Oakland Cemetery

In between Friends Hospital and Greenwood Cemetery, just a bit off Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia, is Oakland Cemetery.  Friends Hospital, founded in 1813, is the oldest private psychiatric hospital in the US, and it also has a beautiful landscape – with its azaleas along the way down to Tacony Creek behind it, with its enormous American elm tucked away into a corner behind one of its buildings, and with the many other trees and flowers dotting and shading it throughout, it’s a surprising little refuge of calm and color in the city, as traffic along the Boulevard rushes by, just beyond the gates and fence of the hospital’s grounds.  If you go back behind the buildings and down that road that is lined with those azaleas that bloom in the spring, and you take a left turn at Tacony Creek, you’ll eventually get to Fishers Lane.  And if you then take a left there, you’ll get to Ramona Ave, and then, a bit more along, as you walk along Ramona, you’ll see Greenwood Cemetery on your right.

Greenwood Cemetery was, in centuries ago, the property of Benjamin Rush, physician, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and advocate of sugar maples and the maple syrup that can be derived therefrom.  Why was Dr. Rush an advocate of maple syrup?  This was in large part because he was an ardent abolitionist, and didn’t want Americans to be reliant upon sugar from West Indies’ sugar cane, which was reliant, in turn, on slave labor for its production.  There are, currently, some extraordinarily large sugar maples there, at Greenwood Cemetery, that stand as markers to Rush’s advocacy for their products, and for his advocacy for that most basic of human rights, the right to live freely.

In the post-Rush era, this site became a cemetery, Greenwood Cemetery, chartered in 1869, and as the years wore on, maintenance became difficult to keep up, and this place became quite overgrown, and up until recently was somewhat forested, but it has recently been restored and renovated, and is an idyllic spot to walk now.  And in addition to the sugar maples that I just mentioned, there is also an enormous American sycamore there, that based on its size looks to have been planted in the mid-19th century.  American sycamores don’t do very well in sooty air of cities, and so this tree suggests, to me at least, a 19th century habitat that was open and well stocked with clear air.

And in between these two landmarks, in between Friends Hospital and Greenwood Cemetery, is another open area – open amid the swaths of buildings and roads that pack in, through, and around Philadelphia, it is open and green with trees and shrubs and grass, an open space in the city – Oakland Cemetery.

According to the book Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace (by the Federal Writers’ Project, in 1937) Oakland Cemetery opened in 1881 (they also mention that it’s 43 acres), however, as I’ve been told by Jackie Childs, the official start date for the cemetery is 1891.   And Jackie is one to know such things – she is the fourth generation in her family to take care of Oakland Cemetery, and is wonderfully knowledgeable as to what is there, and also as to what was there before.

The cemetery was briefly known as Mt. Auburn (as is indicated on the 1895 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), but shortly thereafter came to its current name of Oakland (as is indicated on the 1910 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), and that is what we know it as now.

In 1895, electric lights were put in, as was recorded in the Journal of the Select Council of the City of Philadelphia, vol. 2 (from October 4, 1894 to March 28, 1895)

“AN ORDINANCE

Locating electric lights for the year 1895.

Section 1. The Select and Common Councils of the City of Philadelphia do ordain, That the Director of the Department of Public Safety be, and is hereby, authorized and directed to erect electric lights on the following streets and avenues, viz. …”

Following that ellipsis, among the hundreds upon hundreds of streets noted as soon to be having electric lights, we find “south side Asylum pike opposite Oakland Cemetery” listed among them.

If you go there now, you won’t see those lights, but you will see trees that were in the cemetery at that time – at the entrance to Oakland at Adams and Ramona, for example, there is an enormous black oak (Quercus velutina) that, based on its size, I estimate to predate the cemetery.  Also, it has wide and broad spreading lower limbs – this indicates that it has been open grown since its youth, thereby providing evidence that this property was not forested, even prior to its conversion to a cemetery (it would have been a farm – and so we can put together a little story that this now majestic black oak would have, in the mid-19th century, been a scrawny little sapling that was kept alive with, quite likely, the intention of shading cows in a pasture, or farmers on break from working the fields, or the owners as they watched the workers working, perhaps).

Why do those wide and spreading limbs of the black oak indicate this history?  Well, when trees grow in the forest, with other trees nearby, those other trees shade out the lower limbs – and then those lower limbs become weak, and then they fall off, and so we get trees in the forest that are generally tall and straight, growing upwards, with relatively few lower limbs spreading out horizontally (and perhaps with a bit of the oblique).  However, absent those neighboring trees, being “open grown” that is, and absent someone coming along and cutting off a tree’s lower limbs, a tree will branch out broadly, low and spreading, and as the years go by those lower branches will get thicker and larger, expanding in girth as they expand in length, presenting an architecture that looks like it was made to be climbed on or climbed up.  The black oak at the entrance to Oakland Cemetery has just that aspect, and so we can say quite confidently that it didn’t grow up in the forest, but in a field.

