge.

There was also, I’ve been told, a farm near there, as late as the 1950s, just north of North Cedar Hill Cemetery, and that it was owned by the same Brous family for whom Brous Ave is named.  But I haven’t found out more about that, yet.

Those creeks that ran through Wissinoming Park were tributaries of Little Tacony Creek – Wissinoming Creek ran a bit north and east of the park, and flowed directly into the Delaware.  That waterway, Wissinoming Creek, like so many others in Philadelphia, has long since been covered over and hasn’t seen the light of day in decades, but its legacy still remains, both in the name of the park nearby (Wissinoming Park, that is), and also in the open park like spaces along Devereaux St., and Hegerman St., and Vandike St – streets that were set above where the creek once ran.

In 1999, there were houses on those lots – but they’d been built, in the 1920s, on top of the ash and cinder filled stream bed of the Wissinoming Creek, and that light debris didn’t support the houses well enough, and by the end of the 20th century they were declared by the city to be “in imminent danger of collapse.” – and so they are now open spaces, grassy and green, and dotted a bit with trees, telling of what runs beneath them.

Back in the 1920s, when this area was being heavily developed, it had a very different aspect to what it has now, as you might expect, but in ways that might be surprising – for example, there was open wetland, and pretty good quality wetland, too, along what is now Cheltenham Ave, in the area near Wissinoming Park.

We know this because, at the Academy of Natural Sciences, in their collection of dried and pressed plants (called an “herbarium“), there is a collection of Sparganium americanum, collected by R. R. Dreisbach on the 12th of July in 1922.  He noted the habitat location as “Marshes / Dark Run Rd.  Frankford, Phila Co.”

Sparganium americanum, or American bur reed as it is more commonly known if it is known at all, is an obligate wetland plant; that is, it needs saturated soils to live – and so we know that there were open wetlands at the site where it was collected.  Also, while this bur reed isn’t the most sensitive of plants, it does need somewhat clean water and this indicates that the water was not overly polluted at the time it was collected. [for example, in  Small et al’s 1994 paper in Restoration Ecology, “A Macrophyte-Based Rapid Biosurvey of Stream Water Quality: Restoration at the Watershed Scale”, they report Sparganium americanum from nearly 27% of the high quality streams they surveyed in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, yet not at all from their low quality stream sites]

We have to use old maps to suss out the location indicated by Dreisbach for his bur reed collection, to see where Dark Run Rd. was, since it it no longer there – and to do that we can turn to the maps at Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network; look at the 1910 map therein and you will see that Dark Run Rd was what is now the portion of Cheltenham Ave running to the south of Wissinoming Park and its nearby graveyards.  (there is also a Hexamer Survey map of Dark Runs Mill, Briggs and Bros., from 1874, that shows quite clearly that there was industry here, but also, as is noted at the outer edges of the map, there was also “meadows” and “farmland” and “woodlands” directly adjacent to those facilities – as is noted on the plan: “Situated on Dark Run Creek, about 1/2 mile above Frankford, 23d Ward, Philadelphia” and “Buildings erected 1869 and 1871…”; Dark Run Creek was also called Tackawanna Creek, and also Little Tacony Creek according to “Old Towns and Districts of Philadelphia“, by William Bucke Campell, published in 1942)

But it wasn’t just trees and wetland plants growing up around there.  There were also flowers being cultivated in the area near Wissinoming Park.  In the middle part of the 20th century, there was a nursery at Frankford and Devereaux.  It’s indicated on a 1929 map (as “F. H. Worsinger. Jr. Green House), and also on 1942 and 1962 maps (those maps are available via the Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network), and was right across the street from the Frankford Yellowjackets stadium (the Frankford Yellowjackets were a professional football team based out of Frankford) – the stadium at Frankford and Devereax burned down in 1931.

This nursery (Worsinger, that is) most likely supplied materials for the nearby cemeteries, and perhaps that’s why I’ve been unable to turn up much about it, since it would’ve been a highly localized business, and might not have advertised much, nor published catalogs (I’ve looked in the collections at the McLean Library at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and haven’t found anything about F. H. Worsinger, nor any kind of nursery with a name like that)

Mr. Worsinger was, however, a reasonably prominent man – as is noted in volume 15 of the Journal of Economic Entomology (published in 1922), he was “locally in charge of the Japanese beetle work, Bureau of Plant Industry, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.”

There was another nursery nearby, that could’ve been supplying the cemetery with its bouquets and greenery.  William B. Koehler was a florist on Bridge St., between Darrah and Duffield, with numerous greenhouses (as can be seen in the 1929 map here).  These would likely have supplied the flowery needs of Frankford’s living citizens, and quite likely would have been beautifying the homes of those who were belowground, too.

But there’s more… in addition to the wetland plants and the cultivated trees and the flowers for sale, there were dry, weedily growing open areas there, too, as is indicated by a collection (also at the Academy of Natural Science’s herbarium), from the 13th of October of 1927, by Walter Benner, of the plant Amaranthus spinosus.  Benner made this collection at Frankford Ave and Devereaux St. (that is, where the Yellowjackets stadium stood), and noted the habitat as “Waste ground” (that is, an area like a vacant lot, or perhaps an actual vacant lot – or perhaps just a weedy parking area, but regardless, an open, untended area).  And also at the Academy, there is a collection of wild strawberry (Fragaria virginica), from “burned-over edge of thickets along Wissinoming Creek / Tacony”, that was made by J. W. Adams and Thomas Taylor on the 2nd of May 1926.   And in Keller and Brown’s 1905 Flora of Philadelphia, they note “Aegopodium podagraria … Waste Places.” with a locality of “Dark Run and Frankford”.  And so, while there were plants that were planted and landscapes that were cultivated, there were also areas that just grew up there on their own.

This area had a history of horticulture well prior to the 20th century, I should say.  The Caleb Cope nursery, where Thomas Meehan worked, was a bit farther towards the northeast, at Cottman and Frankford – it was there in the 19th century, predating the cemeteries and parks down the way in Frankford, and Thomas Meehan, the eminent nurseryman of Germantown, worked there early in his career, in the late 1840s.

There was still an agricultural aspect to that area, even into the 20th century, as the following collection label (from, yet again, the Academy of Natural Science’s herbarium) indicates:

Amaranthus spinosus
“weed in open ground about barn
along Cottman St. S.W. of Holmesburg”
Bayard Long
26 Oct 1916

And there also would have been scrubby areas here, in the 1930s, as is indicated by the record of a Brown Thrasher nest (“Wissinoming, 4 highly incubated eggs”), noted by Richard Miller in his paper, “the Breeding Birds of Philadelphia”, in volume 51, number 7 of the Oologist (“for the student of birds, their nests, and eggs”), published in 1933.  And there certainly were wide open areas, as is indicated by the aerial photo here, from 1927: http://new.planphilly.com/eyesonthestreet/2013/11/22/from-above-roosevelt-boulevard-oxford-circle-and-beyond-in-1927

Wissinoming Park remains to this day a site of botanical interest – there is a pair of southern red oaks (Quercus falcata – these trees were pointed out to me by Tony Gordon, by the way) that are possibly the largest in the city, and there are other enormous oaks, a very large English (or German, depending on whom you ask – but either way it’s Quercus robur) oak in the northeast part of the park, and nearby to that is a very large swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor).  There are also two very good sized ginkgos, and a nice osage orange (Maclura pomifera), too.  And along the “creek” at the Charles St. side of the park, there is a row of catalpas – based on the size of their seed pods (they’re over a centimeter wide), they’re most likely Catalpa speciosa, the northern catalpa – there’s a number of them lined up there, like a screen, awning off the stream and its riparian boundary from the rest of the park [NB: there are some Catalpa bignonioides, the southern catalpa, in the park as well; along the path leading to the “creek” there are two catalpas on either side, the one on the south side is C. speciosa and the one of the north side is C. bignonioides; these are differentiable based on bark characteristics (bignonioides is rough, speciosa is ridged), seed pod width (bignonioides generally less than 1cm across, speciosa generally wider than 1 cm across, and phenology – speciosa flowers before bignonioides; on the 9th of June 2014, the speciosa is already dropping its flowers while the bignonioides buds are barely even expanded; in 2015 I looked pretty closely at the flowers of both these species, and they look pretty much the same].  There are also some pignut trees (Carya glabra) in the park – these are notable if only because they aren’t commonly seen in parks (they are difficult to transplant, and so need to be grown from seed, thereby making it difficult to grow them in a park planting), and even moreso because the squirrels clearly like them so much – when we were there, at Wissinoming Park, on the 25th of June, the ground below them was littered with hickory husks, having been industriously nibbled by these little gray rodents.

