Hemlocks along the Wissahickon

If you walk along the Wissahickon, you’ll see plenty of hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) – these are evergreens, with flattened needle-like leaves that have a whitish striping on their undersides and cones that are about an inch high, and so are reasonably easy to differentiate from the other common conifer you’ll see up around there, the white pine.

Hemlocks along the Wissahickon can be a pretty good size, with trunks over a foot across and tops reaching dozens of feet towards the sky.  But there used to be much larger hemlocks here.

In 1933, a book was published called “Penn’s Woods: 1682 – 1932″.  It was written by Edward Embree Wildman, with the goal of documenting 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 – in 1932, that is.

And Wildman noted some very large hemlocks, growing along the Wissahickon  –

“Before leaving the city we have four more Penn trees to record.  One of these is the largest hemlock we have on record.  These trees grow in our beautiful Wissahickon Valley, along the lower bridle path.  A beech nine feet, four inches in girth stands on the Jenkins Estate, Far Country.  A half mile below is the great hemlock, twelve feet, five inches in girth.  It is about 100 yard south of the Walnut Lane Bridge near the stream.  Two other hemlocks nearby measure more than nine feet at breast height.”

Wildman (1933), p. 57

I had never seen 4′ wide (note that Wildman measured the circumference, not the diameter) hemlocks in the Wissahickon before, but you never know, and so on the morning of the 4th of May (2013) I went up to the Walnut Lane bridge, paced off 100 yards on the western side of the creek, and didn’t see any hemlocks there; but the far side of the creek was so lushly green that I couldn’t really see into it that well, and so I wanted to go back and do the same thing on the eastern side – and I did that the following evening.

And, as I was walking there, with evening falling and along the interceptor sewer that’s right nearby the upper trail on the west side of the creek, as I got close to the Walnut Lane Bridge, I looked up at it (the bridge, that is), and it seemed about a hundred yards away, and I looked down to my left and saw a little grove in the crepuscular haze, and I wondered if that was where these enormous trees had been…

Well, in the interest of accuracy and/or precision, I went up to the bridge and paced off a hundred yards back downstream (from whence I came, that is), and I saw that I’d gotten it right and that the little grove down by the stream was about a hundred yards south of the bridge, and so that was quite likely where Wildman had seen that enormous hemlock … but I didn’t see any hemlocks down there, and most of the trees that I saw there looked to be less than 80 years old, based on their size, except for one large tulip poplar, which looked to be about a meter across, and so is probably ~100 years old, and therefore would’ve been there, as a youngster, when that tall hemlock was there, and it would’ve possibly grown right alongside it, occasionally in its shadow even, perhaps (though not much, of course, given that tulip poplars like light).

In 1996, there was a paper published in Bartonia, the Journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, written By Dr. John M. Fogg, Jr., that documented the flora of the Wissahickon Valley. It had the appropriate title, “Annotated checklist of the plants of the Wissahickon Valley” and in it he does, of course, mention hemlocks, calling them “One of the commonest and most handsomest trees of the valley.”  And he goes on to say: “Often forming pure stands, especially on the west or north facing slopes, as at: Walnut Lane, Valley Green, south of Rex Avenue, above Covered Bridge.”   (Fogg, 1996; Bartonia vol. 59)

Dr. Fogg did not mention the enormous hemlocks from Wildman’s book, however, he (Fogg, that is), didn’t mention much in the way of specific individual plants for other entries in this checklist, and so this doesn’t mean he didn’t see these ancient, enormous trees – and, he was botanizing the Wissahickon in the 1930s, and so I’m quite certain he would have seen them, in addition to the numerous other ones he would have frequently encountered in his visits to the Wissahickon.

Hemlocks have been common in the Wissahickon deep into Philadelphia’s history.  In William P.C. Barton’s 1818 flora of Philadelphia (“Compendium Florae Philadelphicae”; v. 2; p. 182), he calls this plant “Pinus canadensis” with a common name of “Hemlock Spruce”, and describes it as “A very large and fine tree.  The boards and scantling made from its trunk are called hemlock timber.  On the Wissahickon ; abundant.  On the Schuylkill, often met with.”  Additionally, in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s 1905 Handbook of the Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity, the hemlock is listed as being in “Philadelphia – Wissahickon.”

And there are collections of hemlocks in the herbarium of the Academy of Natural Sciences (PH) that also attest to its long presence in the Wissahickon.  On the label of one of these collections, collected by Henry A. Lang on the 9th of April 1924, the label indicates: “Wissahickon Ravine, common”‘, thereby indicating that much like today, there was quite a bit of hemlock there in the early 20th century.  There are other collections of hemlocks at PH – from J. Bernard Brinton, M.D. (a founding member of the Philadelphia Botanical Club), collected on the 23d of June 1889 (this label simply indicates “Wissahickon”, with no further details given); and from Edgar T. Wherry (who was a botany professor at the University of Pennsylvania, among many other things), collected the 2d of August 1945, when he clipped a branch from a “Small tree on steep rocky hillside, Wissahickon Creek ravine near Thomas Mill Road”.

Additionally, in the 1901 catalog for the Andorra Nursery, which was located where the Wissahickon crosses from Montgomery County into Philadelphia, the hemlock is described as “One of our finest native Evergreens, especially beautiful along the Wissahickon Creek.” (this catalog is in the collections at the McLean Library at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society; the Andorra Nursery was founded in 1886 and closed in 1961)

And even as far back as 1818, the hemlock was a landmark of the Wissahickon, as we see from this quote, from Thomas Nuttall’s Genera of North American Plants, on the habitat of Viola rotundifolia: “On the shady and rocky banks of Wishahikon creek, about 8 miles from Philadelphia, where it was also found by Mr. Rafinesque; always under the shade of Abies canadensis…” [Abies canadensis is an old name for Tsuga canadensis]

And William P. C. Barton, in his 1818 Compendium Florae Philadelphicae, notes of Viola rotundifolia: “This very rare species grows on the dark, shady, hilly borders of the Wissahickon creek, north side, not far from Germantown. It is found generally at the roots, and under the deep shade of Abies Canadensis [=Tsuga canadensis], so abundant on that secluded and romantic part of the creek.”

Hemlocks are one of the characteristic trees of the Wissahickon, and have been for quite some time – however, the populations we see now have a different aspect compared to the ones that would have been here in centuries past.  While the smaller size classes that were here in former times we most certainly still see today, the larger ones, the oldest hemlocks in the wetter areas, the ones that would have reached the sizes of the nephilim that were here in Wildman’s time in the 1930s, are no longer here.

To read about some other Wissahickon valley conifers, see here:


and here:



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:


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

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]