If you go a bit farther in to the cemetery, up to the main house there, on your left is an old umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) – its main trunk has died back, but the suckers that have come up off the roots flower quite well, as the fruits that were there in September 2012 attest.  The umbrella magnolia isn’t native to southeastern Pennsylvania, though it is native to west of here, as Ann Rhoads very persuasively argued in Bartonia, the Journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, however it has grown here for quite some time and been naturalized for about a hundred years or so, and it is a reasonably common tree to see planted, or coming up in the woods (I see it pretty often up in the Wissahickon).  This one at Oakland, looking at the base that has died back and from which these suckers has arisen, is one of the largest that I’m aware of around here, and I wonder if it represents one of the earlier plantings of this tree around here.  I should say also that this tree has been growing in Philadelphia for over two hundred years – Magnolia tripetala is listed in the Landreth’s nursery catalog of 1811 [which can be found in the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society], with a common name of “umbrella tree”, and it’s listed in John Bartram’s “Catalogue of American Trees, Shrubs and Herbacious Plants, most of which are now growing, and produce ripe Seed in John Bartram’s Garden, near Philadelphia. The Seed and Growing Plants of Which are disposed of on the most reasonable Terms.” ([Phila.]: [1783]), as is noted in Joel Fry’s article “An international catalogue of North American trees and shrubs; the Bartram broadside, 1783”, in the Journal of Garden History (vol. 16, no. 1, 1996).

A bit farther down and along, just past the house, you start to see large white ash (Fraxinus americana) trees, growing wide and spreading.  These trees, based on their size, I would estimate to have been planted around the time of the opening of the cemetery in the late 19th century – their placement along its paths also attests to their planting having postdated its establishment.  They also look to have been pollarded.  Pollarding is a process whereby the top of a tree is cut off, thereby allowing side shoots to grow up and out from where that top had been removed – this establishes a broadly arching habit, much like what one might see in an American elm, with branches stretching up and over, and if pollarded trees have been planted along side either side of a road or path, those upward sweeping limbs can meet in the middle, forming a vaulting architecture under which we may walk and cars may drive.  Of course, trees can also lose their tops without the intentional intervention of people, without pollarding that is, and so you have to check that this is part of the landscaping intentions, and isn’t due to wind, or someone accidentally swiping a top or two of a tree as they pass by with a truck or something.  These ash trees at Oakland are pretty much all spraying upwards from points at roughly the same height – this suggests to me that they were managed to look like this (if the breaks were accidental or due to nonhuman interventions, then I’d expect them to be expanding outwards from different heights), suggesting that they were clipped so that they could go on to form graceful ceilings under which mourners could make their ways to gravesites, and also so that Sunday visitors who simply wanted to visit a beautiful park could stroll underneath a sky of green.

Onwards and somewhat southwards, as you go along the path that goes towards Ramona Ave and Fisher Lane, and as you get nearly towards the split point of Ramona and Fisher, you’ll look down on your left and you’ll see a sewer.  I was pretty excited when I saw that for the first time – why was that?  Why was I excited to see this hole in the ground, a hole that pretty much just leads to other holes?  Why on earth (or in earth) would I get excited to see a sewer?

Well, if you look at old maps of this site you’ll find that there were streams that used to run through it – in the 1862 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/, you’ll see a couple of streams running out of the back of what is now Oakland Cemetery, and one of them, the one to the south, was roughly where Fisher’s Lane splits off from Ramona Ave (and also running along Ramona a bit prior to Ramona’s split with Fisher); the other was up towards the Friends Asylum. The former stream (the one running near what is now Ramona and Fisher) is not on the 1855 map (here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/); the latter is.  If we look on the 1843 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), both streams are on map, and on the 1808 Hills map (same place as the others), the southern (the one near Ramona and Fisher) stream is there.

There is, I should say, another sewer uphill from that old one – it is newer, and while it does, I’m quite confident, pour its water and other effluvia ultimately into that old streambed marked in those old maps, because it is newer it is not as likely to mark quite as exactly where the stream ran, like that old one does, but was more likely constructed as simple drainage for the road that it accompanies.

And so, that old sewer, and a pretty humble one at that, unlabelled and unadorned, marks the site of a stream that is no longer there – it gives us a physical landmark with which we can pinpoint where that historic stream was, a stream that was limned on old maps and has since been covered up but still carries water, though now underground.  A stream that ran when Benjamin Rush lived here, advocating for abolition, a stream that ran when Friends Hospital opened, a hospital devoted to humane treatment of those who had been treated quite differently prior to that, a stream that ran when this site, Oakland Cemetery, was farmland, with a little black oak seedling far a ways up the hill, now shading the entrance to this city of the dead, but then kept alive most likely with the intention of shading pasture for farm animals, or farm workers, or farm owners – this stream still runs, but the only evidence we see that remains is that humble opening, telling us, quietly, subtly, discreetly, where the history lies beneath.

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

https://cemeterylandmanagement.wordpress.com/

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

Wissinoming

Cedar Grove

Hunting Park

Monument Cemetery

Some Plants and Insects of the Woodlands

A different zelkova (Woodlands Cemetery)

Feral landscaping (Woodlands and Mt. Moriah cemeteries)

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 white pines of Cresheim Creek

Cresheim Creek is a tributary of the Wissahickon, and where these two waterways meet is called Devil’s Pool.  People have been swimming at Devil’s Pool for centuries, diving off the high rocks and into the deep pool below, having cookouts on the side, and sitting in the cool water on the hottest of summer days – it’s been like this for hundreds of years, cool water on a hot day has always drawn us to it, and probably always will. That cool water carousing out of Cresheim Creek runs down all the way from Montgomery County, where the headwaters of Cresheim spring forward, up near the USDA research facility on Mermaid Lane.  That water quickly cuts into Philadelphia, running alongside an old Pennsylvania Railroad spur that came off of the Chestnut Hill West line, a spur jutting off that main branch, popping off in a northeasterly direction – its railbed then crosses Germantown Ave and ducks underneath a trestle of the Chestnut Hill East line, which was a Reading Railroad train.   These lines and companies didn’t touch, but where they came close to each other, Cresheim Creek ran beneath them just the same.  And while that old train bed along which Cresheim Creek flows doesn’t run rails anymore, it is still there, a remnant of a time when trains lined the city in far higher resolution than they do today, and of a time when they followed streams instead of piling over them.

