Wister Woods and Witmer Stone

To read about some Philadelphia natural history and the people who documented it, see here:

http://witmerstone.com/wister-woods/

And, for more about that site… a “Plan Placing Upon City Plan Wister’s Woods, 1907” can be found here:

http://www.philageohistory.org/rdic-images/view-image.cfm/AS-33

And on Saturday the 31st of March 2012, a few of us went to Wister Woods and saw:

Herbaceous plants in the northern part of Wister’s Wood: Uvularia (bellwort), Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot), Equisetum arvense (field horsetail), Podophyllum peltatum (mayapple), Erythronium (trout lily)

Trees: Quercus alba, Quercus rubra, Fagus grandifolia, Liriodendron tulipifera

Some understory shrubs: Lindera benzoin, Toxicodendron radicans, Lonicera sp.Prunus serotina (from the big trees in bloom, too big for P. virginiana?)

Herbaceous ruderals: Veronica hederafolia, Alliaria petiolata.

Maple-leafed viburnum was especially interesting because we saw it in the southern portion, but not in the northern – it may well be there (in the northern half of the woods), but we didn’t see it.

We also saw Auricularia… “wood ear”

A small palmate, pinkish-white flowered plant that was Cardamine concatenata, cutleaf toothwort.

There was at least one jack in the pulpit just coming up.

There was also Halesia (likely cultivated), and we didn’t see any spring beauty – also, the duff layer was quite thick.

The prior June (2011), we also saw sarsaparilla and Collinsonia

And, a plant list from Sunday the 15th of April (2012)

Herbaceous plants:
Jack in the pulpit
Solomon’s seal
False Solomon’s seal
Mayapple
Trout lily
Equisetum arvense (field horsetail)
Cutleaf toothwort (in flower)
Beech drops
Spring beauty (in flower)
Garlic mustard
Greater celandine
Jewelweed
Sarsparilla
Collinsonia
Bloodroot
Japanese knotweed
Wineberry

Shrubs/vines:
Maple leaf viburnum
Pinxter azalea
Spicebush
Halesia (don’t know yet which one)
Poison ivy
Arrowwood
Asian bittersweet
Japanese honeysuckle
English ivy
Aralia (most likely elata)
Yellowroot

Trees:
Red oak
Black oak
White oak
American beech
Tulip poplar
Sassafras
Ash (probably American)
Red maple
Japanese maple (seedling)
Black cherry

Birds:
Tufted titmouse (heard)
Yellow rumped warbler
Redtail hawk
Redbellied woodpecker
White throated sparrows

Here’s the plan for Wister’s Wood from 1907:
http://www.philageohistory.org/rdic-images/view-image.cfm/AS-33

And, a historic list of plants (from the Plants of PA database) that have Wister’s Wood as their locality – they are as follows:
Anemone quinquefolia, Aralia nudicaulis, Arctium tomentosum, Aristolochia serpentaria, Asclepias exaltata, Cardamine parviflora var. arenicola, Carex cephalophora, Carex hirtifolia, Carex radiata, Castilleja coccinea (collected by WW Wister), Corallorhiza maculata, Corallorhiza odontorhiza, Corallorhiza wisteriana, Dichanthelium acuminatum, Eurybia schreberi, Geum virginianum, Liparis liliifolia, Malaxis unifolia, Myosotis verna, Obolaria virginica, Onoclea sensibilis, Phryma leptostachya, Ranunculus hispidus var. hispidus, Ranunculus hispidus var. nitidus, Rhododendron periclymenoides, Rumex altissimus, Symphyotrichum laeve var. laeve, Symphyotrichum phlogifolium.

Some of them we’ve seen there, many we have not (yet?) seen.

And, finally, below a link to an old photo of the site…

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The saucer magnolia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, on to America…

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

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

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

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

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

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

But might it have been in Philadelphia earlier than 1836?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a video on saucer magnolia propagation, see here:

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

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]

Some history of historic plants

One of the goals of Growing History is to propagate plants from historic sites, and to then share those plants among places with historic, cultural or horticultural significance, or just simply with places and people who love plants and history.

The idea of propagating specific plants of historic significance, however, isn’t new.  In the 1917 catalog for Meehan’s Nursery, there is an advertisement for “Historical Elms”, that were “Not seedlings, but scions actually cut from the historical trees …” and the listing in the catalog goes on to say that “This is the only lot of similar plants known to exist in this country.”  (This catalog and others like it are at the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, in Philadelphia)

There were 37 different such elms offered in the 1917 catalog, and they were mostly from England, from sites associated with the upper class such as high end schools (e.g, Oxford, Harrow, Eton) and other kinds of places like that, including Windsor Castle and Westminster Palace.

