Hunting Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


West Fairmount Park (Michaux Grove, specifically)

Cresheim Creek

The Wissahickon (its hemlocks, specifically)

And for further reading about Hunting Park…



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paper goes on to say:

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

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

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

But back to the trees…

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

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

But back to the park…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Native soil: Arkansas  $1.00/pc”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunting Park

West Fairmount Park (Michaux Grove, specifically)

Cresheim Creek

The Wissahickon (its hemlocks, specifically)

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

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: )

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

The American chestnut

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

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

He goes on to write:

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

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

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

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

American Chestnut, from Francois Andre Michaux’s “North American Sylva”
Image via New York Public Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read about some other trees, see here:

The saucer magnolia

London planes and American sycamores

American elms

“Penn treaty” elms

The Callery pear

The Caucasian zelkova

Paulownia tomentosa, the empress tree

The sophora

Fringe tree


A different zelkova

Throughout Philadelphia, you’ll see the Japanese zelkova planted as a street tree, or planted in yards and parks, all over the place.  If you go over by Norris Square in North Philadelphia, just south of the Square, along Howard Street, there’s a row of enormous zelkovas.  Or if you’re in Chestnut Hill, at the triangle of green bounded by Ardleigh, Winston, and East Willow Grove, you’ll also see some large zelkovas.  And just in general, if you go around the city, looking at trees, you’ll see plenty of Japanese zelkovas – they have dark grayish bark, somewhat rough, with an orangey tone underneath, that you can see as the bark above it peels away.  Their leaves are toothed, and come to a bit of a point at the end – they’re shaped somewhat like the leaf on the Breyer’s ice cream logo.  Their branches spread out somewhat, and their canopy makes a nice rounded shape.  They’re tough trees that can live well in the city, and they also grow in an attractive habit – they look nice and they grow well, and so, they’re planted all over the place.  The Japanese zelkova (Zelkova serrata) is an ubiquitous street tree in Philadelphia.

But there is another zelkova in Philadelphia, the Caucasian zelkova (Zelkova carpinifolia) that is rarely, if ever seen.  In fact, the only one that I’m aware of in Philadelphia, and perhaps the only one in the state, and quite likely the only one in the Delaware Valley, is at the Woodlands Cemetery in west Philadelphia, and it looks like this:

Zelkova carpinifolia, Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
Photo courtesy Jessica Baumert

It truly is magnificent – with its upwards reaching branches (that is, its fastigiate growth habit), it looks like a wild upended broom in the wintertime.  Lush foliage in the spring fills its canopy with green that lasts through to the autumn, and in the winter, when it loses its leaves, the fastigiate habit makes for a wonderful structural element in the landscape.  And its gray silvery bark, without the orangey-red underbark of the Japanese zelkova, gives it a subtly rich texture throughout the year.  The branches also fuse with each other, making for an appearance like a strangler fig in the tropics, with the branching and anastomosing strands tangling into wonderful knots.

This fusion is an interesting characteristic, and not wholly uncommon in plants.  Plants are different from animals, in that they have far fewer moving parts than we do.  For animals, cells move with respect to each other – they move around the body, they shift as organs develop, they die, they grow, they can even travel quite far from where they were initiated, for example in the case of blood cells.  An animal cell did not necessarily grow up next to its nearest neighbor, they are moving around so much, and so they need to have a pretty sophisticated system of cell-cell recognition, to make sure that the cell nestled up against them isn’t a parasite, like a bacterium or fungus, as some of their neighbors may be.  And so, we (animals, that is) have immune systems that are pretty good at differentiating self from non-self.  This is good for reducing parasite load, however, it isn’t so good if you want to make a graft – hence the need for immune suppressing drugs when organ transplant surgery is completed.

Plants, however, grow by stacking one cell atop another as they divide and grow, and these cells are cemented together the one against the other as they do this – they grew up next to their neighbors and they’ll live next to them for the entirety of their lives, and after they die, they’ll be stuck there still.  And so, there has been less evolutionary pressure in plants for a tight recognition of self versus non-self – proximity does that job for them.  This isn’t to say that plants don’t have immune systems – they do.  But they are not as tightly controlled as ours, and this means that individual plants can fuse with each other much more readily than animals can.  And this is something that we (humans, that is) take great opportunity with, everytime someone grafts a tree, or a rose.  There is a downside to this, however, too, because it also means that diseases can flow from one plant to another, if a parasitized individual has fused with a non-parasitized one – this is what happened with the elms of North America, as Dutch elm disease arrived.  The trees’ roots had fused under ground, as they grew the one against the other along streets and avenues of the towns of America, and if one tree got sick, then rapidly all the trees in a row got sick, as the causative agent of this disease, a parasitic fungus, traveled along those fused roots.

