The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States

The eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is ubiquitous in Philadelphia today, and in many other cities as well.  However, this was not always the case.

To read more about these little mammals, and how, when and why they came to be so citified, see here:

The entire paper mentioned in the linked-to article above is here:

And for a bit more on squirrels in Philadelphia, see within this page:

and this one:

The white pines of Hermit Lane

If you take a turn onto East Hermit Lane, just off of Henry Avenue after Henry Ave has crossed over going west from East Falls, and go down towards the site of the Kelpius cave, you’ll see on your left, on the east side of East Hermit Lane, a large stand of white pines.  Some of them are quite large, over two feet across, and with a canopy dozens of feet above the ground, they tower above the house that’s there.  Underneath them there is a ground layer with pokeweed, and jumpseed, and enchanter’s nightshade, and many other herbaceous plants, and there are also beeches and birches coming up in the understory.  But the white pines dominate, in terms of the aspect of the stand, and in terms of sheer numbers and size.

This stand is strikingly similar to one along Cresheim Creek, and based on their size, they (the ones along Hermit Lane, that is) were quite likely planted at a similar time as were the ones along Cresheim, and as is clear from the picture below, the Hermit Lane pines were there in 1931 which provides further evidence as to their age, and solidly provides an upper bound (of 1931) to their date of planting.

From the Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections:

From the Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections:
Aero Service Corporation, photographer; 1931  [The white pines are on the left side of the photograph, roughly midway between top and bottom of the picture, directly to the left of the Henry Avenue Bridge, which was being built at that time]

These trees along East Hermit Lane, however, while some of them are on a slope, most of them are not, and the plantings on the level grade are much denser in the above picture than the ones on the percent grade (this difference is also noticeable when you walk among them today), and so, different from the white pines of Cresheim Creek, the Hermit Lane pines probably weren’t planted for erosion control, but perhaps more broadly as part of reforestation efforts of a century ago, to bring back the sylva to Pennsylvania.

As was noted by John M. Fogg, Jr in his “Annotated checklist of plants of the Wissahickon Valley”, published in Bartonia (vol. 59) in 1996: “Although white pines may originally have occurred in the valley, the trees growing here today are the result of recent plantings.  A fine grove exists along Hermit Lane near Hermit Street.”

If we look at a map from 1895, we see that this locale (where the white pines are) was privately owned at that time, and though, as we see from a map of 1910, the neighboring lots were part of Fairmount Park by the earliest parts of the 20th century, this particular site (again, where the white pines are) was not.  If we assume that these trees were part of park plantings, and not plantings of private property, then this gives a lower bound of 1910 for the year of planting for these trees (given that the property was not part of the park in 1910, as indicated by the maps linked to above), thereby further supporting the argument that these trees date to the vicinity of about a hundred years, again, much like the white pines of Cresheim Creek.  And if we look again at that 1931 aerial, above, we see that the stand extends across the path that divides what was private property in 1910 from what was park property at that time. This further implies that the planting was associated with the park, and therefore would postdate the time when that lot became part of the park.

If we look at an aerial photo from 1937, then we see that the stand of white pines is visible, and quite prominent – densely packed in, and of a reasonably appropriate size for stand in its mid-twenties.  The second portion across the path is still there, visible in that 1937 photo, too.  And if we look at aerials from 1942 or 1957, we see that this stand of white pines is clearly apparent there, along with the portion to the southwest, across the path (it is no longer there today).  [to browse more aerial photos, see here: ]

Something that we see as we look at these aerials across the 1930s to the 1940s to the 1950s, in addition to the stand itself, is also the wooded areas around it and nearby.  And from this we see that as the pines that were planted there grew, that there were wooded areas surrounding them, and they were growing too, until that landscape today yields an appearance of continuity – it is all “the woods”, even if some parts of them look a bit different from one another.  And if we walk there today, it can seem like the woods have always been there, in these large expanses, and that they are “natural”, in the sense of not having been made by people, that they just kind of got there on their own and that they keep on going and growing, all on their own.  After a century or so, it all just looks like woods, and the kind of woods that we might imagine has always been here. [NB: we heard Pine Warblers here on the 10th and the 13th of April, 2014 – and so one might say that the birds see the pines, too [note that Pine Warblers are not listed as being in Cresheim Creek, where there’s another thick white pine stand, in J. C. Tracy’s paper “the Breeding Birds of the Cresheim Valley in Philadelphia, 1942“, published in Cassinia]; I’ll note also that at this time (the 13th of April), along the Wissahickon, near and downstream from the Henry Ave bridge, that bloodroot and trout lily and spring beauty were all in flower and that Podophyllum was beginning to leaf out, too]