But historical elms weren’t just for anglophiles – the nursery also had Penn Treaty elms, that is, descendants from the Penn Treaty elm (it was an American elm), under which William Penn engendered his treaty with the Lenape at what is now Penn Treaty Park, by the Delaware River in Philadelphia.  That tree is pictured here (in Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, painted 1791-1792; image from the website of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: http://www.pafa.org/Museum/The-Collection-Greenfield-American-Art-Resource/Tour-the-Collection/Category/Collection-Detail/985/mkey–2609/):

To give a bit more background on the Penn Treaty elm, and a bit of foreground, too, we can turn to Edward Embree Wildman’s book “Penn’s Woods: 1682 – 1932”.  Published in 1933, this book attempted to document all the trees in the area that were alive at the time of William Penn’s arrival in 1682 and were still living at time of the 250th anniversary of that arrival.  [Note: as of 1979, there were only two “Penn trees” remaining in Philadelphia county, according to an article in the Ocala Star-Banner published on the 11th of June 1979 (there were 24 documented in 1932)]  And the Penn Treaty elm was, to Wildman’s view, “Pennsylvania’s Most Historic Tree”, and on pages 128-129 he covers what it was, where it was, and where it went:

“Penn Treaty Elm at Shackamaxon (now Kensington)

Preserved for us on canvas by Benjamin West in his famous painting, “Penn’s Treaty With the Indians,” now hanging in Independence Hall.  When blown down by a storm on March 3, 1810, its circumference was twenty-four feet, its main branch one hundred fifty feet in length and its ring count showed its age to be 283 years.  Dr. Benjamin Rush had an armchair made from its wood.  General Simcoe, during the Revolution, when firewood was scarce, placed a guard of British soldiers around the tree to protect it from the axe.

Scions of the Great Treaty Elm

The only recorded scion of this famous tree was moved about a century ago to the Oliver Estate at Bay Ridge, N. Y.  In 1887 this tree was again moved to the present Oliver estate near Wilkes-Barre, where it stands opposite the Town Chapel at Oliver’s Mills

Scions of the Second Generation
(Grandchildren on the Great Treaty Elm)

1. North of College Hall on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, planted on April 10, 1896, by Governor Hastings.

2. South of Founder’s Hall on the campus at Haverford College.

3. On the grounds of the Pennsylvania Hospital, Eighth and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia

4. Beside Bacon Cottage at Westtown School, four miles east of West Chester.  Planted by Dr. Wills

5. In front of Johnson Library, Camden, N. J. This seedling was carried in her apron by a nurse from Shackamaxon to Elizabeth Cooper, who with her two brothers built and gave Cooper Hospital to the city of Camden.

Scions of the Third Generation
(Great Grandchildren of the Great Treaty Elm)

Developed from cuttings taken from the grandson on the Haverford campus, we may now see on the same campus, about two hundred fifty feet southeast of Roberts Hall, seven great grandsons of the Penn Treaty Tree, presented by an alumnus in 1916.  Thus followed an old English custom of planting seven trees of the same species in a group.”

Katharine Stanley Nicholson also discusses these trees, in her 1922 book Historic American Trees:

“Descendants of the Penn Treaty Elm

General Oliver’s Tree

When the land where the Treaty Elm had stood came into the possession of General Paul A. Oliver’s ancestors, a shoot was discovered springing up from the old tree’s roots.  This was transplanted to Bay Ridge, N.Y., where it flourished until after fifty years it had almost reached the size of the parent tree. Then the General removed it to his home at Wilkes-Barre Penn., where it has continued to thrive.

On Arbor Day, April 10, 1896, a shoot from General Oliver’s tree was planted on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, by Governor Hastings of that State, in honor of William Penn, first Governor of the Commonwealth.  The tiny sapling grew into a healthy tree which has rounded out its first quarter century. It is one of the youngest of the Great Elm’s descendants.

Another scion of the old tree stands on the grounds of the Pennsylvania Hospital Philadelphia and yet another in the yard of the Friends’ Meeting, in Twelfth Street, in the same city, silent witnesses to the memory of the Great Treaty, which Voltaire described as the only agreement “between the Christians and the Indians that was never sworn to and never broke.”