And so, as with many things, there is a plus and a minus, advantages and disadvantages, to our respective immune systems, and how they spring from our differing developmental protocols, and how they then in turn affect that development as we grow.

And due to that development that allows for that fusion, the rummaging branches of the Caucasian zelkova have a fairyland apperance – like a mazed tangle of upright hair, knotting together, and then unknotting again, reaching Rapunzel like, but towards the sky.

When I first saw this tree at the Woodlands, the one that is pictured above, I’d thought it was very old, this enormous trunk.  It is very very large, and I’d been told that the Caucasian zelkova, this species, was at the Woodlands in William Hamilton’s time.  (William Hamilton was the Philadelphia gentleman and plant enthusiast who owned and cultivated the Woodlands up until the earliest part of the 19th century – he died in 1813, and there is a rich heritage of horticulture and natural history at the Woodlands that continues to this day)  And so from the first time I saw it I assumed that this trunk was somewhere around 200 years old.

This seemed to be supported by other evidence.  In an article I read, that I was pointed to by Joel Fry, Curator at Bartram’s Garden, this tree is discussed.  In 1876, in The Gardener’s Monthly, Eli K. Price, who was the commissioner of Fairmount Park, writes about this zelkova, and mentions it as having been here in Hamilton’s time.  And he and others had been thoroughly impressed with this arborescent spectacle – Price writes, in that same article, about a visit by Charles Sprague Sargent (a Harvard botanist) to Philadelphia, for the celebration of America’s centennial, at which time Sargent visited the Woodlands and marveled at this tree.  Price writes:

“These trees will be cared for and preserved in the Woodlands. What is more important is, that they should be secured to our country by propagation. If seed should appear next Fall, they will be gathered. In the meantime grafting should be attempted. Mr. Sargent is trying it at Cambridge, on English elms. I invite gardeners to get cuttings and try their success.”

Price does not mention if Sargent was successful with those grafts, nor if the legion of invited gardeners were successful with their cuttings, to propagate this tree, or even if they tried at all.

And so, as I looked at this wonderful tree and wondered why something so spectacular wasn’t growing in yards and parks throughout Philadelphia, like its cousin Zelkova serrata does, I thought I understood – this was, I believed, a very slow growing tree, and perhaps difficult to propagate, and it would take a very long time for it to get to this magnificent shape and structure, and so there were pretty good reasons for it not to have been commonly planted, and this, I thought, was why we don’t see it very often around here.

But I was wrong.  Yes, the Caucasian zelkova was at the Woodlands at Hamilton’s time.  This tree, this kind of zelkova, was brought into Europe from the Middle East in the 1780s by Andre Michaux, who had gone to Persia (what we would now call Iran) and collected it and brought it back to France.  At about this same time, William Hamilton, owner of the Woodlands at that time, was in England, visiting from Philadelphia, collecting plants and sending them back home – those plants would not have included the Caucasian zelkova, since it would have only freshly been introduced into Europe.  We’re not sure exactly how it got to the US, and to Hamilton’s estate.  But it may well have been via Michaux – he certainly was at the Woodlands, and he ran nurseries up in Hackensack (in New Jersey) and down in Charleston (in South Carolina) through which he might have imported this tree, and so while we can’t say for sure, we can make a rough approximation that Andre Michaux may well have been the fellow to have brought this tree to us, when it arrived here in the earliest part of the 19th century, or the latest part of the 18th.

But this large trunk now at the Woodlands, the one pictured above, was not from that and then, at least not directly.  As was pointed out to me by Joel Fry, John Harshberger wrote an article on the Woodlands in 1921, in The Garden Magazine, where he mentions these zelkovas:

“Outside of the remarkable Ginkgos, the rarest and largest trees of “The Woodlands,” are four remaining specimens of Zelkova crenata [note: this is an older name for this tree], native of the Caucasus regions. This species was originally planted in two rows forming an avenue of approach to the house. The single remaining tree of the west row near the stable was alive on June 24th, 1916, but is now dead. It measures 14 ft. 8 in. in circumference. In the eastern row, all of the three trees are now dead. These trees measure respectively 12 ft. 6 in.; 12 ft.; and 11 ft. in circumference. They are about 50 tall. Two young sprout trees have appeared between the second and third, which are already 10 ft. tall and promise to become lusty specimens.”

Though we know when that last one died back, it’s not clear when the others died, though we do know that the four mentioned above were here in 1905, as they are mentioned in Benjamin H. Smith’s 1905 “Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary” (The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 29, No. 1 (1905), pp. 70-78):

“Only one specimen of the Ginkgo, now the oldest tree of that species in America, still remains in the vicinity of the old mansion ; near by are four large trees of Zelkova crenata, from the Caucasus, now in their old age, and these, with a few ancient English hawthorns, alone remain to attest the ancient glory of the gardens and grounds at The Woodlands.”

There is a photo of one of those original trees, currently in the Samuel N. Baxter collection at Bartram’s Garden (it was shown to me by Joel Fry), with a photograph from the 16th of April, 1920, of Mr. Baxter (he was the chief arborist of the Fairmount Park system at the time) gazing up at at a large trunked (13′ 4″ in diameter!) fastigiate tree – an original Woodlands Zelkova carpinifolia, “just before tree died”, as a label on the back of the photo tells us.  This provides further supporting evidence that those original Caucasian zelkovas are no longer there.

And so, by 90 years ago, the originals were gone.  This one we see now is a root sucker off them, one of the ones mentioned in Harshberger’s article from 1921, and it’s not more then 90 years old.  And it’s enormous, and so it’s not so slow a grower.  And so that is not why it is not planted commonly around here.

But perhaps it can’t be propagated well, and maybe that’s why we don’t see it.  Well, if we visit the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and look in catalogs from Meehan’s Nursery, a large one in Germantown, here in Philadelphia, we see that they had this tree for sale in the late 19th and early 20th century.  While it’s not in their 1858 catalog, it is in the 1880 catalog, under the name of Zelkova crenata – under a listing for plants that were “1 to 2 ft”, they went for 50 cents a piece, which wasn’t cheap at that time.  They didn’t sell them in bulk either, only by the piece, which suggests that they didn’t have a lot of them, or at least didn’t think they’d sell a lot of them.  The latter theory is borne out in the 1893 and 1895 Meehan’s catalogs, in which Zelkova crenata is noted as being “Rare in cultivation”, and in the 1896-1897 catalog, in which it’s either upgraded or downgraded, I don’t know which, to being “…not common in cultivation”.  Starting in the 1897-1898 catalog, it starts being sold under a different name, Planera richardii, and it was sold under that name for a few more years.  However, by the 1911 trade catalog, it isn’t there, and in the 1911 retail catalog, Planera is only listed in the back, and it is not described, nor are individual species listed – they are only listed in a footnote as being “in stock”.  The plant is not in the later catalogs – not in the 1916, nor 1917, nor 1923-1924.  Its few decades of being sold by Meehan’s Nursery had passed.  But it had been sold.

This tells us that it can be propagated, and the tree at the Woodlands shows us how well it can grow, how strong it can grow in a city, and just how beautiful it can be.  It’s a marvelous tree that can be propagated well enough to have been in the horticultural trade for a few decades, and it’s a tree that can grow quickly and live for a pretty long time, somewhere around a century, or a bit more, in a cemetery in the midst of one of the largest cities of North America (Philadelphia, that is).

So why isn’t it planted more often?  Why do we see it so rarely?  The only other one that I’m aware of anywhere near to here is one near the Capitol building, on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  Why aren’t there more of them planted in the cities and suburbs of the mid-Atlantic states?

I don’t know.  Its relative, the Japanese zelkova, is an extraordinarily common street tree in Philadelphia, but the Caucasian zelkova is not.   But this is a tree that could be planted, could be propagated for sale and distribution, could be grown in parks and yards throughout Philadelphia – it’s a tree that we don’t see much of, but we could see more of.  We just have to propagate it, plant it, and let it grow.