If we look a a photo from 1911, of the Lotus Inn, we see that there were a fair number of trees down in the ravine:

The above photo was taken a bit downstream from the Walnut Lane Bridge; it’s where the Blue Stone Bridge is now; that bridge was the continuation of the road you see there in that photo – it’s now the trail that leads up to the Henry Avenue golf course (it used to be Rittenhouse Lane).  That is, it’s just a bit away from where the white pine stand of Hermit Lane is now. [I’ll note also that it looks like there’s hemlocks there, too]

More broadly, looking around Philadelphia today, along the Wissahickon or the Pennypack, or in the wooded areas of West Fairmount Park or Juniata Park, or throughout so many of the many other parkland areas currently in Philadelphia, we see forests, and it can seem some times as though that it how it has always been.

Certainly, when William Penn arrived here in the 17th century there were woods woods woods and more woods, filled with all kinds of trees.  But by the 20th century, these had been cut over, multiple times (see page 39, here, for more about this), and also just prior to and at that time (the late 19th and into the 20th century, that is) was a period of incredibly extensive development across Philadelphia, and therefore wooded areas were being rapidly cleared to accommodate housing, and also businesses and industry – the economic drivers of a thriving city.   This period was an intense time for this – there was roughly a doubling of the population of Philadelphia between the 1850s and 1890 (according to US Census data), when we went from about a half a million to about a million people, and then the population roughly doubled again, until we hit about two million people in the mid-20th century, and one need not imagine the impact this would have on the woods, this massive population expansion.  We can also see this expansion of urbanization in the reduction of farms and farmland here – we go from 824 farms in Philadelphia in 1910, to 423 in 1920, to 381 in 1925 (data from the 1925 Census of Agriculture), which represented a reduction in farm acres in Philadelphia from 30,488 acres, to 17,408 acres, to 15,971 acres at each of those steps (Philadelphia’s total land acreage is about 82,000). By the 1950s, this had declined yet more, to 76 farms (5,024 acres) in 1954, and 53 (3,465 acres) in 1959; as of the latest census of ag, in 2007 there were 17 farms comprising a total of 262 acres.  (for more historical ag census data, see here:, and for current and more recent:; specifically for Pennsylvania:,_Chapter_2_County_Level/Pennsylvania/; additionally, in 1911 there were 1,474 license issued to “farmers”, according to the Annual Report of the Bureau for City Property for the year 1911).  Transportation affected this as well – farms could move out  of cities because of improved transportation (e.g, train lines), which could move food quickly across long distances (and with the advent of the refrigerated rail car in the 1890s, this adds in to the calculation as well).  Also, in the 20th century, with the shift from horses to cars for transportation, the decrease in the horse population numbers would have meant a reduced need for hayfields, and so as fewer horses were fed, farmland (for hay, in this case) would have had less of an economic simulus to stay open. (for an article on horses and cities, see: American Heritage Magazine, October 1971)

At the height of our deforestation rate, in the mid-19th century, a wooded site in our region would be cut about every 25 years (for a 4% (that is, 1/25, or one out of every twenty-five years) deforestation rate).  These woods that were being trimmed on the scale of decades were or had been cut to clear land for development, and for farmland, and to build houses (and for other lumber needs, like furniture or cabinets and what-have-you), and also for firewood, wood being the dominant energy source in the US pretty much through to the end of the 19th century, as can be seen in figure one, here; stoves also had an impact, as can be read about in “Forest Conservation and Stove Inventors: 1789-1850” [by William Hoglund, 1962]), and so it’s not like there would have been a single episode of cutting at a site as land was cleared and houses were built from those trees that were cut, and then everything then would have commenced back to growing into woods again, but deforestation was a continuous local process at that time, due to energy needs, as well. (e.g., as the use of coal increased, the cutting of wood for fuel would have decreased, thereby increasing forestation) [They were also cut for other reasons, even amidst revolution, as John Thomson Faris relates in his 1932 Old gardens in and about Philadelphia and those who made them: ‘…in 1782, the Corporation of Philadelphia ordered that all trees in the streets of the city be cut down, because “they obstructed the prospect and passage through the public streets, lanes, and alleys,…disturbed the water-courses and foot-ways by the extending and increasing of the roots.”  Then it was felt that they were apt to “extend fire and obstruct the operation of the fire engineers.”  Then, with rare humor, the additional indictment was given: “They were not affected to the government because they remained with the enemy when they had possession of the city!” ‘ …. Faris goes on to write that “Fortunately the strange law was repealed in season to save some of the trees that were the glory of the streets of the city.”]