Thomas Moran’s painting Cresheim Glen, Wissahickon, Autumn captures how this waterway looked in the mid to late 19th century, with a white oak to one side (the viewer’s left), a sycamore to the other, tumbled rocks in the water, and a wide open space just beyond. As it rolls through Philadelphia, Cresheim Creek runs alongside Cresheim Valley Drive, cutting through deep rocks, and then into a wider plain.  At about this opening, just southwest of the train bridge for the Chestnut Hill West line, there used to be a recreational lake, called Lake Surprise – this was there about a hundred years ago and is no longer there.  Lake Surprise was constructed after factories upstream, like the Frances Carpet and Dye Works, had closed, thereby keeping the lake’s patrons unstained.

Cresheim Creek used to have quite a bit of manufacturing – below where Lake Surprise once was, and just southwest of the McCallum Street bridge, there was a paper factory up until as recently as about a hundred years ago.  While none of those mills or factories remain today – Cresheim Cotton Mills and Hills Carpet Factory have long been closed – evidence of them is still clearly there, as you walk along stone roads in the middle of the wooded banks of the streams.  This is especially noticeable southwest of McCallum, southwest of where Lake Surprise used to be, where cut and trimmed rocks line paths that once carried wagons to and from the mills and are now sitting overgrown, with plants diving in from the sides.  A stone bridge used to cross the creek, just downstream from where the McCallum Street bridge passes far overhead; that stone bridge, whose remnants still remain, was crumbled in a flood in 2004.  To see what that area under McCallum looked like in the 19th century, see here: http://digitallibrary.hsp.org/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/224 )

Further onwards, downstream, towards the Wissahickon, past McCallum, there is a dense woods on either side of Cresheim – as you look you’ll see reminders of the horticulturally developed areas nearby, plants such as a Styrax (planted about 16 years ago – we cored it to find out), a hardy orange (Poncirus trifoliata), and many once-cultivated viburnums that have escaped into the woods; all of these are there and kind of pop out at you, if you’re looking. There are also hundreds upon hundreds of other plants that came in with a bit less of our help – beeches and birches and ferns and flowers that seeded or spored in due to the efforts of the wind, water, or animals other than humans, and though sometimes they might’ve had some help getting to this area, some have figured out how to get around on their own, like the umbrella magnolia, for example.  (I note here that, as Rob Loeb has sagely pointed out to me, in Fairmount Park it is often unclear whether a plant was planted by people or not – for example, we generally say that beeches on rocky slopes came there on their own, however, beeches were planted in the early part of the 20th century, and trees we see now may well be remnants of what were planted by people at that time, in what is appropriate habitat for that species; for an example of documentation of beech planting for forestry, see Joseph Illick’s “Pennsylvania Trees”, printed in 1928 [“Reprint of Fifth Edition of 1925”, Bulletin 11, PA Dept. of Forests and Waters], where the caption to Fig. 29 (“Thinned Scotch Pine”) includes the following: “About 70 years old.  Underplanted with Beech”)

And there are even plants here that are parasitic upon other plants, such as Conopholis americana, or Squaw-root, noted by Keller and Brown (1905) with a locality of “Wissahickon”, and that Barton (1818) noted as “Parasitic. On the authority of Mr. Bartram, I have introduced this plant, never having met with it myself. He says it grows in the woods near Philadelphia. Perennial. July.” There are also plants that were once here that we no longer see, like the pawpaw (Asimina triloba), which I have yet to see growing in the Wissahickon or along any of its tributaries, but if we take a look at Barton (1818), we find that it was here:

“Papaw-tree is very rare in this vicinity, and here its fruit seldom comes to maturity.  It is a very small tree, with deep brown unhandsome flowers, and an oblong fleshy esculent fruit, about three inches long, and one and a half in diameter.  On the Wissahickon; and on the road to the falls of Schuylkill, west side of the river, and about three miles south of the falls; scarce”

Keller and Brown (1905), in their flora of Philadelphia, list a locality of “Wissahickon” for the paw paw, but it is not to be found in Jack Fogg’s checklist of plants of the Wissahickon (published in 1996 in Bartonia), and as just mentioned above, I haven’t seen it here (though it does grow elsewhere in Philadelphia today).

And so the plants have changed – some that weren’t here historically are here now and some that were here previously no longer are.  But the forest is still here, in a variety of different forms and structures. One spectacular stand of woody plants is up a hill that is somewhat steep, and not too far southwest from McCallum Street, and on the southeast side of the stream.  There, there is a magnificent stand of mountain laurel, flowering in the spring underneath very large chestnut oaks.  These might have been planted.  They might not have been planted.  But either way, they flower in the spring and as they shed their leaves in the fall they leave behind magnificently crooked branches straggling towards the canopy above.