For a quick note on another Carya, C. illinoinensis, commonly known as the pecan, from the “Short Sketch of Philadelphia Trees”, from John Harshberger’s 1899 The Botanists of Philadelphia and their Work:

“Nuttall’s Pecan Tree. An old pecan tree, one of the most famous in the city, stood, until recently, on the grounds of the M. E. Church, Germantown and High Streets. The seed was carried by Nuttall, the botanist, from Arkansas.”

(that church is now the First United Methodist Church of Germantown)

And as for those catalpas mentioned above, they are a good size, but not enormous – though these trees do have the potential to grow to great size around here, as an article in the Gardener’s Monthly (volume 20, from 1878) attests, referencing a northern catalpa growing across town, in Fairmount Park:

A Large Catalpa. – Mr. Horace J. Smith writes: “I measured a Catalpa tree in Fairmount Park, on the river drive, west side, this morning, and found it to be thirteen feet in circumference, at an average of one foot from the ground (it is on a hillside), showing a trunk four feet diameter. Would a section or slab be of interest?”

[What will those Western friends think who believe Southern Indiana produces the only hardy Catalpa. Though Mr. Smith does not say so, we can assure them that this Pennsylvania tree is not growing in the mammoth conservatory in Fairmount Park, but is actually in the open air, and has probably been there through a hundred Winters. How many annual rings has it, Mr. Smith? But we hope there will be no attempt to take a slab from it. Better let the old Catalpa stand.]

And as for the osage orange – a Landreth‘s seed catalog from 1832 covers it well:

“A splendid forest tree: the leaves of a beautiful shining green, and the fruit a most singular appearance; discovered by Lewis and Clarke, when on their western tour.

Native soil: Arkansas  $1.00/pc”

(the above was transcribed from a copy at the McLean library)

And Frederick Pursh supplies a bit more information on the Osage Orange, in his Flora Americae Septentrionalis (1814):

“About the village of the Osage Indians a few trees have been planted, from which one has been introduced into one of the gardens at St. Louis on the Mississippi. Perfect seeds from the last-mentioned tree were given by Mr. Lewis to Mr.  M’Mahon, nursery and seedsman at Philadelphia, who raised several fine plants from them, and in whose possession they were when I left America.”

And a brief note on Quercus falcata – this tree is also called the Spanish oak, and a tree by that name was mentioned by William Penn as being here in the 1680sQ. falcata is also listed in William P. C. Barton’s 1818 flora of Philadelphia (“The finest timber tree among the oaks.  In all our woods.”), but there is another tree that Barton calls “Spanish oak” (this is the common name he gives to Q. palustris), and he gives the common name of “red oak” to Q. falcata; Q. rubra, which we would call “red oak” today, he calls “scarlet oak”.  To further complicate and confuse things, in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s 1905 flora of Philadelphia, they list “Spanish oak” as being in Philadelphia (“Byberry … Grays Ferry … 52d Street Woods … Lancaster Pike”), but they give it the latin name of “Q. digitata” (it is also listed under that name, and as being in Philadelphia, in Thomas C., Porter’s 1903 Flora of Pennsylvania); in the copy of Barton’s 1818 flora that is in the botany department of the Academy of Natural Sciences, this name (digitata, that is) is written in the margin next to the section for Q. falcata.  Q. falcata is also in Edgar Wherry’s “A check-list of the flora of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania” (published in Bartoniathe Journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, vol. 38), and this came out in 1969.

Point being – it is complicated tracing back a plant through the literature, but it can be done, and in this instance, we see that Quercus falcata has been here for quite some time, and was reasonably common, even though it is not a tree I commonly see in Philadelphia now.

Wissinoming Park and the area around it has changed drastically over the past couple hundred years – once comprised of open areas with wetlands, of a major estate with streams running through it, of farms and creeks and forests, too, much of this land has proceeded to be covered over and filled in by housing for the living and dead alike.

But among it all, the expansive green that was here when Robert Cornelius planted thousands of trees for his estate in the mid-19th century still breathes open.  Kids play, people sit and talk; barbequing on warm nights, or just walking through when it’s too cold to sit – this vast open oasis covers history, grows from history, and still it is an active part of the community around it, integrating what was here before with what is here now.

Walking among trees that were planted under the direction of the man who took the first photograph of a living human, looking at the section of his estate that was cut off to become a cemetery, gazing over the rink that was once a pond, we can see the changes that have arrived, and even though we don’t need to see or know any of this in order to be a part of the landscape that is there today, seeing the past lends a depth to the present that allows us to see connections that would otherwise lie unseen.

To read about some other parks in Philadelphia, see here:

Hunting Park

West Fairmount Park (Michaux Grove, specifically)

Cresheim Creek

The Wissahickon (its hemlocks, specifically)

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

https://cemeterylandmanagement.wordpress.com/

The saucer magnolia

Two hundred years ago, here in the US, the War of 1812 had just begun, and with it came turmoil and tumult.  However, this was also a time of great ferment and excitement – the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, an institution dedicated to the advancement of discovery, had just been founded in March of that year, and fewer than ten years prior to that, this country had expanded to reach from sea to sea, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, what with the Louisiana Purchase and that followed soon thereafter by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition out west, to explore those newly acquired lands.  Clark and Lewis, respectively, made maps and sent back ethnographic specimens, and birds, and plants – and the vast majority of those plants are now here in Philadelphia, having arrived, by various means, at the Academy of Natural Sciences.  Two hundred years ago was a time of troubles, but also of growth, expansion, discovery, here in the new world, and that sense of discovery, and some of those specific discoveries, still exist today.

Over in Europe, there was also war two hundred years ago – at this time, 1812, it was the Napoleonic wars, with armies sweeping back and forth across the continent, ravaging as they went.  However, within a few years, Napoleon quite literally met his Waterloo, and so all of his employees, the soldiers that worked for him included, had to find new lines of work.

One of them, one of Napoleon’s soldiers, was a horseman, a chevalier, named Etienne Soulange-Bodin.  Soulange-Bodin had therefore, as you might expect, traveled Europe, and he had seen the sights of the continent on this grand tour, but among the carnage and violence of war.  However, among it all, he loved flowers and plants and trees, throughout, and as he writes (and is quoted/translated in Neil Treseder’s 1978 book, “Magnolias”): “The Germans have encamped in my gardens.  I have encamped in the gardens of the Germans.  I visited the collection of Schönbrun (Vienna), Schauenburg (near Minden), Stuttgart and Petrowski (Moscow).”  And he then a bit later says that “It had doubtless been better for both parties to have stayed at home and planted their cabbages.”

And so, as you might guess, when Soulange-Bodin stopped being a soldier, he went on to become a horticulturalist – and one of the best that France had to offer, ultimately going on to found the Royal Institute of Horticulture at Fromont.  Fromont was magnificent, and Soulange-Bodin was in interesting guy – as we read in J. C. Loudoun’s “Gardener’s Magazine”, vol 9, 1833 (p. 141):

“The Villa of Fromont, on the Seine – M. Soulange Bodin combines, at Fromont, an elegant villa residence with an exotic nursery, and an institution for young horticulturists.  M. Soulange Bodin, like M. Vilmorin, is at once a skilful cultivator, a marchand grenetier (seedsman), a scholar, and an accomplished gentleman.  As connected with the army, he has been all over Europe ; and having been long (to use the Prince de Ligne’s phrase) under the influence of the jardinomanie, wherever he went, the gardens were the main objects of his attention.  At one time he had the principal management of the gardens of the Empress Joséphine at Malmaison.  On M. Bodin’s retirement to Fromont, in 1814, he commenced laying it out in the English manner, and so as to combine the picturesque scenery of the park with the profitable culture of the nursery.  The grounds exceed a hundred acres of a surface gently varied, and sloping to the Seine.”