By the late 19th century, the deforestation rate had slowed a bit, to about 2%, but that still means we’d expect stands to be at most about 50 years old at that time, in the late 19th and early 20th century, which is the time when we see the oldest portions of the lands that are now forested in Fairmount Park becoming the natural areas that we now know them as.

That is to say that Fairmount Park was still quite young, by arboreal standards, as the 20th century arrived and moved forward – the oldest parts of it were on the order of a half century old at that time (dating to roughly the mid-19th century, that is), and many large parts were still coming to the city as the 20th century rolled on (for example, like the Pennypack, whose land starts being acquired by the city in 1905, and of course the site upon which the Hermit Lane pines now stand comes to the city around this time), and so the woods of Fairmount Park that we see now, filled with enormous tulip poplars and oaks and pines, and hemlocks, too, would have been pretty young at that time, and nowhere near as full as what we see today. 

I’m not aware of any stands in Philadelphia that are older than 100 to 150 years old, and this is pretty well in line with the historical data outlined above.  This is not to say that there aren’t individual trees that are older than that, as we know that there certainly are ones much older than this (e.g, in Hunting Park), or even some groupings of older trees (e.g, if you go along the rocky hilltop trail along the Wissahickon, just north from the Henry Ave. Bridge, there’s some wonderfully old chestnut oaks growing among the rocks overlooking the Wissahickon there that, based on their size, quite clearly predate the late 19th century), but I’m not aware of any substantial stands of trees in Philadelphia that predate the late 19th century.

And so we see in the first half of the 20th century a low of the areal extent of the forestation of Philadelphia – the woods had been cut over multiple times by then, and older stands that might have been found in less populated areas, perhaps distant out in the far northeast, or way out in the wilds of west Philadelphia, both dry and wet, were being cut down for the development that accommodated our growing population, and the current grandeur of Fairmount Park was still a young sylva at the time, not yet grown to the size that we see now.

In the 1930s especially, it appears, Philadelphia had few forested areas – development had extended to parts of city that still had wooded spots, and Fairmount Park had not yet become the well forested agglomeration of sites that we know today.  Though it can seem difficult today to believe that our green city was once so unwooded, an illustrative anecdote of this is provided in Richard Miller’s 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, where he notes of the American Crow that it is “Common, but slowly decreasing, due chiefly to destruction of woods.”  (I also note that the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, a bird of forests and woodlands, is not listed in Miller’s paper – this is a bird that I commonly see now, along the Wissahickon, and elsewhere (e.g, at Bartram’s Garden, on the 5th of April 2013), which calls to the increase of trees in Philadelphia, I note; this is a bird whose range has expanded northward generally in the past decades, I also note; NB: notes are good).

Nowadays, so far as I am aware, no one fears for the crows due to lack of woods, and in this we can see the change from then to now – today there are wooded areas throughout the city, from Cobbs to the Poquessing, and so many places in between, where there are not just trees, but forests, and woodlands.  Our landscape has changed drastically from a century ago – the woods we see now have grown since then, and what were once open areas are now wooded.  Of course, the opposite has also occurred – what were once wooded areas now are not, and are now populated by buildings or streets or mown parks (sometimes this happened with quite a bit of opposition, as the fight over “Sherwood Forest” prior to it being cleared illustrates), and so it’s not like the woods have all grown up everywhere throughout Philadelphia, but as those wooded areas were being cleared, elsewhere parklands grew, and weren’t then cut again to clear the land, or for timber and fuel, and so we see this striking change throughout the landscape, from a hundred years ago to today.

All of this change might make one wonder about ticks, for example Ixodes scapularis, the black legged tick; this species was named and described by Thomas Say, and that was done in the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (Vol. 2, 1821: pp. 59-83 – thanks to Ken Frank for pointing this out to me, by the way).  Say mentions of this species: “Rather common in forests, and frequently found attached to different animals.”

There also were differences in wetlands, between now and a hundred years ago, as is indicated by the inclusion of Typha angustifolia and “Phragmites Phragmites” (i.e., Phragmites communis), in Thomas C. Porter’s “Rare Plants of Southeastern Pennsylvania”, which is in the Botany Libraries at Harvard (it has a publication date of “March, 1900”).  These wetland plants are quite common in Philadelphia now.  An indicator of changes in wetland quality in the Wissahickon is that Chrysosplenium americanum, an indicator of pretty nice wetlands, was collected in the Wissahickon in the 19th century (by J. B Brinton on the 10th of June 1888 [with “fruit”, as indicated on the herbarium sheet], and by Albrecht Jahn on the 5th of May 1895 – both of these collections are at PH), but hasn’t been seen there recently.