A little bit farther downstream from there, downstream from that stand of mountain laurel and chestnut oak, but before you get to the Devil’s Pool where Cresheim Creek empties into the Wissahickon, there is a dense stand of eastern white pines (Pinus strobus), a stand filled with very large trees. Many, if not most, of them are well over 2 feet across and tower a hundred plus feet over your head as you walk among them.  It is a uniform stand of trees, pretty much all white pines, with their soft needles making for quiet walking along the paths that wander over their roots, and very little underbrush to block your way.  I’ve been coming to Cresheim for years, and this site is one of the most striking there – and for many years, I’d thought of it as a scene right out of pre-colonial Philadelphia, before there was a Philadelphia.  This was how it must have looked, I thought.  Enormous white pines, tall like the ship masts they would’ve become if this were three hundred years ago, filling in the woodland scene.  White tailed deer would’ve run beneath, turkeys would’ve gobbled in there, too – this would’ve been nature at its cleanest, its purest, its finest.  This is how Cresheim Creek must’ve been , I thought, and how much of the Wissahickon would’ve looked before we got here. But that’s not how it would have been, not even close.  Unknown to me then but known to me now is that the white pine is not native to Philadelphia.  While it is native to Pennsylvania, it is not native to our city – it was not here, most likely, when Europeans arrived, and it quite certainly didn’t fill thickly the woods with uniform stands, like this stand at Cresheim Creek does today.

How do we know this?  Well, one reference to use to answer this kind of question is William P. C. Barton’s Compendium Florae Philadelphicae, written in 1818.  Dr. Barton was the nephew of Benjamin Smith Barton, the man who trained Meriwether Lewis in botany, and the younger Barton was also a botanist, at the University of Pennsylvania, just like his uncle.  And he (William P. C., that is) wrote a book that listed all the plants in Philadelphia at his time. Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is there, and even noted as being “on the Wissahickon”.  So is what was called at the time yellow pine, but we now call short leaf pine (Pinus echinata – though Barton calls in Pinus variabilis).  But the eastern white pine, Pinus strobus, is not there, it is not listed in Barton’s flora of Philadelphia.  And so we can reasonably confidently say that this tree was not here in 1818. Addtionally, Peter Kalm, Finnish botanist and student of Linnaeus, when he was here in the late 1740s, he didn’t see it, though he did see it in Albany in June 1749, writing “The White Pine is found abundant here, in such places where common pines grow in Europe.  I have never seen them in the lower parts of the province of New York, nor in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.” (Travels into North America, by Peter Kalm, translated by John Reinhold Forster); he most likely would have noted such a valuable tree, and where it was, and so this is further evidence that this tree wasn’t here.  (this was a tree of great value, so great that in 1710 there was passed in England: “An Act for the preservation of white and other pine-trees growing in Her Majesties colonies of New-Hampshire, the Massachusets-Bay, and province of Main [sic], Rhode-Island, and Providence-Plantation, the Narraganset country, or Kings-Province, and Connecticut in New-England, and New-York, and New-Jersey, in America, for the masting Her Majesties navy “) Additionally, in Ida A. Keller and Stewardson Brown’s 1905 Handbook of the Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity, published by the Philadelphia Botanical Club, they do list the eastern white pine, and note it as being present in Bucks County, and Montgomery County, and Delaware County, and Chester County, and Lancaster County, and Lehigh County – throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, you’ll note.  Except in Philadelphia. And in Thomas C. Porter’s 1903 Flora of Pennsylvania, he lists it as being in Chester and Lancaster and Blair and Huntingdon and Montour and Erie and Tioga and Delaware and Luzerne and York and Allegheny counties.  But not Philadelphia. And so, the evidence points pretty clearly to the eastern white pine, Pinus strobus, as not being native to Philadelphia County.  We do see it growing naturalized here now, but it got here, to Philadelphia, with our help.  It isn’t clear when it became naturalized (that is, reproducing and growing on its own) here, though it is pretty clear that this occurred by the 1960s.  It is in Edgar Wherry’s “A check-list of the flora of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania” (published in Bartonia, the Journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, vol. 38), and this came out in 1969, and there is a collection of Pinus strobus from Dr. Wherry in the herbarium of the botany department of the Academy of Natural Sciences (PH) with label data stating: “Seedling from old (though probably planted) tree, Schuylkill Valley Nature Center, 1 mile west of Shawmont / October 27, 1967” (NB: this is the only collection of P. strobus from Philadelphia at PH, and I also note that there are none from Philadelphia at GH; I looked in June of 2013.  There are three listed in the NYBG online database, one collected by Isaac Martindale, July 1865, in Byberry, but it is not noted if it was cultivated (NB: Martindale commonly collected in gardens, as is noted in Meyer and Elsasser 1973 [“The 19th Century Herbarium of Isaac C. Martindale”, Taxon 22(4): 375-404]: “His earliest collections date from 1860 when he started to collect plants in his garden and environs of Byberry and from the garden of his uncle, Dr. Isaac Comly, who also lived at Byberry. Martindale left a fairly good record of cultivated plants of the Bartram garden in Philadelphia, of Thomas Meehan’s nursery in Germantown, Pennsylvania, from his own garden, and from other gardens in the Philadelphia area.”; additionally, this species has been commonly planted in the region for quite some time, e.g, as is noted in William Darlington’s 1826 Florula Cestrica, of Pinus strobus: “This is a handsome tree; and when met with, is generally transplanted about houses, as an ornament.” – he also notes it as being ‘rare’ [this refers to Chester County, PA]); there are two additional collections of P. strobus from Philadelphia, at NYBG: two duplicates of var. “fastigiata”, collected in 1980 and noted as being cultivated).  Also, in the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, there is a document, by Charles Eastwick Smith, a “Catalog of the phaenogamous and acrogenous plants (found within 15 miles of Broad and Market streets, Phila., and in the herbarium of C. E. S.)” … “found in 1860-1868”, and in it P. strobus (on p. 24) has a dash next to it, indicating its presence within that range at that time; however, there is no indication if it was in Philadelphia, or just nearby.  And this stand itself has been documented as being planted, by J. C. Tracy, in his paper “the Breeding Birds of the Cresheim Valley in Philadelphia, 1942“, published in Cassinia, where he writes “Near the mouth of the creek a large stand of white pine has been introduced on the south slope.”  Also, in Norman Taylor’s 1915 Flora of the Vicinity of New York, which includes Philadelphia, he notes of the range of P. strobus: “PA. Throughout”, but he doesn’t site any specimens or give details as to whether it was specifically found in Philadelphia; and so while this suggest that the white pine might have been naturalized here by 1915, it doesn’t suggest it strongly, and so it is as yet unclear as to when exactly this tree became naturalized in Philadelphia. But anyway… by the sixties it’s pretty clearly documented that it was naturalized here.  But it most likely was not in the 19th century, the earliest 20th century, or before.  Additionally, this stand in Cresheim Creek is an even-aged stand, most of them being about the same size (and therefore, by inference, all being roughly the same age), and most of them are on a hill, sometimes a pretty steep one.