Soulange-Bodin had an enormous variety of plants, some that came in from distant lands – he had the Yulan magnolia (which we would now call Magnolia denudata), a tree with lovely white flowers, native to eastern China, that had been cultivated in China and Japan for centuries prior to its introduction to Europe in 1780 by Joseph Banks.  He also had the Purple Lily-flowered magnolia, a shrubby magnolia with purple flowers – originally native to China, it had been introduced to Europe by Carl Thunberg in 1790.  (the above information is all from Treseder’s Magnolias (1978), by the way)

He looked at these plants growing in his garden, and knowing that one could take pollen from one tree and place it on the stigmatic surface (the receptive surface of the female part of a flower, that is) of an other, and thereby combine traits from distinct plant lines into novel combinations of characters, he did just that – he wanted to put the purple flowers of Magnolia liliflora (which he called Magnolia discolor) onto the tree habit of Magnolia denudata (which he called Magnolia yulan), and he was successful, as is reported in the 5th tome of the Mémoires de la Société Linnéenne de Paris, published in 1827, where following announcement was made:

“By the combination of Magnolia yulan, providing the seed, with the pollen from Magnolia discolor, the gardens of Fromont have seen the birth, the growth, and the taking of its place among the varied cultivated plants that we admire, a new species remarkable by its arborescent habit, its beautiful foliage, and especially by its large and brilliant flowers where the virginal white is colored with a purple tint.  My honorable Confreres have given this beautiful species the name Magnolia soulangiana.” (translation mine)

Furthermore, in the Bulletin des Sciences Agricoles et Économique, Tome VI, (Paris; 1826), it was mentioned that Etienne Soulange-Bodin had announced his creation to the world, or, at least to the Linnean Society of Paris – this was covered in more detail in the publication, Relation de la cinquième fête champêtre célébré le 24 mai 1826 in: Comte-Rendu des Travaux de la Société Linnéenne de Paris (1826), where Soulange-Bodin states:

“It is with the joy of an innocent triumph that I have the honor, sirs and dear brothers, of saying to you a word about the beautiful hybrid product that I have recently obtained in my cultures.  It is a new Magnolia, provided by the seed, of M. praecia, or yulan, fertilized by the pollen of M. purpurea, or discolor.” (translation mine)

As Neil G. Treseder points out in his book “Magnolias” (1978), “It should be pointed out here that the date 1826 apparently referred to the initial flowering of the particular hybrid seedling which Soulange-Bodin had selected to perpetuate his name.”  Therefore, the actual act of hybridization would have taken place a fair bit earlier, probably around 1820, given that it took about 8 years (more about that below) to get seeds from the plant that came from this initial hybrid.

There was tremendous excitement around this new plant.  Pierre-Joseph Redouté, in his 1827 work Choix des plus belles fleurs, provides an exquisite illustration of Magnolia soulangiana:

Image from the Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library print collection ( http://www.rhsprints.co.uk/image/447110/redoute-pierre-joseph-1759-1840-artist-magnolia-soulangiana )

Redouté was the plant illustrator of the 19th century – he worked with Empress Josephine at Malmaison (her garden), and Francois Andre Michaux, and his rose illustrations are justifiable legendary and a touchstone for rosarians to this day.  This book, the Choice of the Most Beautiful Flowers, was his selection of the most beautiful flowers that existed.  And this included a new magnolia – Magnolia soulangiana, which he had gotten right from the source (On p. 11 of Redouté’s Choix des plus belles fleurs, it is noted that the flower came from Soulange (“Elle a ete obtenue par M. Soulange-Bodin, a Fromont“)).

Word quickly spread across the channel – in The Atheneum; or Spirit of the English Magazines (p. 487) – vol VII, second series, April to October 1827

“A new species of the Magnolia has been produced by the Chevalier Soulange Bodin, President of the Linnean Society of Paris.

This elegant production to which the Linnean Society of Paris has very properly given the name of Magnolia Soulangiana is only in its second year, and it is not yet known whether the variety will become constant in its form and constitute a new species, – a fact which next year’s produce will decide.”

The plant itself arrived in England quickly, as we see from the Botanical Register, vol. 14, published in London in 1827:

“A very handsome variety of the Yulan Magnolia, obtained, as we are informed by the Chevalier Soulange-Bodin, in his Garden at Fromont, from a seed of M. Yulan, which had been fertilised by the pollen of M. obovata.

Our drawing was made at the Nursery of Messrs. Young, of Epsom by whom the variety had been procured from M. Soulange.  It has been so short a time in this country that little is known of its good qualities except by report…””

The nursery mentioned above was quite excited about this new plant, as is indicated by the following report, from vol. 5 of Loudoun’s “Gardener’s Magazine” (published in London in 1829):

“Messrs. Young have bought the entire stock of Magnolia Soulangiana from M. Soulange Bodin for 500 guineas, in consequence of which that fine tree will soon be spread all over the country.”

This was a new plant, and a beautiful plant – and horticulturalists in centuries past, as they do to this day, respond enthusiastically to novelty, and to beauty, and the horticulturalists of  England responded to the introduction of Soulange’s magnolia by buying them up.

And now, on to America…

By 1832, this magnolia was in the US, as is indicated from its listing in the Periodical catalogue of greenhouse shrubs, vines, herbaceous plants, and bulbous roots: cultivated and for sale at the Linnean Botanic Garden, Flushing, near New York, William Prince & Sons, Proprietors that year (thanks to Maggie Graham of the California Garden & Landscape History Society, for guiding me towards that reference, and to Janet Evans, of the McLean Libray of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, for guiding me to Ms. Graham’s guidance).  You’ll note that the price of this plant is $8/piece – as Joel Fry (of Bartram’s Garden) has pointed out, this is extremely expensive; he notes that most trees or shrubs at that time were 50 cents or a dollar per plant, and that a rare and/or new plant might be $5 or so, and therefore the price, eight dollars, is indicative of the rarity and the novelty of the Magnolia soulangeana, when it first arrived in America – excitement surrounded it, as did the dollars.

I note that those plants growing in the Linnean Botanic Garden in 1832 would most probably have been from cuttings from Soulange-Bodin’s original hybrid, or from cuttings derived directly therefrom, as his (Soulange-Bodin’s) original tree did not set seed until 1834, as is noted in Daniel Jay Browne’s 1846 book, “Trees of America” (p. 20):

“At Fromont near Paris, in front of the chateau of M. Soulange-Bodin, stands the largest plant of the Magnolia conspicua in Europe.  It measures over forty feet in height, and twenty four inches in circumference, two feet from the ground ; and the diameter of the space covered by the branches is more than twenty five feet.  It flowers magnificently every year, at the end of March and beginning of April, and the perfume of its blossoms is perceived for some distance around.  It was from the seeds of this tree that sprang the far-famed variety Magnolia conspicua soulangeana, the leaves, wood and general habits of which, are allied to those of the parent tree;  but the flowers resemble in form those of the Magnolia purpurea, or of the Magnolia purpurea gracilis, and the petals are slightly tinged with purple.  This variety was accidentally produced by fecundating the flowers of the Magnolia conspicua with the pollen of those of the Magnolia purpurea.  The original plant of the Magnolia conspicua soulangeana, at Fromont, is more than twenty feet in height, and though it flowered several years before, it did not ripen seeds till 1834.  The seeds have been sown, and some new and interesting varieties produced from them.”

And so we know that by 1832 this tree was in the US, at Prince’s nursery in Queens, NY (i.e, the Linnean Botanic Garden), and that these specific plants were most likely direct descendants, clones, actually, from the original tree grown from the hybrid seed developed at Fromont by Soulange-Bodin.  (note also that the above quote indicates that it took about 8 years for Soulange-Bodin’s original hybrids to set seed)

And by 1836, we know it was in Philadelphia – as is indicated from its listing in Robert Carr’s Periodical Catalogue of Fruit and Ornamental Trees and Shrubs, Green-House Plants, &c. Cultivated and for Sale at the Bartram Botanic Garden, Kingsessing, Near Gray’s Ferry, Three Miles From Philadelphia from that year [p. 12; no price; “Magnolia soulangeana” “Soulange’s [magnolia]”].  (thanks to Joel Fry, of Bartram’s Garden, for directing me to that reference – and to the staff of the Library of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and especially Cathy Buckwalter, for getting me access to it)

In that 1836 catalogue, there wasn’t a price listed for Soulange’s magnolia (the other plants in the catalogue had prices associated with them), and from this we can infer also the rarity and novelty of this plant – it wasn’t even clear to the Carr’s how to price it, it was so new.

But might it have been in Philadelphia earlier than 1836?

At the Wyck Historic House and Garden in Germantown, there is a saucer magnolia – you can see its once magnificent size represented by the girth of its base that now pokes a bit up out of the ground.  I rarely see saucer magnolias with trunks of the width of the Wyck example, and so I can’t judge clearly its age, however, based on general extrapolation from what I’ve seen of younger trees, I wouldn’t feel like I’m putting my neck too far out by saying that this is a 19th century planting and perhaps, even, possibly, one that might date to the earlier half of the 1800s.

The Wyck house dates to the 17th century, but the key part of its history to our story here is its 19th century owners, Jane and Reuben Haines.  Both were ardent lovers of plants, gardens, the natural world – Reuben was Corresponding Secretary of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia from 1813 until he died (in 1831), and Jane made a garden at Wyck of stunning beauty and depth.  She was creating this garden in the 1820s and 1830s – that is, when Magnolia soulangeana first came to be, and first came to the US.

And, as I was informed by Nicole Juday (Nicole is a gardener, historian, and all-around extraordinarily knowledgeable person): “From everything I know the Haines’ only got plants from Philadelphia and from Flushing, NY. To my great sorrow I never did come across any receipt for a plant, although there were thousands of invoices for everything else from apples to string to bolts of cloth. But there were a few references to plants “from Prince Nursery” in family papers and lists. Jane Haines’ parents lived in Flushing and she visited there frequently, especially after Reuben’s death.”