And there are plants that we likely have fewer of now, most likely due to increased forestation (succession, that is) and development – like Hypericum gentianoides, which does occur in Philadelphia today (it was flowering in Haddington Woods, out by Cobbs, on the 2nd of September 2015), but we don’t see it often.  Barton (1818), however, notes it as: “In exposed situations on sterile soil; generally on roadsides; not uncommon.”, and it is included in Keller and Brown (1905), and Rhoads and Block note it as being “common” (though this is not a particular note about Philadelphia).  Also, in the Plants of PA database, there are multiple entries, indicating that it was collected multiple times in Philadelphia (from: Byberry, Cedarbrook, Germantown, Holmesburg, Mount Airy, Olney, Shawmont, Wissahickon Creek, Cedarbrook, Germantown), and in the herbarium of the Academy of Natural Sciences, there are multiple collections, one of which has on the label:

“Remains of last year’s plants forming almost pure stands in open
Coastal Plain sand-gravel; growing out of a covering of Cladonia.
This area was formerly covered by timber but is doomed to destruction
by real estate development.  S. W. corner of Cheltenham Avenue and
Easton Road.
J. W. Adams  48-33
April 6, 1949”

There are 6 more collections at the Academy, whose labels read: 1) “1 Aug 1849  Germantown” by “R. C. Alexander”; 2) “Dry Sandy Soil / Olney, Phila Co. / July 30, 1922 / Collected by R. R. D.” [= R. R. Dreisbach] coll# 1-155; 3) “above Shawmont, e. side / Schuylkill. Phila Co Pa / Collected by S. S. Van Pelt / Aug 5 1902”; And another: 4) Wissahickon, coll: S. S. Van Pelt – Aug 15 1902; 5) “Openings between coarse grass tufts on sandy slope 3/4 mile south-southeast of Byberry / Edgar T. Wherry / September 19, 1954”; 6) “Weedy roadsides and old fields / 1 mi. n.e. of Mt. Airy / Florence Kirk / August 3, 1949”

And so we see that this plant of open places was historically pretty common, though it does not appear to be quite as common as it once was, here in Philadelphia.

There is, I should say, also continuity through time here – hemlocks have been here and are here now.  And many other plants, animals and fungi have been documented to have been here in the past and remain here to this day.  These include plants that are parasitic upon other plants – these persist as well, 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.”  (however, in Norman Taylor’s 1915 Flora of the Vicinity of New York, which includes Philadelphia, he lists Conopholis americana for PA as “Bucks, Delaware, and Chester Counties” (that is, not Philadelphia); he also calls it “A rare and local plant” and its habitat as “In rich woods, usually at the bases of oak trees… Rare”; in Rhoads and Block (2007), the Plants of Pennsylvania, they note of squawroot: “parasitic on Quercus spp.; occasional in forests, mostly S and W”). [one wonders if this plant’s populations have grown more abundant in the past hundred years due to expansion of oak populations which grew due to decrease in population of their main competitor, the American chestnut, which decreased due to the introduction of the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica, the causative agent of the chestnut blight, doesn’t one?]

And there are plants that we still have, but in very different places, as we can read from Bayard Long’s 1922 paper in Rhodora (vol. 24), “Muscari comosum a new introduction found in Philadelphia” [the common name for this plant is grape hyacinth]:

“The collector of the specimen of Muscari comosum, Miss Adelaide Allen, fortunately was able to designate exactly where it had been obtained, as the spot lay along the familiar route from her home to school. Through her kindness, and the interest of Dr. Keller, we learned that it grew along the sides of a dyke, running in to South Broad Street from outlying farm houses, near League Island Park, in the southern portion of Philadelphia. This area consists in large measure of the extensive alluvial flats and marshes of the lower Delaware, more or less intersected by ditches. The region is not yet built up to any extent and the more elevated portions are frequently occupied by truck-farms. The southern extension of Broad Street, with its trolleys, offers one of the chief lines of travel in this particular locality, and the nearby farms often obtain access thereto by dykes laid down over the low meadows and more impassable places. These dykes are continually augmented by the dumping of ashes and rubbish down their sides. [note that the Dr. Keller mentioned above is the same Keller of ‘Keller and Brown’, mentioned previously]

In such a habitat from a detailed sketch map furnished by Miss Allen the Muscari was found growing.”