And so this is pretty clearly a stand that was planted, because if it was a stand that had seeded in on its own, we would see trees of many different ages in there.  And so, not only is it not a plant that was here prior to the 20th century, but this is not a naturalized stand either.  People planted these. White pine was a popular plant to plant, about a hundred years ago, and that’s roughly (and the “roughly” part here will become more important later, by the way) when these were planted. At the turn towards the 20th century, the white pine was just so clearly a tree to be used in forestry, that a forester in Pennsylvania could write:

“It is not necessary to state the uses of this tree nor should it be necessary to state that it ought to be cultivated extensively.  It is a rapid grower and prefers poor soil, yields early returns and is very valuable when mature – what more is wanted?”

(The above quote is from the “Statement of work done by the Pennsylvania Department of Forestry during 1901 and 1902, together with some suggestions concerning the future policy of the department, and also brief papers upon subjects connected with forestry.”, Chapter VII “Propagation of forest trees having commercial value and adapted to Pennsylvania.”,  by George Wirt, Forester – this work can be found in the library of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) As we see, white pines were commonly planted about a hundred years ago, and this is an even aged stand of about that age, and therefore it is quite clear that this stand of white pines was planted, and didn’t seed in on its own. Additionally, as Alexander MacElwee writes in the “Trees and Wild Flowers” section of T. A. Daly’s “The Wissahickon”:

“White Pines are frequent. In recent years thousands of seedling pines have been planted with a view to reforesting naked slopes. These consist principally of the White Pine, Red Pine, Jack Pine and short leaf Yellow Pine.”

OK, so this is a plant that is not native to where it is now planted, and it was planted by people.  Also, it is on a hill, so it was most likely planted to control soil erosion, which further implies that it was planted not so much for a “natural” aesthetic (though that may well have been part of it), but moreso for a civil engineering project.  It is a wonderfully beautiful stand that really does make us think about what is “natural”, just from what we have seen of it so far.  But that isn’t all. Additionally, the seedlings that were used to plant this stand were quite possibly imported from Germany.  Up until roughly (and again, that “roughly” will be important in a bit) a hundred years ago, many if not most of the white pine seedlings planted in the US were imported.  Why?  Why would Americans import, from thousands of miles away, a tree that is native to the US? Because it was cheaper.  Germany, and a few other countries, had the comparative advantage in terms of skilled labor and economics of scale, and foresters in the US took advantage of that, buying in the less expensive, high-quality imports from across the sea.  An article written by Ellicott D. Curtis, published in Forest Quarterly, volume VII, from 1909, clearly outlines the economics of this.  He quotes a cost of 95 cents per thousand for white pine seedlings in Germany – he then cites freight costs as 50 cents (to New York) and duty as $1.15 (for import into the US), for a total cost of less than $3 per thousand, as the sale price in New York.  He contrasts this with prices from various American producers, the lowest of which is $5 per thousand (from Harvard Nurseries in Harvard, Illinois). Even with transport costs and duties, it was still cheaper to import from thousands of miles away.  Curtis also notes the low volume of US production:

“I desire further to call attention to the fact that the raising of trees for forest planting is a comparatively new industry…”

It was cheaper to buy them as imports, and also, they would not have been readily available via domestic production. And they were planted densely, as we see from this excerpt from Areas of Desolation in Pennsylvania, by Joseph Trimble Rothrock (formerly Commissioner of Forestry of Pennsylvania), which came out in 1915:

“To plant an acre of young white pines 1,000 seedlings of say three years’ growth would not be an excessive number; in fact, 2,000 would be nearer the mark.  They are started close, in order that in search for sunlight, tall, straight trunks may be developed.  As they grow and crowd each other, the weaker ones are removed.  The process of thinning continues until the timber has reached marketable size.  From the time the young trees are 20 feet high they begin to have a value, and by sale of those removed, income (small at first) begins to come in.” (p. 21)