And so we find a Magnolia soulangeana at Wyck that is quite large, indicating its great age, and we know that Jane Haines was buying materials in from the “Prince Nursery” (i.e, the Linnean Botanic Garden indicated above), and we know that they, the Prince nursery, had this tree very early on, and that they, the Prince nursery, quite possibly (likely, even, one might say) had the original cross of this plant, the one that was derived from Soulange-Bodin’s garden – and we know that Jane Haines was planting plants at Wyck in the 1830s.

And so, while this is all, at this point, evidence that is suggestive without telling, it does lead one to think that this tree at Wyck may well be one that directly connects to Soulange-Bodin’s garden – not a cousin, not just a sibling even, but possibly an identical twin of the flower illustrated by the illustrious Redouté.  We are still looking for further evidence, hopefully more conclusive, that this is (or is not) the case, but until then we can build a story of this tree created by the hand of former soldier, who turned his swords into plowshares and developed one of the greatest gardens of France, and therefore of Europe, whose tree ultimately found its way across the Atlantic to the yard of a Quaker, a pacifist, here in Philadelphia.  Having followed years of war, but also times of exploration and discovery, this peaceful garden in Germantown, that still exists to this day, holds not just memories, but living history of a time past gone, but still alive.

But it is not quite the original planting that is still alive, I should say – this saucer magnolia had aged, as do all things, even trees, and it had rotted quite a bit on the inside (which is why I can’t count the rings to see for sure how old it is), and so the main trunk had to be taken down recently.  However, there are new stems coming up and out from its remains, stems that are being carefully tended by Elizabeth Belk, the current gardener at Wyck – and she is also putting her efforts towards propagating this tree, by air layering, so that this magnificent plant that may well be immediately descended from the first of the saucer magnolias can live on, and perhaps even live elsewhere, too.

By the 1840s, the Magnolia soulangeana was quite common in the US.  In the 1841 and 1850 editions of Andrew Jackson Downing’s Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, there is a “list of hardy and showy shrubs which are at the same time easily procured in the United State.”  Included in this list is the Magnolia soulangeana, whose common name is given as the “Soulange Magnolia”; it is also indicated as being a large shrub, and being purple.  It being noted as a shrub indicates its relative novelty – these plants hadn’t grown into their full tree size yet.

Earlier in the treatise, there is a more detailed discussion of this plant, and its parents, too:

“The foreign sorts introduced into our gardens from China are the Chinese purple (M. purpurea) which produces an abundance of large delicate purple blossoms early in the season, the Yulan or Chinese White Magnolia (M. conspicua) a most abundant bloomer, bearing beautiful white fragrant flowers in April, before the leaves appear ; and Soulange’s Magnolia (M. Soulangiana), a hybrid between the two foregoing, with large flowers delicately tinted with white and purple.  These succeed well in sheltered situations in our pleasure-grounds, and add greatly to their beauty early in the season.  Grafted on the cucumber tree, they form large and vigorous trees of great beauty.” (p. 254)

This tree was becoming quite popular and it became quite common, too, and this has continued on, up until the present.  Today, the saucer magnolia, as this tree is generally now called, is extremely commonly seen as a park or lawn planting, and there are dozens of cultivars available (as is noted by Michael Dirr in his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (1998)).  If you go to the northwest corner of Rittenhouse Square, in downtown Philadelphia, there are two lovely ones that have been there for a few decades (the one to the east is less than 40 years old, the one to the west a bit older than that – this is indicated from their respective presence/absence in planting maps of the park, one from the 1960s and the other from the 1970s).  And if you go pretty much anywhere in the city, this one or others, you will see the saucer magnolia flowering brightly in the spring – it is a hardy grower with beautiful flowers, and so it is commonly planted.

It is such a strong grower that it has naturalized in Ohio, as a matter of fact – it has been found growing on its own near a cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio – Spring Grove Cemetery, in October of 1995, to be a bit more exact, in a “weedy woods” – as was documented by Michael Vincent and Allison Cusick in their 1998 paper “New Records of alien Species in the Ohio Vascular Flora (Ohio Journal of Science 98(2), 1998)

And so we have a tree that is now extraordinarily common – there are dozens of cultivars, they are planted all over in parks and yards in cities and suburbs, all over, and it has even naturalized here, in the US.

But this is not always how it was – this is a tree, a hybrid, whose parents traveled separately to Europe from Asia, to come together in a garden not far from Paris, to be united by a man who had soldiered across Europe but retired to live among flowers, a tree that then went on, this beautiful and strong plant, to enter into commerce at the highest price, at some point to be bought by a Quaker, a pacifist, in what was no longer quite the new world but was certainly new to this plant, to grow here in Philadelphia, and to then, to go on, to recently fall apart from the inside, but to then to grow anew, and to continue to survive, with help and care, to live on in a changed world that is everchanging onwards.

For a video on saucer magnolia propagation, see here:

https://growinghistory.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/growing-history-propagates-magnolia-x-soulangeana/

Drier West Philadelphia

Though much of West Philadelphia was wetlands before it was built over with buildings and streets and avenues, and though it was striped and criss-crossed throughout with creeks and streams back then, too, there were also many areas there that were high and dry.  And we can sometimes know with surprising specificity where those drier and wetter places were because we can see them on old maps, and we can locate them via locality data from plant specimens in the Department of Botany at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and we can look at old nursery catalogs and histories, and because we can follow the meanderings of Alexander MacElwee.

Alexander MacElwee, botanist and horticulturalist, documented much of the flora of the Philadelphia area, and he extensively recorded what was growing in West Philadelphia, because he lived there – at 5424 Merion Ave, to be specific, right near 54th and Lancaster. (MacElwee’s address is in the Philadelphia Botanical Club’s membership list in issue number one of Bartonia, the Journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, published in 1908).

And so, from this peripatetic botanist we can find out about about the marshes and swamps and hills and farms of 19th century West Philadelphia, and we can do this now because his field notebooks are accessioned in the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences (collection #36, to be precise).

For example, on April 15, 1893, MacElwee writes that “On Thursday eve I went out Lancaster Ave. before coming home for supper and collected 5 specimens of Symplocarpus foetidus” (underlining his)

Symplocarpus foetidus, or skunk cabbage, is an obligate wetland plant, that is, it has to grow in saturated soils.  And in 1895, at 52d and Lancaster, there was a stream that ran in from the north – this was right around the corner from MacElwee’s house and therefore quite likely this is the area where he collected that skunk cabbage in 1893.  However, there were other wetlands nearby – for example, there was a stream that ran up near 60th and 61st streets, and Lancaster Avenue, and that would have had wetlands along it.  But I would think that for a pre-dinner walk, with food on his mind, that MacElwee would have ambled closer to home, and so quite likely it was nearby to the stream at 52d and Lancaster that he picked up this skunk cabbage, though of course it also could have been elsewhere along Lancaster Ave.

A couple months later, on the 17th of June (still in 1893), he was walking through West Philadelphia again, as was his habit, when he came across a sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) at the “West end of Cherry tree hotel 46 + Baltimore Ave W Phila”.  Sycamore maples like it a bit drier, and so this indicates a dry habitat at this spot.

He also mentions, from an entry dated the 6th of April 1893, that “There’s a little tree in the lot 45 + Market near the narrow ridge of rock in the center”, indicating an upland area there, too.

And on the 16th of September 1893, MacElwee went by Sansom St. and Meadow (which is now Farragut, and is between 46th and 47th Streets), right where Eli K. Price, who had been head of Fairmount Park, had owned some property, and he (MacElwee, that is) came across some Solidago sempervirens, which he found puzzling because it is a plant that likes water, and salt, as its common name, ‘seaside goldenrod’, attests.  He figured they’d been planted there, but was still impressed as “All of them are growing in ashes or dirt in which coal ashes largely prevails and have a healthy look to be in such a dry position”.  And therefore, we know that this was a dry point, too, even though it had a plant growing there that’s often a wetland plant (it’s what we would call a “facultative wetland” plant).

There were wet areas nearby to there of course – including one at 45th and Market, as we see from the entry for Salix nigra (black willow), an obligate wetland plant, in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s 1905 “Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity”.

MacElwee also went to the “52nd St. Woods”, where he found some red maple.  This was just a bit away from the Robert Craig Nursery, which was between 49th and 50th, in the block just south of Market St.

This nursery was a substantial operation – a catalog of theirs from 1910 (which is at the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticulural Society, and I found with the help of Janet Evans) indicates that, at that time (1910, that is), “Having increased our glass area over 50,000 square feet, we are in a position to meet our fast increasing business.”  They had begonias, azaleas (naturally, this being Philadelphia), poinsettias, cyclamen, and their grand item, crotons – this nursery was known for its crotons, and they did extensive business in other foliage plants as well.