This plant persists from then, as is noted by John M. Fogg, Jr in his “Annotated checklist of plants of the Wissahickon Valley”, published in Bartonia (vol. 59) in 1996: “Muscari botryoides. Grape-hyacinth.  Introduced and naturalized from Europe.  Occasional in woods and clearings.  Thomas Mill Road.” (and it still persists to this day – on 14th of April 2014, it was flowering quite well along the Wissahickon, for example in the floodplain just downstream from the Walnut Lane Bridge; it was flowering here the week of the 13th of April 2015) [note also that League Island Park was relatively recent, in the 1920s, having been acquired by the city in the 1890s by purchase/taking of a variety of tracts (total initial cost: $399,670), as provided by an ‘Ordinance of March 11, 1895, “appropriating League Island Park as an open public place for the health and enjoyment of the people.” ‘ (Appendix to the Journal of the Common Council, 1897-1898)]

And there are animals that also span the temporal divide – consider the Virginia opossum which, as is noted in Whitaker and Hamilton’s Mammals of the Eastern United States (3d edition; 1998), can live many places: “The opposum’s adaptability to a great variety of habitats, ranging from forest to purely agricultural lands, explains its success in the eastern United States.  It is often quite common even in urban or suburban areas, and many are found dead on the highways.” and “The opossum is a solitary wanderer, remaining in no one place for long, and may be found far from trees.  Its daytime den is in a fallen log, a hollow tree, a cleft in a cliff, a brushpile, a tree nest of a bird or squirrel, a woodchuck or sun burrow, or a recess under a building, or in many of other protected situations.  Opossums do not dig their own dens, and thus are dependent on other animals, primarily the woodchuck and skunk, for ground burrows.” – they mostly den in wooded areas, arboreally as well as on the ground (and “in snags and leaf nests probably used or constructed in years past by squirrels”), though they have also been reported to den in an old field.

This marsupial adaptability is reflected in the current presence of numerous opossums (opossa?) in Philadelphia today and their presence a century ago, as we see evidenced in the number of individuals presented to the Philadelphia Zoo for accession to its menagerie, in the early part of the 20th century, that came from Philadelphians – for example, from the “List of Additions to the Menagerie during the Year Ending February 28th, 1914”: “1 opossum presented by G.W. Cassel, Philadelphia.” (13 November) and “1 opossum ([male]) presented by Mrs. George Biddle, Philadelphia.” (9 December) and “1 common opossum ([male]) presented by Harry Rathbone, Philadelphia.” (13 January) and “1 common opossum ([male]) presented by Miss Theresa Hayes, Philadelphia.” (22 February); or for the year ending February 28th, 1914: “1 common opossum ([female]) presented by Walter Ellis, Philadelphia.” (13 March) and “1 common opossum ([female]) presented by Mrs. Harrold E. Gillingham, Philadelphia.” and “1 common opossum ([male])  … presented by Frank G. Speck Philadelphia.” (22 November) and “1 opossum ([female]) presented by Mrs. A. H. Gerhard, Philadelphia.” (1 December) and “1 opossum ([male]) presented by William F. Girhold, Jr., Philadelphia.”; and for year ending February 29th, 1912: “1 opossum presented by Master Ralph Fritts, Philadelphia.” (13 May) and “1 opossum presented by Guy King, Philadelphia.” (28 December) and “1 opossum presented by Mrs E. A. Cassavant, Philadelphia.” (4 February) and “1 opossum presented by The Walter Sanitarium, Walter’s Park, Philadelphia.” 18 February) and for year ending February 29th, 1920: “1 common opossum presented by Thomas Oakes, Overbrook, Pa.” (12 April)  and “1 common opossum a presented by Dr. Frank Fisher, Philadelphia.” (3 October) and “1 common opossum ([female]) presented by John A. Caraher, Philadelphi” [sic] (30 November) and “1 common opossum (male) presented by John J. Daly, Philadelphia.” (23 February).  All these and more can be read in the Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Zoological Society of Philadelphia volumes 40-49; be sure to note also how many people from Philadelphia were donating alligators in those years.  Note also the numerous birds and other animals that were either “caught in the garden” or “found in the garden” (including at least two screech owls).

While the above mentioned animals were caught and presented live to the zoo, I do want to note that opossum were hunted and eaten here historically, as well, as we can see from an 18th century letter from Father Joseph Mosley, to his sister (writing from St. Mary County, Maryland – 1st of September 1759; the following letter was published in the Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, Volume 17; 1906)

“Our game is very plentiful, as in shooting possums, deers, wild turkeys, raccoons, squirrels, pheasants, woodcocks, snipes of different sort, teal, wild ducks, wild geese, partridges, &c., but all different from birds of the same name in England, and all very good eating except the raccoons. Panthers have been seen in this country, but not of late years. We have turtles, or tortoises, of all sorts We abound with all sorts of fruits, so as even to feed the hogs with peaches that would sell very dear at your market.”