And so, as of 1909, imports of eastern white pine supplied the needs of the US, and they were planted by the millions, these immigrant plants, spreading industriously across the land. But this was not to last for long – shortly thereafter, the white pine blister rust decimated the importation of white pines, as it decimated the white pines themselves. White pine blister rust is a fungal disease of five needle pines.  Pines are conifers, and they have needle shaped leaves, as do most other conifers.  Pines, however, unlike other conifers, have their needles bundled together into what are called “fascicles”, with a papery sheath at the base of those bundles.  There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of pines: five needle pines (Pinus strobus, the eastern white pine, is a five needle pine) and two-or-three needle pines (Pinus rigida and Pinus echinata, both mentioned above, are in this latter group).  Within those groups, there are many kinds of pines, but every species of pine can be set into one of those two groups – they either have five needles, or two-or-three needles. And the white pine blister rust hits the five needle pines, and brutally.  It came into North America around the turn towards the last century, sometime around 1900 (by 1906 it was definitively here), and it rapidly began to kill the white pines, and by the 1910s it was wiping them out. There were many responses to this botanical epidemic, but they were for naught, despite the best efforts of foresters across the nation.  In addition to the general difficulties of controlling disease, which is always a sisyphean task, this was a time when the US, and the world entire, was incredibly strained. A summary of “The White Pine Blister Rust Situation”, published in Forest Leaves (published by the Pennsylvania Forestry Association) in 1919 covers this pretty well:

“We may congratulate ourselves, not on the measure of success with which our work has been carried out the past season but upon the fact that we have been able to work at all.  The loss of men due to the draft, to war industries, the difficulties of housing and lodging, general increased expense of the work, the poor quality of much of the available help, and during the last two months the epidemic of influenza – all have greatly increased the difficulties of our work.”

There were a number of eradication efforts that were implemented as could best be done with the exigencies of the time, but most importantly for our story here, it was recognized that this disease had arrived via imported plants, and so a response, a major response, was an act of Congress – the Plant Quarantine Act of 1912. And “Quarantine No. 1” was against the white pine.  The implementing language is as follows;

“Now, therefore, I, Willet M. Hays, Acting Secretary of Agriculture under authority conferred by section 7 of the act approved August 20 1912 known as the Plant Quarantine Act do hereby declare that it is necessary, in order to prevent the introduction into the United States of the White Pine Blister Rust, to forbid the importation into the United States from the hereinbefore named countries of the following species and their horticultural varieties, viz. white pine (Pinus strobus L.), western white pine (Pinus monticola Dougl.), sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana Dougl.) and stone or cembrian pine (Pinus cembra L.)”

I include the above not simply as documentation, but because Hays was, I believe, the only writer ever to use more commas than I do.  The rule continues:

“Hereafter and until further notice, by virtue of said section 7 of the act of Congress approved August 20, 1912, the importation for all purposes of the species and their horticultural varieties from the countries named is prohibited.”

And henceforth, importation of white pine seedlings was no more. This is not to say that white pines weren’t grown and sold in the US – they had been sold in the horticultural trade, and this continued to be the case throughout the time of the epidemic.  In the 1900 Meehan’s catalogue (Meehan’s was a major nursery, located in Philadelphia), they write of the white pine that “This useful native species is very well known.”  And the white pine was sold continuously in the horticultural trade, across the time of the Quarantine (Pinus strobus is in the 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1912, 1914, 1916, 1919 Andorra catalogs – Andorra was another major nursery, also in Philadelphia).  [The above noted catalogs are at the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society] But the seedlings were no longer being imported, and the white pine was not a plant that had been grown in the US for large scale production.  It was being grown for the relatively small amounts needed for horticultural plantings, but not by the millions that would’ve been needed to supply the needs of foresters. Because of this, white pines were not commonly planted for years after the Quarantine came along in 1912, as domestic production needed time to increase to meet the needs left wanting by the lack of imported materials. Even by 1915, US production was moving healthily forward, as is indicated in this excerpt from Rothrock’s Areas of Desolation in Pennsylvania:

“A senator of the United States, a gentleman who had made his fortune by lumbering, once stated in a public meeting in Washington that the white pine was doomed, that there was no help for it, that it could not be reproduced. In matters involving essential public policy, senators should be better informed.  At the very hour of his utterance white pine seed, grown from mature trees in Germany, was being used in this country to produce seedlings for use in our forest nurseries.  It is furthermore noteworthy that this imported white pine seed came from trees, or seeds, imported into Germany nearly a century ago from North America.  It is fair to say that the white pine is among the easiest of our forest trees to reproduce. Forests of white pine, grown from nursery sown seed, are now well advanced on the Biltmore estate in North Carolina.  The earliest plantation on the forest reserve at Mont Alto [this is in Pennsylvania] is now 15 feet high, and is in as thrifty a condition as any of natural growth.” (pp. 7-8)

As we see, by 1915, production was beginning to approach the needs of foresters, but they weren’t there yet. And in April 1916, in the magazine American Forestry (vol. 22), there is an advertisement published by Little Tree Farms of America (near Boston), for white pines, “The King of American Evergreens”,

“Use White Pine for screens, borders, avenue planting and otherwise beautifying an estate; for cutover lands; for sandy soils and other bare, unproductive, unsightly places; for worn out pastures; for lands useless for other purposes; for underplanting in shady places in woods where chestnut trees have died out. Plant groves of White Pine for restfulness.”

They charged $200 for a thousand trees, and $4.50 for ten of them. And so, beginning in 1912, after the Plant Quarantine Act, very few white pines were planted, and this remained the case for quite a few years thereafter, but it wasn’t long until domestic nursery production was rising to meet the needs of US planting.  And by 1919, white pines were being distributed, free of charge, by the Commissioner of Forestry of Pennsylvania, as is noted in Forest Leaves (published by the Pennsylvania Forestry Association), in February 1919. [“The stock available for free distribution is almost all three years old and includes white pine, red pine, Norway spruce, European larch, Arbor Vitae, and a limited quantity of Japanese larch, and white ash.”]

The white pine stand in Cresheim Creek is roughly a hundred years old, and now, perhaps, it is clear why that “roughly” becomes interesting. It is now 2012.  In October 2011, we cored a couple of trees in the white pine stand along Cresheim Creek (by “we” I mean John Vencius, Ned Barnard and me).  For those two trees, we got, respectively: ages of 95 +/- years (dbh [diameter at breast height]: 29.3 inches) and 80 +/- years (25.5″ dbh).  This puts the older one at right in the midst of the time when white pines were rarely planted, and right around the time when imports were banned. Coring of trees, like all endeavors scientific and otherwise, is not absolutely accurate – there is error associated with all measurements, and so we measure multiple times, and we measure multiple points, so that we can asymptote to reality.  Therefore, at this point, with so few data points, we can only roughly say when this stand was planted – about a hundred years ago.  And it leads us, or leads me at least, to ask some questions: Was this stand planted with seedlings imported from Germany? If so was it one of, if not the, last one planted in Philadelphia with imported seedlings?  Or was it planted with seedlings produced domestically?  If so, was it one of, if not the, first stands planted with domestically produced seedlings? I don’t know, and we don’t know, the answers to these questions, yet.  If we knew everything, then researchers would all be out of work , and so, fortunately, there are always questions to ask, and there always will be, as long as there’s people to ask them.  We’ll be looking at more of the trees in that stand, to see how old they are, and also looking for archival documentation of this stand’s planting, to see more closely when it was sown, to see on which side of the great divide of 1912 these plantings occurred.

There’s always questions to be asked, and often, too, there are answers to be had.  We’ll see what those answers are, as they arrive. There is a larger question, however, that arises from these trees, I think, and that question is – what is natural? This stand of white pines in Cresheim Creek sits in the midst of Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in North America, and if most people were to walk among these trees, they would see it as an inspiring piece of nature’s work that somehow survives the urban impacts around it.  After hearing that it is planted with a species of tree that is not native to Philadelphia, and that this stand was quite possibly planted with seedlings imported from thousands of miles and across an ocean away, and most certainly was planted with nursery grown seedlings from somewhere, and that it was quite likely planted for engineered erosion control, they might feel differently, might not feel that it’s natural. But these trees are here, and they are growing.  They were planted a hundred years ago, or so – before I was born, before my parents were born, they were here.  They’ll most likely be here long after I’m gone, too.  Birds fly among them, squirrels climb in their branches, people walk under them.  They’re seeding in offspring, seedlings coming up at their parents’ feet – being naturalized is in their nature.  Someone, or more likely, someones, put them there, but now they thrive and survive on their own, set into an area along a creek that was a major industrial site, but no longer is, in the midst of one of the largest cities in the country, in a city that is thoroughly carpeted with concrete, this lush green forest rises above carpets of its own leaves, and you wouldn’t know its nature unless you looked very closely, at which point you see that this stand has created a little world all its own, and does make us think that, in this world, there’s a lot of ways to be natural.

White pines of Cresheim Creek_map

Map by Nicole Wagner, graduate student in Geography and Planning, West Chester University, of the white pine stand along Cresheim Creek.

For more about trees of the Wissahickon watershed, see here: The white pines of Hermit Lane Hemlocks along the Wissahickon

Cedar Grove

There used to be a train station, in the lower northeast of Philadelphia, called Cedar Grove.  It was on Tabor Ave, just a bit southwest of Godfrey Ave, and was on the Frankford spur of the train line that goes to Fox Chase, which is in a bit farther part of the northeast of Philadelphia.  This spur went just about all the way to Frankford Ave, ending at a terminus between Unity and Sellers Streets.  It was a train line that carried freight and also passengers – starting in the late 19th century, it lasted well into the 20th century, going behind the Sears on the Boulevard, along the eastern edge of Northwood Park, and among the houses of heavily populated Frankford.

It also traveled through Cedar Grove.  This was the name of the neighborhood, as well as the train station, and up through the early part of the 20th century, it had open marshes and thickets, and forests with spring wildflowers, and wild flocks of birds filling the sky.

Cedar Grove is just to the east of Tacony Creek and just above the Boulevard, and in the early part of the 20th century it was quite unbuilt.  There were woods there, with beeches and oaks, and poplars and sweetgum and ash trees and sassafras, too, all growing there among each other.  In the spring there were anemones and partridge berries on the forest floor – and hayscented fern was there, as was the trout lily, one of the beautiful wildflowers of the spring, which would’ve come up year after year alongside the mayflower that was there, neighboring side by side with the bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia) and jack in the pulpits.

Another fern, royal fern, would’ve grown in low wet areas of the woods, and yet another fern, interrupted fern would’ve been a bit higher up.  Royal fern, whose latin name is Osmunda regalis, is in the same genus as the interrupted fern, Osmunda claytoniana.  The interrupted fern, however, likes it a little bit drier than its wetland cousin, and so would’ve been in areas a bit drier – upland and underneath the trees, growing along with and near the wood sedge that would’ve dotted the ground up there.

Dwarf ginseng was also in the woods of Cedar Grove, on the ground, growing among the willow oaks, and poison ivy scrambled there, too.  Pinxter, the azalea with its wild pink flowers, would’ve been a bright beacon in the forest of the early spring.