This company has a deep connection to Philadelphia, and an interesting one, too.  In the 1950s, the Robert Craig Nursery celebrated its centennial and published a history of the company to accompany that celebration.  This publication is in the seed and nursery catalog collection at the McLean Library at PHS and covers the company from its earliest, formative days, starting in 1845, when the Scottish immigrant Alexander Craig had a gardening business at 2d and Reeves, to the actual inception of the firm, in 1856, when Mr. Craig bought greenhouses at 18th and Wharton (quite nearby to where the Landreth nurseries had been, I should note) from “Robert Scott and Son”.  They were there for a few years, until 1860, when they built greenhouses “on about four acres” at 15th and Pine, in center city Philadelphia.  In 1856, Alexander Craig died at the young age of 48, and the business was taken over by his wife and sons, the elder of whom, Robert, went on to own the company.

In 1870, they moved to West Philadelphia, to 49th and Market – at its beginning this establishment “consisted of a four-room house and a few small greenhouses” and “was affectionately known during its 50 years of existence as ‘The Hill’ ” – thereby indicating that they had wisely chosen a high and dry location for their construction.  There was expansion, and by 1919 there was “a large and impressive Victorian residence fronting more than 125,000 square feet of glass.”

As much of this was going on, William Craig, a son of Robert Craig’s who had not joined the family business, had briefly operated his own greenhouses, “devoted to Carnations”, at 61st and Market – he did, ultimately, go on to join the family firm, and also continued to grow carnations at 61st and Market, where he introduced the “Ethel Crocker” carnation, a flower so popular that it “necessitated the erection of two new Carnation houses in 1900.”

This area, out in West Philadelphia, really was quite rural in the late 19th century – according to this history of the Craig Nursery, “In 1877 he [Robert Craig] challenged the right of the City of Philadelphia to assess him for the cost of paving and curbing Market Street from 49th to 50th, claiming the area was rural.  He carried the case to the Supreme Court and won.” (to quote directly from the decision, Craig v. the City of Philadelphia (1879), “The property through which Market street runs from Forty-third to Sixty-third streets is chiefly rural property, used for farm land and brickyards, suburban residences, cemetery lots and a hospital for the insane”).  20 years later, there were still open areas out there – on the 19th of June 1899, Alexander MacElwee collected Festuca elatior from “Waste ground, 56th and Market St.” (that collection is now in the herbarium of the Botany Department of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia).

West Philadelphia, though now so much built over (though still of course also populated with many beautiful parks), stretched to the open horizons in the 19th century, when it was filled with farms and swamps and streams and creeks, and topped with hills and dotted with flowers – there were greenhouses, and country inns, and rocky ridges here and there.  It was a different world back then, as it is a different world now, but that former time is still there, in archives and libraries, and on old maps, and underneath the sidewalks of the city streets.

To read more about West Philadelphia’s ecological history, see here:

https://growinghistory.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/the-spruce-street-swamps/

The Spruce Street Swamps

If you were to walk down Spruce Street in West Philadelphia today, going westward from the University of Pennsylvania, you would see a lot of houses, and a lot of pavement – concrete sidewalk, asphalt streets, building materials of numerous variety, all covering the ground that lies beneath.  There are, of course, also many trees you would walk by – the magnificent Franklinia at the southeast corner of 42d and Spruce is a classic, and directly across from it, at the southwest corner of that same set of cross streets, is a large and majestic, though wildly trimmed, Paulownia.  Also along that south side of the street is a row of houses dating from the 1880s, and they are guarded out front by their regularly spaced and by now quite large squadron of Japanese maples.

And the north side of the street is not lacking for lignin either – there is an enormous white oak in the churchyard there, on the north side of the street, in the same block that includes the Sadie Alexander School, between 42d and 43d Streets, north of Spruce.  In that yard are also two pines – one an eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) and the other a Himalayan pine (Pinus wallichiana) – paired up against each other, along 42d Street, ready to be compared.  These are two tree species that I’d found difficult to differentiate until I came across these two examples right next to each other, set up like a coniferous teaching collection, just waiting for some comparative taxonomy.  Both of these species are five needle pines (pine trees’ needles, of all pine species, are arranged in clusters, called fascicles, and all pines either have five needles, or two-or-three needles), and those needles are somewhat light in both strobus and wallichiana, and both of them have rough, platey bark, and so it’s not easy to tell them apart, until you see them right next to each other, as one does here at 42d and Spruce.  Here you can see that the needles of the Himalayan pine are longer, and more droopy (“pendulant”, one might say), as compared to the white pine’s needles, which are more upright, and look, to me, a bit like little fireworks’ bursts, as compared to the more hanging tresses of the Himalayan pine.  (also, as my friend and botanical compadre Doug Goldman has reminded me, wallichiana cones are much larger than those of strobus)  And if you go and take a look at them, and look at their bark, you’ll see by the horizontal arrangement of holes on the wallichiana, and the absence of such holes in the strobus, that sapsuckers (a kind of woodpecker) are able to tell these two species apart.  Both of them are quite attractive trees, and both do quite well in Philadelphia, and I hadn’t realized how common the Himalayan pine is here until I learned to tell it apart from its cousin, and these two trees at 42d and Spruce were quite helpful for getting me to learn how to do that.  (to read more about this block, see here: http://blog.philadelphiarealestate.com/buildings-then-and-now-sprucing-up-university-city-in-the-1880s/ )

And so, I guess I’ve made the point quite well that there are quite a few trees along Spruce Street here – now, on with the peripateticism…

As we are walking along, heading west, if we were to look back towards Penn (fondly, one hopes), we’ll see the street sloping down, and we’ll realize that our legs might be a little sore from having been walking uphill to get where we are, and that we most likely broke a sweat (we’d definitely be sweating on a day with weather like we’ve been having recently), and then as we turn around, facing our goal of heading west, then we see that there’s still a bit of hill ahead of us – up to 45th Street, where there is a rise that we can stand on top of like a little king of the world, and then, towards 46th Street, after we cross the rise, the ground angles downwards.

If we were here a hundred and twenty years ago, this would have looked quite different, though some of the angles would have still been similar.  In the early 1890s, the surfaces we see now would not have been here, not the sidewalks, nor the asphalt.  Though this dip was here, it was through a very different landscape – it was a different world back then, and one we know about in surprising detail, due to the wanderings of Alexander MacElwee, among other sources.

The go-to book to learn about botanists of Philadelphia up until the 20th century is John Harshberger’s The Botanists of Philadelphia and Their Work, and the following biographical information is from that book –

Alexander MacElwee was born in Scotland in 1869 to a relatively large family (he was one of eleven children).  Alexander was the eldest of the younger MacElwees, and he went to school before finally getting to go to work at the age of twelve years old.  After a couple of years of working in Glasgow, he went to join his parents who had already arrived here in the new world of Philadelphia.  His first job, this was in 1883, was working in a garden at 39th and Walnut – the garden was owned by A. J. Drexel (see the 1895 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), who would go on to start up the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry, which would then go on to become Drexel University in west Philadelphia, just north of Penn. (NB: that location is now occupied by Penn’s Fels Institute of Government – do any of the plants now there date to MacElwee’s time?  I don’t know)

MacElwee worked in Drexel’s garden, and also began to learn formal botany by going to meetings of the Botanical Section of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and after a few years, he moved up, both geographically and hierarchically – he went to work at Hugh Graham’s nursery, right near Girard College in North Philadelphia .  This nursery was at 18th and Thompson, and Mr. MacElwee “had charge of several houses, one entirely of ferns, another of palms, etc (Harshberger, 1899).  [The Graham Nurseries was at the NW corner, caddy corner across from St. Joe’s, as may be seen on G. M. Hopkin’s 1875 map of Philadelphia – incidentally, as is noted in his obituary in volume 38 of the magazine “Christian Nation”, Hugh Graham worked as department manager for John Wanamaker prior to becoming a somewhat major Philadelphia florist (he also had “large nurseries at Logan Station, near Philadelphia” [as of 1895, they were at 13th and Loudon, bounded on the west side by Old York Rd]); Mr. Graham died of pneumonia on the 14th of March 1903.]

But MacElwee was to move on soon again – to work as an apprentice bricklayer for a time (during which he had the spare time to expand his knowledge of natural history by field work and by working with botanical museum collections), and then on to work in John Wanamaker’s garden in Jenkintown, and then on to the College of Pharmacy (now the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia) to work with their museum collections of dried, pressed plants.  And as he worked, he learned, and in 1894 he went to work for the University of Pennsylvania laying out the Botanical Garden that was being planned.

As we learn from MacElwee’s obituary in Bartonia (the journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club), No. 9, 1925-26, “Mac” continued to work at a number of places, until 1917 when he “was appointed landscape gardener by the park commissioners of Philadelphia.”  His dream was to have an arboretum, and he worked assiduously towards that end – traveling to the Arnold Arboretum, to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, to the Seed and Plant Introduction Service in Washington, DC.  He gathered an immense number of plants and brought them back home to propagate – “thousands of the rarer rhododendrons, flowering cherries, barberries, hydrangeas, hollies, lilacs, roses, crab apples, oaks, loniceras, etc., etc., were started in the Park nurseries, intended for the Arboretum.  Now that the master spirit has gone the project of the Arboretum has rested almost inactive, but these young trees and shrubs remain and form a nucleus from which MacElwee’s dream should be developed.”  Mr. MacElwee passed away on the 23d of January 1923.

While he was alive, Alexander MacElwee, like most botanists, liked to be on the go – he was like this with respect to his working life, as we have seen in the above paragraphs, and also with respect to his day to day ways and wanderings, which he diligently recorded with pencil, pen and paper.  And from these writings of his perambulations, we can learn what was here before.

MacElwee’s field notes are in the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and going through them, with the help of the Academy’s archivists, Clare Flemming and Megan Gibes, we see a man who liked to walk, and they also show with great detail the places where he walked.

Like 46th and Spruce, for example, the dip in the road that I mentioned above.  MacElwee walked near there, in the early 1890s, and after he got home, he wrote the following:

“March 27, 1893
This eve, when coming home from work through the marshy hollow south of Walnut St. and west of 46th Street, I found some boys fishing for tadpoles.  I was not aware that one could find tadpoles this early in the season.  These I seen were of good size, having heads about 1/2 long, and tail twice as long.  The boys caught them by dipping up a large can of water out of the stream and then pouring the water out slowly and catching the tadpoles as they appeared and putting them into another which contained their captives.  One of the boys said he was going to raise them in an aquarium.”

(the underlining is from the original)

This isn’t the only mention he makes of this area – in an entry for the 1st April  1893, he mentions finding Alnus (alder), in flower, in a marsh west of 45thSt. and between Walnut and Spruce.  A few days later, on the 6th of April 1893, he came across “A large spreading tree in the hollow 46 + Chestnut”, at the southwest corner, that was “Probably Acer saccharinum” (i.e., silver maple – a tree still commonly seen throughout west Philadelphia as a street, yard, and park tree – but on its own, without humans planting it, it’s generally a wetland tree).

A bit later on in the year, on the 17th of June of 1893, Alexander MacElwee took a walk and came across a shrub of the Eastern Wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) “in front of farm house about 47 and Pine St.”, and some American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) in the “Spruce St. Swamp”,. as he called it.  That same day (the 17th of June, that is), and right nearby, he saw an American hornbean (Carpinus carolinianus) “At spring W. side of Spruce St. swamp”.

If we look at Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s Handbook of the Flora of Philadelphia (published in 1905), we see a couple of entries that also let us know that this area was a wet one, such as –

“Sagittaria Engelmannia …Shallow water.  Summer.
Philadelphia – 46th and Spruce Streets”

This entry is quite likely based on a collection that is in the herbarium of the Department of Botany of the Academy of Natural Sciences, here in Philadelphia – it is a specimen labeled Sagittaria latifolia (the current name of this plant that Keller and Brown list under S. engelmanniana), and the label’s locality data says “stream near 46th and Spruce Sts” and is dated the 4th of September 1887.  [this also indicates are reasonably high quality wetland was there at the time – in Small et al’s 1994 paper in Restoration Ecology, “A Macrophyte-Based Rapid Biosurvey of Stream Water Quality: Restoration at the Watershed Scale”, they report Sagitaria latifolia from nearly 27% of the high quality streams they surveyed in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, yet not at all from their low quality stream sites]

Another entry in Keller and Brown’s flora locates a wet area here – a record of Salix alba (white willow), which prefers “Moist soil” (as Keller and Brown note) is also there, noted as being at 46th and Chestnut.

However, this area wasn’t all swamp and wetland – there would have been some drier, upland areas, too, as is indicated by another collection by Alexander McElwee, of Castanea dentata, from 46th and Spruce, this one from the 3d of July 1887 (and also currently accessioned in the Academy’s herbarium).  Castanea dentata, or the American chestnut, as it is more commonly known, isn’t one to grow in swamps around here (though up in New England I would see it sometimes in moist areas), and so its presence, as indicated by this collection, in turn indicates that some areas were up above the wet – it wasn’t all swamp and marshes.

And so from these notes from these fieldbooks in the Academy’s archives, and from collections in the Academy’s botany department, and from Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s book, we see that up until the end of the 19th century this was an open area, the area nearby to 46th and Spruce, with farmhouses, and wetlands – streams, hollows, and marshes.  And it went on, this open area, out south and westward:

“On one of the vacant fields near 50 + Baltimore Ave. is a large spot where sods had been cut off last spring.  I notice that all this spot (and it is quite extensive) a thick crop of Ambrosia artemisaefolia (roman wormwood) has sprung.  It is rather remarkable.  This land has not I suppose been turned under by the plough for years.  There are one or two other things among it, but the Ambrosia predominates where the sod has been cut off. growing densely to a uniform height of 7 or 8 inches.  In many cultivated fields further on  I noticed plenty of it.  But it is not so remarkable in such situations.”

And as further evidence of open areas in this part of town, in Keller and Brown’s 1905 Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity, they list Centaurea nigra (knapweed) as having a habitat of “Waste places” and a locality of “48th and Baltimore”.

There were also more wet areas, going west – Black Oak Park (now called Malcolm X Park) had some, out at 51st and Pine (the park extends down to 52d and Larchwood), as is shown by the entries in the Plants of Pennsylvania database for Carex annectens and Cyperus odaratus, with locality data identified as “Black Oak Park” – both of these are facultative wetland plants (that is, they can grow in wet areas, but don’t require it, and can grow in drier spots), and so while they don’t indicate absolutely a wetland, they do imply some moist area was there, in what is now a dry city park, still with trees throughout its environs, though, and even at least one that is a wetland tree.  At the northern boundary of the park, between 51st and 52d Streets along Pine Street, there is a magnificent blackgum tree (Nyssa sylvatica), a tree also known as the tupelo –  a tree that on its own is a wetland plant, but also does pretty well as a tree in drier areas (like a city street or park), and it stands tall in the middle of west Philadelphia, at the northern border of Malcolm X Park.

By the 1920s, at least, this park was pretty dry, as is indicated by the following photos:

Black Oak Park (now called Malcolm X Park) – entrance – 51st and Larchwood; 16th of May, 1927 – image from PhillyHistory.org

Black Oak Park (now called Malcolm X Park) – 52nd and Pine Streets – 28th of March 1921 – image from PhillyHistory.org

These scattered collections and references illustrate just how much of west Philadelphia had wetlands and hills, and wetland plants and upland plants, and farms and farmhouses, too – up until at least 1910, this area west of 46th Street was still open, as is indicated by G. W. Bromley’s map (accessible here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/ ).  And if one were to look at Mr. Bromley’s 1895 map, a map that is also available at the aforementioned address, one would see a stream running up north along 46th Street, and by looking back a little further in time, for example to Samuel Smedley’s 1862 map, one would see that this stream was a tributary of Mill Creek, which flowed into the Schuylkill after stopping for a break at a mill pond at what is now Clark Park (a large park that spreads south from 42d and Baltimore Avenue). [and there was “Desintegrated Feldspar.  Kaolin.” here as well: “Feldspar in a state of decomposition exists on the canal road, and on Mill creek, near the Baltimore turnpike…” (Isaac Lea, “An Account of the Minerals at present known to exist in the vicinity of Philadelphia”, Vol. 1, Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, December of 1818)]

These areas, while now paved over, filled in, and leveled, still have parks and yards and street trees – they have changed and been changed, been paved over and built upon, but as always, life remains and plants grow, in different environments than before, and often, though not always, with different plants than were there before, but marking, in everlasting flux, the perpetually changing times the city lives through, always and in all ways, and endlessly transformed.

And of course it is not only the plants and the landscape that change, but the animals as well, such as the birds, as is noted in 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 comments on the changes in the avifauna, from the ten years prior, to his time then – he notes one change especially: “The English sparrow has invaded, in greater numbers each year, our suburbs, our public parks and squares, and other little breathing places in great cities.”  This was due in part to expanding urbanization but also to the introduction of this European species to the new world, an introduction that was the largest here in Philadelphia: “This year (1869) witnessed the importation, in one lot, of a thousand Sparrows by the city government of Philadelphia ; and this probably Is the largest single importation of Sparrows ever made to this country.”  (Walter Barrows, 1889, “The English Sparrow in North America Especially Its Relations to Agriculture”)  And so the changes wrought come from many causes.

Of course, while some things do change, others don’t so much, and so I would like to close with a final quote from Alexander MacElwee, from 1893:

“Requisites for the Botanist and Entomologist while on the march.

1:- Money. This is an indispensable article and mainly used for carfare, ferries, etc

2:- Provisions. This may consist of a good lunch of sandwich.  pastry or extra side dishes can be dispensed with.  It is surprising how delicious a couple of slices of bread and butter with a little cheese is after tramping several miles in the country, washed down with a draught of water from a spring of wayside creek.”