You’ll notice that deer are on that list, and second only to possums – these animals are quite common now in Philadelphia, but this was not always the case, as is evidenced by the purchase of a male white tailed deer by the Philadelphia Zoo, on the 4th of April 1911, as is noted in the Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Zoological Society of Philadelphia volumes 40-49; “List of Additions to the Menagerie during the Year Ending February 29th, 1912” … “1 white tailed deer ([male]) purchased.”)

I’ll note here that peaches, mentioned in Father Mosley’s letter, though an introduction from the old world, have been here for quite some time – Peter Kalm mentions them multiple times in his Travels into North America; they are mentioned by Peter Collinson in letters he wrote to John Bartram; and William Penn mentions them in one of his letters home: “Here are also peaches, and very good, and in great quantities, not an Indian plantation without them; but whether naturally here at first I know not.“ (extract 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,”).

But back to the opossum –  while this animal was present here, it was not quite as common towards the mid-part of the 20th century as it is now, as is noted in Philadelphia: a guide to the nation’s birthplace (1937; Pennsylvania Historic Commission and Federal Writer’s Project):

“With so much of the wildwood atmosphere still preserved, Philadelphia has its share of bats, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, weasels, and the smaller rodents, such as the meadow mouse and the white footed deer mouse.  The raccoon and opossum are now rarely found, but are still encountered in the deeper rural sections of this district.”

And so, in the overall change of Philadelphia’s ecosystem over the centuries, many of the moving parts have remained, though they may have shifted gears a bit.

This succession, the change in urban ecosystems through time, is not, as is illustrated by the Hermit Lane pines, strictly a passive process.  It is, or at least can be, actively facilitated by people and their (or “our”, I should say, since we are all people) management – by planting those white pines, for erosion control or for reforestation, this altered the pattern of succession that we would have seen otherwise, from what we most likely would have seen, or at least what I’d expect to see, which would be a stand of tulip poplars, that would’ve now had trunks about a meter across and would now be just about reaching the end of their lifespan, to this massive stand of white pines that we see today.  This occurred not by chance, but by human intervention, and is the reason that what we see today is there as it is.

By looking at these old photos and maps, by reading old reports and census documents, by understanding landscape ecology and succession, we can see how what was done before has brought about what is here today – we can see the enormous changes that have affected our city, and often be quite surprised at just what those changes were and how they came about.

It can be surprising to realize that Philadelphia has more dense forest today than it did a hundred years ago, and also then to learn the other impacts this brings about, on birds, as mentioned above, and also on water quality, among other environmental factors. And it is key to realize that this did not happen by chance; ecology in cities is due directly to actions by people, and always has been, for a very long time, as we see from those pines that were planted a century ago.  We are part of these ecosystems, and thoughtful decisionmaking, such as that in the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation’s recently released Parkland Forest Management Framework, is needed for making these decisions in a way that will be amenable to all of us in and for Philadelphia, both now and in the years, decades, and centuries to come.

Ailanthus, House Sparrows, and Eastern Gray Squirrels

Matt Kasson (currently at Virginia Tech) has tracked the movement and growth patterns of Ailanthus altissima, the “tree of heaven” –

A brief historic note on the Ailanthus, from the “Conchologists’ Exchange“, where John Ford (Philadelphia, PA) writes of the genus of land snails, the genus Helix, in 1887:

“Unfortunately there are not many to be seen at the present time as the blasting for the new River Road destroyed most of the Ailanthus bushes upon which they chiefly fed. Only a short time before the rocks were removed I took over 200 specimens from a space less than 50 feet square. A number of these were captured upon the Ailanthus bushes in the act of eating the foul smelling leaves, a fact which seems to prove that no plant is too offensive to be used as food by some animal.  Very many of these specimens were in perfect condition; as may be learned from the sample in the Philadelphia collection on the second floor of the Academy of Natural Sciences. The writer was the probable discoverer of this colony, which it is safe to say has never been equalled in this region either in number or in perfection of form and color.

Nearly opposite to this locality on the west side of the Schuylkill just south of the bridge crossing the old carriage road very many H. libera and H. allemata may be found Here the conditions are much the same as were those already described; large stones being scattered about and many Ailanthus bushes growing between.”