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

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

Some Plants and Insects of the Woodlands

The trees of Monument Cemetery

Oakland Cemetery

Wissinoming, including Mt. Carmel cemetery

Cedar Grove

Hunting Park

Feral landscaping (Woodlands and Mt. Moriah cemeteries)

And to read about some other trees, see here:

American elms

“Penn treaty” elms

The saucer magnolia

American Chestnut

The Callery pear

Paulownia tomentosa, the empress tree

London planes and American sycamores

The sophora

Fringe tree

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]

The yard of the Wagner Free Institute

The Wagner Free Institute is in the midst of Philadelphia, surrounded by houses and stores and shops, surrounded by sidewalks and asphalt streets, surrounded by walls and roofs and other constructed pieces and parts – interspersed with vacant lots and parks, yes, where plants and non-human animals do grow and roam quite freely, but overall the ecology nearby is people .  Temple University is just over to the east, the Broad Street line is about a 5 minute walk away, and people are just about everywhere, walking and talking all around.  This isn’t, perhaps, where you’d expect to find a historic landscape, and most wouldn’t look for one here.  But it’s here.

In the yard of the Wagner are some very large trees – London planes (Platanus x acerifolia, we’ll call them) and silver maples (Acer saccharinum) are the largest that are there.  They ring the yard and just from their size you can see they’ve been there for a pretty long time.  But just how long have they been there and where did they come from?

The first question, as to how old they are, is reasonably straightforward to answer.  To find out how old a tree is, you either cut it down and count its rings, or you take out a sliver of it and count the rings you’ve sampled by doing that.  The latter leaves the tree standing, so we did that for some of the trees in the Wagner yard.  And we were able to do this because plants keep their history a bit more readily than humans do.

Plants are not like people.  As we (people, that is) grow, we continually regenerate and renew our cells.  There’s turnover of bone cells and sloughing of skin, so that even though there are some parts that remain, we are a perpetual agglomeration of old and new.  Plants, however, grow by accretion – new cells are laid down on top of the old, and the old ones aren’t done away with to make way for the new.  They just get covered over and stacked upon.  And this happens in all directions – plants can grow up, down and out.  Herbaceous plants (plants that aren’t woody, that is) primarily grow up and down – they extend their axes towards the sky and via roots through the ground.  Trees and shrubs (woody plants), however, while they do grow up and down, just as herbaceous plants do, they also expand outwards, adding layers outward in ever widening concentric circles, every year adding a new ring, on top of the old, covered with the new.

And so, we can count those rings – and if we have a corer, we can do that with little harm to the tree.  A corer is a machine, a simple machine, in the sense that it simply changes the direction and magnitude of the force applied to it (the definition of a simple machine that you may or not remember from high school physics).  It has a screw tip end, a bit, that is attached to a long hollow stem.  At the far end of that long metal piece (these can be of varying lengths, by the way – we used an 18″ corer at the Wagner), is another metal piece, at a 90° angle to the stem.  This provides a grip and more importantly provides the leverage that allows one to turn the stem – to provide torque, if you will.  You turn the corer, it drives the bit into the tree, and because the stem and bit are hollow, this cuts out a long narrow piece through the tree, a core that you can then pull out of the corer, mount on another piece of wood for stability, sand down, and then count the rings that were laid down year after year by the tree.

Ned Barnard, tree corer non pareil, and I and a crew from the Wagner did some coring at the Wagner in October of 2011.  (I should say that I use the words “I” and “work” together somewhat metaphorically – Ned and the others did the vast majority of the work, as is generally the case).  We cored a silver maple and one of the London planes (since the other London planes were roughly the same size we only cored one of them) – then Ned labored over them, mounting them and sanding them, and then counted their age lines.

It turns out that both of those trees were in the range of 110 or 115 years old, and so this gave us a target date to use to search the Wagner’s records, to try to find out where these trees had come from.  And so I got to take a look at the Wagner’s old meeting reports, access to which was kindly granted by the Wagner, via Lynn Dorwaldt, librarian and archivist of the Wagner.

Since we’d dated (by coring) the silver maple and London plane in the yard to about 110 to 115 years old (with a lower bound of 110 years), I looked at the 1890s-1901 records. And it seems that the trees we cored most likely came from Meehan’s nursery, in Germantown, Philadelphia.

In the meeting report (of the Wagner) of the 3d January 1900 , there’s mention “that the actuary prepare a scheme for planting young trees”, this is followed by the report of the 7th of February 1900, which says “That the actuary be authorized to consult with Mr. Thomas Meehan as to a scheme for the treatment of the grounds around the Institute”.  This scheme was approved at the meeting of the 7th of March, 1900, and was “revised by Mr. Gridland” (as per the 7 May 1900 report).  Things moved quickly, at the turn of the last century.

In the Wagner archives, Ms. Dorwaldt found a letter from Thomas Meehan (dated 22 February 1900) where he mentions that he’s been ill and doesn’t do much day to day work with the business (the nursery, that is) anymore, but that his son’s handle that work – he also mentions that he’d help out with the landscape plan.  Meehan died in the autumn of 1901, so the Wagner yard may well be the last landscape that he worked on.

There’s a receipt from Meehan’s (dated 7 July 1900) for 12 trees – these most likely include those trees that are currently in the yard (the ones we cored, plus the other London planes).   Don Azuma, of the Wagner, and I took a look in the yard, and it looks like, from the arrangement of the trees, that there might have been 12 in the original planting (though this still requires further confirmation, I should say).  It looks like the planting would have been in three lines, to the east, west and south of the building (respectively) – there’s a depression in the soil at the southwest corner that is probably where one of the trees was, and that marks where the west and south lines of trees probably met.  There’s another depression west-adjacent to the SE tree, and that gives a good idea of what the original spacing of the planting would have been, if all the above suppositions are correct.

An additional note of interest on the Wagner yard – in 1895, the Wagner wanted to re-do their landscape and asked Frank Day to do the design.  Frank Day was an enormously successful architect of the late 19th and early 20th century, and he was also a founding member of the Philadelphia Botanical Club.

He (Day, that is) agreed to do the Wagner yard in 1895 – but I don’t see evidence that he produced it.  He was a pretty busy guy (for example, there’s a letter from him, written in the 1920s, in the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences [access to which was generously provided by Clare Fleming, archivist of the Academy], where Day says he can’t serve on a committee because he’s too busy with his architectural work).  Clearly the Wagner had had grand plans for the yard’s plantings and design (and they also wanted a greenhouse), but those plans don’t appear to have been implemented, and there isn’t evidence that Day had further involvement in the Wagner’s landscape.

Ultimately, though, even though these majestic plans for the yard were not realized, as we know the yard was redone, with trees from Meehan’s – and this provides a useful piece of horticultural history, too.

London planes and American sycamores and Oriental planes can be difficult to differentiate from one another – this is the case now, and it was the case a hundred years ago.  And so, if we look at an old nursery catalog, for example from Meehan’s Nursery, how can we know if a tree listed as an American sycamore, or an Oriental plane, or a London plane actually is what they say they are?

Well, we can look at a tree that came from Meehan’s, one that is still growing, for example in the yard of the Wagner Free Institute, and we can identify it – if we see that it is a London plane, then that is pretty good evidence that this nursery was selling London planes when that tree was planted.  And since we know when that tree was planted, which we know from having cored it, we can say quite confidently that Meehan’s was selling London planes at that time.  And so, from the trees in the Wagner yard, we are supplied excellent evidence that trees that Meehan’s was selling at the turn of the last century were, truly, London planes.

However, Meehan’s was not listing London planes in their catalogs at that time.  A visit to the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (guided by librarian Janet Evans), and a look at their collection of Meehan’s Nursery catalogs, shows that in 1899 only Platanus orientalis (Oriental plane) is listed therein.  In their spring 1900 catalog, “Sycamore, Oriental plane” is listed, including the note “This is the European variety of our Button-ball”, and it is the only Platanus species listed.  In the fall 1900/spring 1901 catalog, both occidentalis (American sycamore, that is) and orientalis are listed – London plane, however, is not.  In that catalog, of occidentalis, Meehan’s says “This, our native plane, can hardly be distinguished from the Oriental plane when young”, implying that perhaps these two plants as listed might have been sold somewhat interchangeably at the time.  In the 1905 catalog, Meehan’s still only had orientalis and occidentalis, and the London plane was not to be seen listed in the catalog.  Even as late as 1917, Meehan’s still did not have the London plane listed (though that catalog does include Platanus orientalis)

And so, from evidence gathered in the yard of the Wagner and from these old nursery catalogs housed at PHS, it is clear that while London planes were being sold by Meehan’s, they were misidentified (or perhaps, rather, just “differently identified”), most likely as Oriental planes.

History is everywhere, and so are plants.  The two are intertwined, and even in the middle of the city they tangle together, and the one can tell us about the other, the trees can tell us what was there before, and what was there before tells us about the trees that are there today – and even though they may be layered over and it may take some digging and coring, they all have something to say, and they all can say it, if you just look.