Plus ça change…

To read more about West Philadelphia’s ecological history, see here:

https://growinghistory.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/drier-west-philadelphia/

The American chestnut

When William Penn arrived in the new world in 1682, he saw a land rich with natural resources, and the following year, when he wrote back to England, describing this wealth to Friends back home, central among the descriptions were those of the trees.  In a letter dated the 16th of August 1683, he writes:

“The trees of most note are the black walnut, cedar, cypress, chestnut, poplar, gumwood, hickory, sassafras, ash, beech, and oak of divers sorts, as red, white, and black, Spanish, chestnut, and swamp, the most durable of all; of all of which there is plenty for the use of man”

He goes on to write:

“The fruits that I find in the woods are the white and red mulberry, chestnuts, walnut, plums, strawberries, cranberries, huckleberries, and grapes of divers sorts”

(These extracts are from “A Letter from William Penn, Proprietary and Governor of Pennsylvania in America, to the Committee of the Free Society of Traders of that Province, residing in London,”)

What is the only plant that is mentioned twice?  It is the chestnut – the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), specifically.  This was a tree of such value that William Penn mentions it twice in his relatively brief letter (or ‘advertisement’ more accurately – he very much wanted people to come over and live in Pennsylvania, and so he was playing up the highlights for that cause, and so this truly was advertising) that he sent back home to England, at a time when correspondence was not as cheap as it is now, a time when every word would have been dear and measured.  Among the treasures of the new world, the chestnut shone brightly.

And through the decades, and even centuries, from William Penn’s time, the chestnut remained extraordinarily highly regarded – and it was more than just a useful tree, it was also beautiful, as this image (via the New York Public Library) from the early 19th century shows:

American Chestnut, from Francois Andre Michaux’s “North American Sylva”
(1810-1813)
Image via New York Public Library

This tree, the American chestnut, was extraordinarily valued for all it could produce, and was also extremely common.  Though estimates vary, at least a quarter, and most likely much more, perhaps up to and above two-thirds, of the trees of Pennsylvania were American chestnuts.  (NB: the American chestnut has been part of the eastern North American flora for about eight or nine thousand years or so, becoming a part of the mix shortly after oaks rose to prominence about ten or eleven thousand years ago; the oaks had in turn followed spruce/pine/birch dominated ecosystems which arrived about 13 -15,000 years ago, i.e, after the last glaciation had receded long enough to allow trees to recolonize the region; this set of timing estimations is based on palynological data, that is analysis of pollen from different strata under the ground, in such papers as M. A. Watts’ “Late Quaternary Vegetation of Central Appalachia and the New Jersey Coastal Plain” (Ecological Monographs, 49 (4): pp. 427-469 (1979) and Zhao et al’s “Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) declines at 9800 and 5300 cal. yr BP caused by Holocene climatic shifts in northeastern North America” (The Holocene 20: 877 [2010]))

The fruits, the chestnuts that is, were forefront among the valuable resources to be garnered from this plant.  As described by William Darlington in his 1837 Flora Cestrica: “The fruit of our native tree is smaller, and much sweeter, than that of the foreign one…”; and in his 1826 Florula Cestrica, he notes that “The treat which the nuts afford, for our tables, is familiarly known to everyone.”  And from the eminent botanist Francois Michaux’s “North American Sylva”. v. 3, 1810-1813 (translation 1819, Hillhouse):

“The fruit is spherical, covered with fine prickles, and stored with two dark brown seeds or nuts, about as large as the end of the finger, convex on one side, flattened on the other, and coated round the extremity with whitish down. They are smaller and sweeter than the wild chesnuts of Europe, and are sold in the markets of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.”

These nuts were of extremely high quality, and economic value, too – people would go out to parks and forests to collect them by the basket and the bushel – sometimes they would eat them, other times they would sell them, but every year they would gather them.  And other animals, in addition to humans, ate chestnuts, too – they would have been a regular supply of high energy (they are quite fatty) food for squirrels, for deer, for passenger pigeons – for all kinds of animals that need such food in the fall.  Yes, these animals would have also eaten acorns, but oak trees, from which those acorns fall, yield nuts irregularly – some years they are plentiful (in “mast years”), and in others they are not.  And so the regular supply of the chestnuts would have regularly provisioned, at a steadier pace than the oaks, these animals – animals which, in turn, would have regularly provisioned the people who ate those animals.

And there were other values to be derived from the chestnut – Michaux notes that “The wood is strong, elastic, and capable of enduring the succession of dryness and moisture” and so it was valuable for posts, rails, and shingles.

And, though its wood was not directly used for fuel (because it doesn’t burn very well), it was excellent for charcoal production.  Michaux, writing as to why people should grow more chestnut trees for charcoal:

“Besides the inducement of private gain, this measure would be attended with public benefit, by the economy of fuel, which is daily becoming scarcer and more costly”

(above quote from Francois Michaux’s “North American Sylva”. v. 3, 1810-1813 [translation 1819, Hillhouse])

Even two hundred years ago, there was concern about scarcity of energy sources, and the chestnut was seen as one of the feedstock solutions to that everpresent problem.  Chestnut is especially useful for charcoal because it can be coppiced – that is, after the top part of the tree is cut back, suckers will grow up from the root crown, making new trunks where the old one had been cut off.  This could be done every sixteen years or so, according to Michaux, to make for a renewable source of wood for coal production.

But the utility of the chestnut didn’t end with food, fuel, and housing – it even extended to clothing.  Not directly, of course – the colonists and early Americans weren’t going around dressed like Great Birnam Wood – but the bark could be, and was, used to tan leather.  Fresh leather is not, as you might expect, ready to wear.  It needs to be treated to prevent it from rotting – that is, it needs to be tanned.  And the bark of chestnut trees are rich in tannins, chemicals that interact with the proteins in leather to alter them into a form that is less digestible to microbes (that is, it makes them resistant to rotting).  And so, an early method of tanning was to take the bark of a tree rich in tannins, such as the chestnut (hemlock bark was also commonly used – more commonly than the chestnut, actually), toss that bark into a pit filled with water, let the tannins leach out of the bark and into the water, and then toss the leather into that solution, and then wait until the leather was tanned and resistant to rot, and, then… pret a porter!

This tree, the chestnut, was the five and dime of early America – the fruits were good to eat, even better than their counterparts from Europe – the wood could be used for making fences and roofs and rails – the wood could also be made into charcoal to serve evergrowing energy needs – the bark could be used for tanning leather.  It was the one stop shop for an extensive list of a colonist’s or early American’s household needs, wants, and desires.  And it was everywhere, like a Woolworth’s on every corner.

Now, however, it is not.  So what happened?

In 1904, the chestnut blight arrived.  First discovered in New York City, it rapidly spread throughout the forests of eastern North America – where ever the American chestnut was, the blight was soon to follow, as is illustrated in the following map:

“Map showing the rate at which chestnut blight spread over the Eastern United States. The dated lines show the extent of the heavy infection at the time indicated.”
From: Flippo Gravatt, 1949: Chestnut blight in Asia and North America. Unasylva, 3:2–7

The above map, and the entire text of the paper associated with it, is available here

It’s not totally clear how this disease arrived initially – it is originally from Asia, and could have come in on material imported from there to the US, but however it got here, it arrived, and was first reported from the Bronx Zoo in 1904, and within a few years it had already spread to Connecticut, to Massachusetts, to Maryland – its distribution was rapidly fanning out, like mold on an orange.

The causative agent of the blight was isolated and described shortly after the disease was discovered – William Murrill, a New York mycologist, did this in 1905, and named the disease Endothia parasitica (though we now call it Cryphonectria parasitica), but just knowing what it was, was not enough.  The disease still spread.

About ten years later, Frank Meyer, the Dutch plant explorer who worked for the US Department of Agriculture collecting plants in Asia, found this fungus in China, and then a bit later in Japan – it was found to live reasonably benignly with the chestnut species that live there, in Asia, and the geographic origin of the blight was now known.  But just knowing where it was from was not enough.  The disease still spread.

As the blight moved onward, the chestnuts died back – and other trees grew up to take their place.  This was documented in work done by, among others, Joseph Illick (Chief of Information of the Pennsylvania Department of Forest and Waters), and also other foresters such as C. F. Korstian and Paul W. Stickel, who wrote about their research in a 1927 article, “The natural replacement of blight-killed chestnut in the hardwood forests of the northeast”.  The title alone tells you the impact that Cryphonectria parasitica had.

As these researcher saw the blight remove the chestnut from the forests, they, as foresters, needed to see what trees would grow up to replace this enormously valuable tree.  Would they be replaced by class 1 desirable species?  Would they be replaced by class 3 undesirable species?  Or by species inbetween?