Another organism that eats Ailanthus altissima is the Ailanthus silkmoth, as is detailed in Ken Frank’s History of the ailanthus silk moth (Lepidoptera: Saturniidae) in Philadelphia: a case study in urban ecology, from volume 97 of the Entomological News (1986), available for perusal here.

And the Ailanthus webworm can currently be found in Philadelphia:

And as we read in the  Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Volume 34 (1882):

“Prof. Leidy further remarked that the past season had appeared to be favorable to many of the Lepidoptera. Our shade-trees had been greatly ravaged by the Orgyia; many of the poplars had suffered from the Clostera inclusa, and he had observed an unusual quantity of the Ailanthus silk worm, Attacus cynthia, upon the Ailanthus-trees. The latter was introduced here in 1861, by Dr. Thomas Stewardson”

Additionally, from Scharf and Westcott’s History of Philadelphia (1884):

“The State-House [= Independence Hall] pavement was a wide and unpleasant place in warm weather when the sun was shining. Fully exposed, and reflecting back the heat, it was, in consequence of the buildings being far back from the line of the street, less attractive than sidewalks across which neighboring houses threw a shade in some periods of the day. No attempt was made to introduce any improvement until the fall of 1821, when trees were planted in front of the State-House, extending from Fifth to Sixth Street. Poulson [=publisher of the Daily Advertiser] said in reference to this improvement, “It will be a salubrious exchange for the arid bricks that have been broiling our brains there for fifty years.” The trees chosen were ailanthus, noted for quick growth and thick foliage. In ten or fifteen years the front of the State-House in summer time was as umbrageous as a forest. Afterward these trees were attacked by worms, and were ordered to be cut down. The axe was applied at some little distance above their roots, and in a few hours the grove, once the glory of the city, the favorite place in which the town politicians assembled to talk about nominating and elections to discuss political affairs -where they were commonly called “tree toads” – presented the dismal appearance of a forest in which the wood-choppers had been entirely too busy. The public could not stand that. In a short time new trees (silver maples) replaced the ailanthus, the idea being from experience that they would not be disturbed by the worms. They grew finely, and in a few years the grove in front of the State-House was restored to its original beauty. But just about that time the worms gave proof that they would change their diet upon necessity rather than starve. The ailanthus and paper mulberry having been almost exterminated as a sidewalk tree in the streets of the city, the worms accommodated themselves to circumstances, and condescended to devour the leaves of the maples.

In time the English sparrow was imported, and he justified the expectations founded upon his change of country by attacking the worm vigorously. In the meanwhile many years had gone by, and a considerable number of the trees had yielded to natural decay. When about 1876 it was determined to replace the brick footways by a pavement of slate, there were very few of the old trees left. It was not difficult to dispose of them. By covering the surface with the stone and making no provision for watering the roots, the remaining trees gradually died off, so that in 1884 there is probably no survivor of this most beautiful grove which for many years was the most attractive place on Chestnut Street”

Note: Philadelphia was the site of what was most likely the largest introduction of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) into North America: one thousand of them, in 1869

Philadelphia also appears to be the first city in North America in which “free-living” squirrels were released for the edification and enjoyment of the populace, and they (the squirrels, that is) were even provisioned with food and little homes, beginning in 1847, in Franklin Square – this was to be followed by multiple later introductions in Philadelphia, all of which rapidly led to squirrels being found (by 1853) in Independence and Logan Squares as well as other locales in the city; in 1864, however, a report was issued at the city’s request (due to worries that the squirrels were eating birds and their eggs, and also thereby increasing insect populations) by PHS‘s “Committee on Entomology” evincing concern that these little rodents were negatively impacting bird populations due to competition for e.g, nesting sites in trees, even though they (the squirrels, that is) did not appear to be eating the birds nor their eggs, and shortly thereafter eradication and removal efforts were implemented, and these appear to have entirely removed squirrels from the city, thereby clearing the way for the abovementioned English sparrows  – this is discussed in the recently released paper “The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States“, in the Journal of American History; I note that squirrels had returned to Philadelphia by the early 20th century, as we might infer from reports of them being given to the zoo by Philadelphians: “List of Additions to the Menagerie during the Year Ending February 28th, 1914″ … “1 gray squirrel presented by W. Stokes Kirk, Philadelphia” (12 July); “List of Additions to the Menagerie during the Year Ending February 29th, 1912″ … “1 gray squirrel presented by G.H. Didinger, Philadelphia” (6 May); “List of Additions to the Menagerie during the Year Ending February 28th, 1917″ … “1 gray squirrel presented by George Swisher, Philadelphia” (12 August); but there weren’t many of them given, as compared to opossums, for example; the aforementioned records can be read in the Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Zoological Society of Philadelphia volumes 40-49)