As Robert Piper, President of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association notes, there is solid evidence that the tree at Penn was planted for that organization –

Penn Treaty Elm Scion Plaque_photo by Robert Piper

Image courtesy the Pennsylvania Forestry Association.  Photo by Robb Piper, PFA President 2014-2015

(NB: the 1896 planting mentioned above was mentioned in the March 23, 1896 New York Times; the piece reads: “A Cion of  the Penn Treaty Elm/ From the Philadelphia Times/ Gen. Paul A. Oliver of Laurel Run has shipped an elm tree to Philadelphia, where it will be planted on Arbor Day, April 10, by Gov. Hastings.  The Governor will plant the tree in honor of the first Governor of this Commonwealth, William Penn, on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.  The tree is a branch taken from a tree grown in the log chapel yard at Oliver’s Mills, in which Gen. Oliver takes much pride, as it is fifty-six years old and was grown from a branch of the original Penn treaty elm.”; there is also, according to this: https://www.ursinus.edu/offices/sustainability/sustainability-on-campus/grounds-and-trees/penn-treaty-elm/ an offspring of the Haverford treaty elm, at Ursinus College – “Our tree was planted in 1976-77 from a seedling from Haverford College’s grandchild tree.  The tree on campus, which is located by BPS, near the power plant, the knitting woman statue and Corson Hall, is a fourth generation tree from the original Penn Treaty Tree.”)

 

 

And so, if we follow Wildman’s and Nicholson’s histories, the Treaty elms that were sold in Meehan’s catalog had first made a detour to Bay Ridge, and ultimately ended up for sale back home, here in Philadelphia.

These Penn Treaty elms were $8 each for the 1 inchers and $5 a piece for the half inchers. (The elms from England were 10 each, by the way).

We don’t know what became of these trees, nor how many were sold and to whom they were sold – as of now, all we have is this record of the listings from Meehan’s Nursery catalogs (there’s a similar listing in the 1916 catalog), a record of an early 20th century interest in historic plants, and an attempt to make some commercial value from that.

Meehan’s Nursery itself is now a part of history.  The nursery was in two sites, one in Dresher, PA and one in Germantown (in Philadelphia).  The Germantown nursery had its northwestern boundary at what is now East Vernon Road, and its southwestern on Chew Avenue; and as is mentioned in Meehan’s 1881 nursery catalog (which is accessioned in the collections at the McLean Library), it was of substantial size: “We have forty acre in nurseries in the city of Philadelphia”, they write.  If you walk along East Vernon Rd today, and you walk northeast from Chew and you see rows of Cedrelas, tall trees with enormous panicles of white flowers in June, planted along the sidewalk, you are on the street where the offices of Meehan’s Nursery were, a hundred years ago and more.  (Note that Cedrela was here in the 19th century, as is indicated in John Harshberger’s 1899 The Botanists of Philadelphia and their Work: “Here, too, is a fine specimen of Cedrela Sinensis, nearly thirty feet high.”)

The nursery was founded in 1854 by Thomas Meehan, who is quite a historical figure himself – in addition to developing his enormously successful eponymous nursery, he was also a founding member of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, a Philadelphia City Councilman, an avid developer of city parks throughout Philadelphia, the rediscoverer of the pink dogwood, and a correspondent of Charles Darwin, Asa Gray, and other luminaries of the 19th century.  And prior to his arrival in the US in 1848, he’d led an interesting life as well; as Edwin C. Jellett writes in his 1914 book Germantown Gardens and Gardeners, “Thomas Meehan was a Chartist, therefore a marked man, and finding it impossible to hold a position in England, he decided to emigrate to Pennsylvania”.  Thomas Meehan died in 1901 and the nursery was then run by other members of his family.  It closed in the 1920s, and shortly thereafter a housing development was built where the nursery once stood.

Today, if you walk up E. Phil Ellena Street or E. Hortter Street, from Chew Avenue, under the oaks that were planted when the development was built, you are on the grounds of what was once one of the major nurseries in eastern North America.

The oak trees that are now there can be seen, as youngsters, in this picture:

View looking along Hortter Street in 1927, after the development that replaced Meehan’s Nursery was developed. http://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/Detail.aspx?assetId=9508

And Meehan’s is linked further and deeper into horticultural history.  Prior to his many accomplishments, at the start of his career, Thomas Meehan was a gardener at Bartram’s Garden.  In the late 1840s, soon after he came to the US from England, he worked as a gardener there. This relationship comes around again in the 1890s, after Meehan had made his fortune as a nurseryman and become a politically influential member of the Philadelphia community, when he fronted the movement to keep Bartram’s Garden as a garden, thereby preventing it from becoming built upon by developers.

And so, nothing is new.  Today, we propagate historic plants, and we find that Meehan’s Nursery did that nearly a hundred years ago.  Today, those of us who are interested in gardens and natural history spend time with others who feel the same, and we want to preserve the historic sites that are key to these interests.  And, as we do today, Thomas Meehan linked sites and institutions in the 19th century and worked to preserve them.

And so, nothing is new.

For more about pre-colonial trees (“Penn trees”), see here:

Hemlocks (along the Wissahickon)

American chestnut (and others)