To find this out, they went out and looked to see what was coming in as the chestnut was going out.  And they found that the chestnuts were being replaced mostly by oaks, such as the red, white and black oaks, among others, including the chestnut oak, and also by some other kinds of trees – hickory, white ash, sugar maple, sweet (black) birch.  These trees were, mostly, what these foresters considered to be “Class 1 – Desirable species”, useful for forest products – perhaps not quite to the level of the chestnut, but useful still, for products useful to people.  And so, while the chestnut would no longer be what it once was, the forest would still be there, as would the foresters.

The chestnut was a tree that, as late as 1907, Samuel B. Green would write in his Principles of American Forestry (a book I stumbled across while perusing the stacks at the library of the Academy of Natural Sciences) was “One of the most beautiful of our forest trees.  Prefers a rich, deep soil.  A rapid grower and highly esteemed ornamental tree. Does well under cultivation.”  Shortly thereafter, this was no longer to be.

This is not to say it wholly disappeared – its wood’s durability, as noted above from Michaux, made it so that the wood lasted for decades lying in the forest, even after the trees had fallen.  And its ability to grow from suckers has made it so that it persists even to this day – suckers grow up, die back from the blight, and suckers arise once again – never getting to the size of a full size tree, but surviving nonetheless.

But the chestnut was no longer the dominant tree of the eastern North American forests.

And it wasn’t just in the woods that the chestnut was fading away – this is also a tree that had been widely planted – a tree of such value certainly would not have escaped cultivation, and it was commonly planted and grown, and a pretty inexpensive tree to buy, too.

As a visit to the McLean Library at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and lots of help from Janet Evans, the librarian at the McLean, lets us know – the chestnut was cheap and plentiful in the horticultural trade, as we see from its history in nursery catalogs.

In the catalogs of the Meehan’s Nursery, one of the largest nurseries of eastern North America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American chestnut trees were listed from this firm’s earliest days –

In 1858, they sold for 50 cents a piece – and in the Fall 1880 catalog, they went for 10 cents a piece, 50 cents for ten, and $3 per hundred for 1 to 2 footers, and 50 cents a piece for 6 footers – while other trees might have been as cheap, none were sold for less, attesting to the ease of propagation and volume of sale of this plant.  This continues onwards as the 19th century unfurled – in the spring of 1885 they were 50 cents a piece – the cheapest of the chestnuts listed (chinqapin, spanish, and japanese chestnuts were also listed).  In 1893 and in 1895 its price and rank were still the same.  Also, these 1890s  catalogs note: “This leads all the sorts in the quality of its nuts and its valuable timber” – the chestnut was not just some easy to grow tree, it was also supremely sublime as to the value it provided with respect to food and shelter.

It was also valued for its horticultural qualities, especially for a people who were more and more buying houses with yards to be filled with shade trees, and filled as soon as possible, hence the advertisement in the 1897/1898 Meehan’s catalog, saying of the chestnut: “It is a very rapid grower and should be given ample room.”

And onwards on – in 1900 the listing includes a mention of “Our native wild Chestnut, so well known and appreciated” – this tree appealed to patriotism as well as its many other valuable qualities.  It was an American tree – Longfellow wrote about how “Under a spreading chestnut-tree / The village smithy stands.”  For the homeowner at the turn towards the 20th century, they most likely would not have been a smith, except perhaps by name, but they quite likely would have been wanting to harken towards the nationalistic pride and small town imaginings to which a native American plant would have given rise.

The American chestnut continues on in the Meehan’s catalog, into the 20th century it went, setting sale just as it had in the 19th – and in the 1905 catalog, after the chestnut blight had been discovered in New York in 1904, this disease is not mentioned, they did not know what was to come.

Before I continue on, I would like to say that crucial information in the following paragraphs was supplied by Marie Long of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden; and Marty Schlabach, of the Mann Library (Cornell) in Ithaca, NY; and Lynn Stanko of the National Agricultural Library (USDA), in Washington, DC; and Kathy Allen, of the University of Minnesota’s Anderson Horticultural Library – and I was able to reach out to such talented and knowledgeable people because of Janet Evans, who made this research possible.

The loss of the American chestnut in the horticultural trade was sudden.  The last time it is listed by Meehan’s nursery is in 1911, in the fall catalog.  And then, with one bit of fade out, it is gone:

“In the Meehan’s Plant Book for 1912.  In the section on Deciduous Trees, Castanea dentata is not listed, however, in the index of that same publication, Castanea dentata is listed but asterisked with the following comment:  ‘These plants, though not described in this book, we have in stock.  Write us for descriptions, prices, etc.’ ” (Lynn Stanko, NAL)

It is not in the 1912, 1913, or 1914 catalogs – it was sold no more.

How did this happen so suddenly?  I was able to ask and answer this question quickly and efficiently because of access to great libraries – the McLean Library at PHS, as mentioned above, and also the library of the Academy of Natural Sciences with guidance, as is so often needed, by skilled librarians and archivists.

In the Academy’s collections I found Bulletin No. 1 of the Pennsylvania Chestnut Tree Blight Commission (an organization that was conveniently located on Chestnut Street, in downtown Philadelphia, by the way), which came out in October 1912.  This first bulletin was titled “The Chestnut Blight Disease – means of identification, remedies suggested and need of co-operation to control and eradicate the blight.”  It covered just what it promised and gives an overview of the chestnut problem, up to that point in time.

So what happened in 1911 that Meehan’s so suddenly stopped selling these trees?  As the above mentioned bulletin notes:

“Pennsylvania is the first State to attempt systematically to check the progress of the blight. On June 11, 1911, Governor Tener signed an Act which was passed by unanimous vote of both houses of the Pennsylvania Legislature.”

And what was in that legislation that affected Meehan’s nursery?

“A quarantine on chestnut stock was declared which prohibits the shipment of nursery stock not bearing the Commission’s tag of inspection. This certificate means that the stock has been inspected in the nursery rows, and again after it has been dug. Diseased trees are destroyed, and those which are apparently healthy are immersed for several minutes in Bordeaux mixture or lime-sulphur wash [note: these are both antifungal treatments], and are then tagged by an inspector. Only a comparatively small amount of chestnut stock was shipped by the nurseries during the last fall [i.e., fall of 1911].”

Whether this legislation affected Meehan’s because their stock was infected, or if it just simply became too expensive to treat and inspect (and to take the time to do so) each plant, and to destroy suspect stock, I do not know.  But with a sudden stop, and barely an audible gasp, the American chestnut was gone from Meehan’s catalog, never to return.

There are still some chestnuts in Philadelphia.  I don’t see them as often here as I did in New England (for example, the Hapgood Wright Town Forest, in Concord, Massachusetts has loads of them – small and scrubby and infected with the blight, but there nonetheless).  I haven’t seen a single one along Cresheim Creek, a creek that runs into the Wissahickon, and divides Chestnut Hill from Mt. Airy, though I know they were there historically.  We did see one up by Forbidden Drive recently, just below Bell’s Mill Road – a scraggly shrub that Marion Homes pointed out on a Philadelphia Botanical Club visit there a few weeks ago.  And there are some that are planted here in Philadelphia – one is at Bartram’s Garden, and there are a couple at Independence Square and another at Washington Square, that Susan Edens has shown me.

But it is not the dominant tree it once was, not even close.

A few years ago, I was walking through the National Gallery, in Washington, DC, ambling around the rooms with the 19th century American paintings.  Among the Morans and the Coles and the Cropseys, was this painting, October, by William Trost Richards.  I was standing there looking at it, thinking about what plants were in that scene, and looking at the large tree on the right side of the painting – its leaves look like a beech, a tree that’s commonly seen in the woods of eastern North America, but the bark of this painted tree is extremely different from that of the beech, and so that clearly was not what this was.  I was looking at it, and looking and looking and I really just could not think of what it was – I’m reasonably familiar with the trees of the eastern forests, but this one had me stumped, so to speak.

Until I realized that it was a chestnut.  An American chestnut – a tree I had never seen before at this enormous size, or even close to it.  And I also realized that this was a scene I would never see.  I’ve been in chestnut groves in Italy, and they are majestic.  I have seen many small trees and suckers of the American chestnut, especially when I was up in New England.  But something I will never see, except in paintings, or in very old photographs, is a full grown Castanea dentata in an American forest.  It is gone, times have changed – oaks, and other kinds of trees, have filled in the space laid open by the passing of the chestnut, and so the forest remains.  But the chestnut, as the lord of the forest, does not.   It remains, yes, as a scrabbling shrub or spindly tree, but its dominance is gone, and in my lifetime, or even the lifetime of anyone born today, it will not return to its former heights.  Its place left open for others to take it, the chestnut has become a minor piece of the current sylvic puzzle – the forest remains but the trees change, and the chestnut has lost its dominance.  But the forest remains.

To read about some other trees, see here:

The saucer magnolia

London planes and American sycamores

American elms

“Penn treaty” elms

The Callery pear

The Caucasian zelkova

Paulownia tomentosa, the empress tree

The sophora

Fringe tree