Beneath the beeches and the oaks were also Dutchman’s pipes, a plant also commonly called by its Latin name, Monotropa.  This is a parasitic plant, it doesn’t make its own sugar, it isn’t green, it doesn’t photosynthesize – it eats sugar that is carried through mycorrhizal fungi, this achlorophyllous plant parasitizing the fungus that in turn has gotten its sugar from a plant with which it is mutualistically symbiotic.

In addition to these forests, there were wide open flats, somewhat wet, in Cedar Grove, with sheep laurel and blueberries, and purple milkwort (Polygala sanguinea), too.  Swamp white oak and black willows made little canopies here and there in these wet areas, as woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus) nodded in the breeze nearby, bobbing along with the rustling of the narrow leaved and the wide leaved cattails.  Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) attracted the butterflies, and close to the ground, trailing lightly and low, was the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon).

And there were birds – enormous flocks of blackbirds flew above the flats.   And in the woods Eastern Towhees (which also used to be called, colloquially, “chewinks”) scratched and picked among the leaves, loudly and boldly, with White-throated Sparrows following behind them, picking through their trails.  American Kestrels (also known as sparrow hawks, back in the early 20th century) cruised above the long flat fields of Cedar Grove, and Ovenbirds walked among the forest trees, occasionally flying up to sit in a tree’s branch and sing.

Meadowlarks, now rarely seen in Frankford, used to be in Cedar Grove year round – in the middle of December, in flocks numbering to more than 25, they’d get flushed by a train going by and fly through the air.  And the Winter Wren was out along the train tracks, too, in the icy cold, a little chilled hobo out there in the sleet and snow.

So how do we know all this?  How can I say with such detail what was living and growing in Cedar Grove in the early 20th century, when I wasn’t there and wasn’t until many decades later?  Well, one can reconstruct former ecologies, one can estimate historic plant and animal communities, by knowing habitats of plants and animals, and figuring out, based on climate and soil and hydrology what the habitat of the site would have been in the past, and then, building from that information, one can construct a vision as to what would have been there in the past.  That’s one way to do it, and for most places in the world, that’s really the best you can do.

However, in Philadelphia, we very often have another way to do this – here, we have extensive written records and museum collections, and it’s amazing the level of detail available, documenting what has lived here before.  One might expect there to be records for cultivated plants in parks and gardens, because they were planted by people, and people can keep records.  But there is also extensive and intensive information available on many of the plants that grew without being planted by people, and for the animals that walked and flew among those plants.  Philadelphia’s rich history of natural history is unequalled for supplying this kind of information, and for keeping these records. [Note: There is also a record of a Herring Gull of which “Mr. Wm. Morris Whitaker also secured a specimen October, 1893, on a mill dam at Cedar Grove, Philadelphia, five miles from the Delaware.” from Witmer Stone’s “The Birds of Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey” (1894)]

And we can use those records, if we know about them, to learn about what was here before.  Or, if we don’t know about them, we can talk to those that do.  In 1910, Henry S. Borneman read a paper before the Historical Society of Frankford about the birds that were in the area, including Cedar Grove, in the late 19th and earliest 20th centuries.  Over a hundred years later, in 2012, Susan Couvreur and Diane Sadler, of the Historical Society of Frankford today, drew my attention to that work, with its richly detailed description of the bird life of Frankford, and also its discussions of the plants and habitats of the time.

There are also plants from Philadelphia that were, in many years past, collected, pressed, dried, and mounted on paper sheets, that are now deposited at the Department of Botany of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and these plants that were collected decades ago provide evidence of what is no longer there.  There’s also a list of historic collections of plants from Philadelphia, that was extracted from the Plants of Pennsylvania database maintained by the Morris Arboretum, that was kindly provided to me by Ann Rhoads and Tim Block (botanists at the Arboretum).  This list provides an effective guide to the many collections from Cedar Grove that have been made in the past.

There were collectors in years gone by that allowed me to develop this wonderfully rich description of a site that has changed so much.  Walter Benner collecting sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) on the 8th of July in 1926, in a moist thicket of Cedar Grove.  Samson McDowell, Jr collecting blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) in the moist woods there, on the 19th of May 1926.  These collections are now part of the Academy’s collections, and nearly 90 years later, their work allowed me to see first hand the plants that were there when they wandered through those open areas of Cedar Grove.

There are also maps, such as the 1895 and 1910 Bromley Atlases, from the Athenaeum of Philadelphia (available on PhilaGeoHistory.org), that show just how open the area was, how unbuilt it was a hundred years ago, and where the train line that cut through Cedar Grove went.

Taking these records, and applying some additional knowledge of ecology, we can describe Cedar Grove nearly as thoroughly as if we had walked through it ourselves – and a surprisingly detailed picture of this place in the early 20th century can be cobbled together.  Its open marshy areas and its forests, both of them rich with flowers and birds, the train line running through it, trees dotting the flats.  An evocative illustration can be drawn of a landscape that is no longer there.  And perhaps an evocative illustration can also be drawn of a landscape that is yet to be.

Paulownia tomentosa, the empress tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read about some other trees, see here:

The saucer magnolia

American Chestnut

American elms

“Penn treaty” elms

The Callery pear

The Caucasian zelkova

London planes and American sycamores

The sophora

Fringe tree

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

Chrysosplenium americanum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinal Dougherty groundbreaking 28th of June 1955

Cardinal Dougherty groundbreaking, 28th of June 1955
Photograph from: http://www.cardinaldougherty.org/

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

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

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

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

 

 

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