The changing mood about the the English Sparrow is captured in the following article from The Great Round World (“a news magazine for busy men and women”), volume XXI, for the week ending June 6, 1903:

Reversed Fame

To have one’s beneficent work appreciated and praised and then have it suddenly depreciated and denounced is the lot which fell to Mr. John Bardsley, of Germantown, Pa., some years ago.  The Philadelphia Record tells the story:

“There is a little old house in Germantown, at the northwest corner of Main and Upsal Streets, that is in a certain sense historical. In this house some thiry-five years ago, lived ‘Sparrow Jack,’ and the building, therefore, has the name of “Sparrow Jack’s house.’ Jack was an Englishman, John Bardsley, and through the influence of William F. Smith, a Germantown Councilman he was sent to England to bring over a lot of English sparrows, the idea being that the sparrows would destroy the caterpillars that infested the trees. The few sparrows Bardsley imported are the ancestors of the millions that now thrive in Philadelphia. The importer was highly praised for his work during the first year or two, and his nickname of ‘Sparrow Jack’ was a title of honor in which he took great pride. Later on, however, as the sparrows began to become a nuisance, the nickname came to have a reproachful significance and in the end it became a term of opprobrium.”

Sparrow Jack is buried in Ivy Hill Cemetery:

The Ailanthus was a popular tree in the early 19th century, but fell into disfavor, as is covered in the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Board of Agriculture, Volume 32 (Massachusetts; 1884):

“From its rapid growth and tropical appearance it soon became a favorite, and was planted extensively in the cities of New York, Philadelphia, Providence and Newport, and the demand for the young trees far exceeded the supply. As soon as the trees were old enough to produce flowers, it was discovered that they emitted a very offensive odor, and the pollen which fell on the roofs of neighboring houses rendered the water falling on those roofs unfit for drinking or culinary purposes. On discovering these objectionable features in its character, those who had cherished this rare exotic were suddenly seized with a feeling of disgust, and war was declared against the offending ailanthus, resulting in almost its complete extermination. A few may be found scattered over Rhode Island, and in some of the villages of New England, lineal descendants of a despised and persecuted generation.”

However, it was still recommended for planting for forestry well afterwards, as is indicated in the Reports of the State Board of Agriculture (PA) for 1894:

‘The following questions from the query box were read and briefly discussed:

“What forest trees are most profitable to grow, and should they have a place on the farm?”

Mr. Brinton. That depends upon circumstances. If for fire wood, I would say Ailanthus. If for general purposes, black walnut, or where for fence posts, yellow locust.’

But in cities, it was generally not well regarded – an example of this we see in Christopher Morley’s Philadelphia (published in 1990, edited by Ken Kalfus; the portion below originally published in 1920 in Morley’s Travels in Philadelphia), in the section titled ‘the Indian Pole’, where he writes of the neighborhood around Callowhill east of Broad:

“Down their narrow side alleys one may catch a glimpse of greenery (generally the ailanthus, that slummish tree that haunts city back yards and seems to have such an affinity for red brick).”

To read even more about the Ailanthus, see here:

The Invasive Ailanthus altissima in Pennsylvania: A Case Study Elucidating Species Introduction, Migration, Invasion, and Growth Patterns in the Northeastern US, by  Matthew T. Kasson , Matthew D. Davis and Donald D. Davis; Northeastern Naturalist, 20(10):1-60. 2013.
Or here:
Or here:
And, in recent news, the Spotted Lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) has recently (fall 2014) been discovered in the US, in Pennsylvania:
Adults of this species feed on Ailanthus in the autumn, and it is preferred by them for egg-laying as well.


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.]

As an aside, in Mark Catesby’s “The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands” (of fieldwork from 1722-1726), he writes of the Catalpa: “This Tree was unknown to the inhabited Parts of Carolina till I brought the Seeds from the remoter Parts of the Country.

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)

Landreth’s was a prominent seed company, that continued on to recent times.

Also, there’s some receipts from Landreth’s at the Pennsylvania Hospital archives, including for: “Poppler” trees (didn’t note the date of this one), and “2 multaflora Rose Trees” (those were from an 1820 receipt).  They also bought some oak leaf hydrangea from Landreth’s in 1824.

And, in a letter from Solomon Conrad to Lewis David von Schweinitz (21 Feb 1823; it’s in the ANSP archives): “Agreeably to thy request I called on Landreth to enquire if he would send specimens of plants when ordered by thee – and he informed me that he would be willing to do so, with such specimens as he had”

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: