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.

That tree came down  the storm on the 2nd of March, 2018: https://twitter.com/RKPHL/status/969957405940502529

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wissinoming

West Fairmount Park (Michaux Grove, specifically)

Cresheim Creek

The Wissahickon (its hemlocks, specifically)

And for further reading about Hunting Park…

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

http://teachers.yale.edu/curriculum/viewer/initiative_15.03.03_u

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Some history of historic plants

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

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

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

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

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

“Penn Treaty Elm at Shackamaxon (now Kensington)

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

Scions of the Great Treaty Elm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Descendants of the Penn Treaty Elm

General Oliver’s Tree

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

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

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

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

Penn Treaty Elm Scion Plaque_photo by Robert Piper

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, nothing is new.

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

Hemlocks (along the Wissahickon)

American chestnut (and others)

Michaux Grove

In West Fairmount Park there is a grove of oaks, standing tall and discreetly in and around a low wet area that a creek runs through, just south of Montgomery Drive and just east of Belmont Avenue.

This grove, now overgrown with wineberry and multiflora rose and Japanese honeysuckle and ivies both poison and English, is a living and somewhat secret monument to not one but two of the premier botanists and explorers of the earlier and earliest days of the US.

André Michaux came to the US in 1785, to search for plants of the new world that would or could be of use to his native France.  He traveled broadly across the east of North America with his son, Francois André, collecting plants and sending many back to Europe for cultivation, and writing two seminal books on North American natural history, Histoire des chênes de l’Amerique septentrionale (“Oaks of North America”) which included illustrations by the renowned artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté, and Flora boreali-americana (“Flora of North America”).

Michaux the elder died in 1802, but the younger Michaux (Francois André, that is) continued in his father’s line of work, exploring widely and cultivating plants in the US and France, and in the 1810s publishing the 3-volume North America Sylva, a work which would go on to be a primary reference for foresters throughout the 19th century, and that to this day contains valuable ecological and sylvicultural information on the trees of North America.

However, like his father (and like everyone else will or has, for that matter), Francois André Michaux ultimately expired.  This was in 1855, and in his will he left funds to the American Philosophical Society, and they in turn decided that the best way to remember him would be to use those funds to plant a grove of oaks in his honor, and in that of his father’s.  Because of the special interest the Michaux’s held for oaks, it was decided that this would be a grove of oaks and planting was done in 1870 (“Many oak trees, of 16 different species”, according to the 1878 Annual Report of the Commissioners of Fairmount Park, in the section “Improvements made in 1870”), to grow up alongside the spectacle of creation that was the development of the 1876 International Exhibition grounds for the Centennial of the United States.  These young trees shared a landscape with Horticultural Hall, and with the buildings and pavilions constructed for the individual states of the US and for other nations, and with the thousands upon thousands, the millions of visitors that were drawn to the Centennial.  (Note that it does appear that the Grove was still being planted as late as 1899, as is indicated in the “Short Sketch of Philadelphia Trees”, from John Harshberger’s 1899 The Botanists of Philadelphia and their Work: “A grove called the Michaux Grove has been begun in West Park, near Horticultural Hall.”)

There was, additionally, a nursery of oaks included in this deal.  In vol. 12 no. 86 of the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (Dec. 15, 1871), it was noted :

“On motion of Mr. Price, the following resolution was adopted:

Resolved, That the Treasurer be authorized to pay to the Treasurer of the Fairmount Park Commissioners, three hundred dollars ($300) of the interest or rent lately on the Michaux Legacy, to be applied towards the Michaux Grove and Michaux Nursery of Oaks in the Park, agreeably to the resolution of March 18th 1870 (see page 312, Vol. XI., Proceedings A. P. S.)”

By 1937, however, if not well before, the grove had become overgrown and “lost”, until Rodney True, a botanist at Penn, rediscovered it – in April of that year he led an expedition that included such botanical luminaries as R. D. Forbes, the Director of the Allegheny National Forest Experiment Station and the landscape gardener of the entirety of Fairmount Park, Samuel N. Baxter (Sammy, to his friends and colleagues).  They rediscovered the grove, and determined the ages of some of the trees to ascertain that yes, these were the trees of the Michaux Grove.  The newspapers (well, one newspaper at least, the Philadelphia Ledger) covered this event, and the grove was rediscovered and celebrated with the headline: “Lost Oaks Found in Fairmount Park”.

By 2011, however, the Michaux Grove had become yet again forgotten, until a group interested in plants and history rediscovered it yet again.  The first step in this rediscovery was simply reading about the Michaux Grove in a paper Eli K. Price wrote in 1876 for the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society.  In it, he detailed the planting of the grove, and the history that led up to that.

The next step was to use a document written and researched by Jack McCormick, an ecologist who was investigating the environmental implications of using West Fairmount Park, site of the Centennial in 1876, as the site for the Bicentennial in 1976.  One thing that McCormick did for his research was to map out the trees (all of them) in West Fairmount Park – using those maps, we were able to find a section of the park with a high density of oaks and with some species of oaks that we didn’t see elsewhere in McCormick’s maps.

Upon visiting that site and struggling through the brush that has grown up and around it, we saw the enormous sizes of some of the trees, and it became quite clear that this was the Michaux Grove we had read of.  And also that this was not only a historical find, but a botanical and horticultural one as well.  One of the more notable trees in the Grove is a water oak (Quercus nigra) that is well over 3 feet in diameter.  This is remarkable for a tree that not only is rarely, if ever, found in the area, but as far as we are aware, never approaches that kind of size this far north [a note: in Thomas C. Porter’s 1903 Flora of Pennsylvania, he notes of Q. nigra: “Locally introduced in the southeastern part of the State”; additionally, there are some planted in the Michaux Quercetum at Longwood].  This southern oak also can hold its leaves even well into Philadelphia’s winter time – a visit in February 2012 found hundreds of green leaves on the lower branches.  There are other species of oak in the Grove, as well, including: English oak (Q. robur), swamp white oak (Q. bicolor), bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), and, of course, Quercus michauxii (swamp chestnut oak – also, there are saplings of this species underneath a large planted one).  There is also a putative Bartram oak there, but this awaits confirmation (there are two confirmed Bartram oaks in Philadelphia: one at Bartram’s Garden, appropriately enough, and the other at the golf course at FDR Park in south Philadelphia, interestingly enough.  This has never been a common tree in Philadelphia, or elsewhere, as Francois Andre Michaux notes in his 1818 North American Sylva (English translation by Hillhouse, 1865) “Several English and American naturalists who, like my father and myself, have spent years in exploring the United States, and who have obligingly communicated to us the result of their observations, have, like us, found no traces of this species except a single stock in a field belonging to Mr. Bartram, on the banks of the Schuylkill, four miles from Philadelphia.”, and then we read of this tree in Barton (1818): “The only individual of this species known ; supposed to be a hybrid.  On the banks of the Delaware, at Kingsess.”; and then, as was noted in Thomas Nuttall’s 1853 vol. IV of the North American Sylva: “This curious tree which in 1837 had attained the height of 50 feet and a circumference of 3 feet 9 inches was inadvertently cut down …”).

As is clear from the above examples, while the historic interest of the Grove stands out immediately, it is also a site to see what these oaks look like, and just how well and how long they can survive in Philadelphia (and with very little maintenance over the years).

This might provide some inspiration for others to plant these trees in their yards or parks, perhaps as a direct monument to two of the most highly esteemed botanists in United States history, but even moreso, and perhaps more in keeping with the memory of the Michauxs, simply as beautiful trees.

For more about oaks in Philadelphia, see here:

https://growinghistory.wordpress.com/2016/04/01/the-querceta-of-philadelphia/

For maps of West Park, see here:

https://davisshaver.com/2018/04/23/fairmount-park-trolley-trail-history-and-maps/