To read about how a neighborhood in Philadelphia went from hills, valleys and creeks to streets, houses and underground conduits, see here:
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:
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:
This sign, similar to the one pointing towards the Buist Sophora in Southwest Philadelphia, points to this Quercus phellos:
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:
And for further reading about Hunting Park…
If you walk along the Wissahickon, you’ll see plenty of hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) – these are evergreens, with flattened needle-like leaves that have a whitish striping on their undersides and cones that are about an inch high, and so are reasonably easy to differentiate from the other common conifer you’ll see up around there, the white pine.
Hemlocks along the Wissahickon can be a pretty good size, with trunks over a foot across and tops reaching dozens of feet towards the sky. But there used to be much larger hemlocks here.
In 1933, a book was published called “Penn’s Woods: 1682 – 1932″. It was written by Edward Embree Wildman, with the goal of documenting all the trees in the area that were alive at the time of William Penn’s arrival in 1682 and were still living at time of the 250th anniversary of that arrival – in 1932, that is.
And Wildman noted some very large hemlocks, growing along the Wissahickon –
“Before leaving the city we have four more Penn trees to record. One of these is the largest hemlock we have on record. These trees grow in our beautiful Wissahickon Valley, along the lower bridle path. A beech nine feet, four inches in girth stands on the Jenkins Estate, Far Country. A half mile below is the great hemlock, twelve feet, five inches in girth. It is about 100 yard south of the Walnut Lane Bridge near the stream. Two other hemlocks nearby measure more than nine feet at breast height.”
Wildman (1933), p. 57
I had never seen 4′ wide (note that Wildman measured the circumference, not the diameter) hemlocks in the Wissahickon before, but you never know, and so on the morning of the 4th of May (2013) I went up to the Walnut Lane bridge, paced off 100 yards on the western side of the creek, and didn’t see any hemlocks there; but the far side of the creek was so lushly green that I couldn’t really see into it that well, and so I wanted to go back and do the same thing on the eastern side – and I did that the following evening.
And, as I was walking there, with evening falling and along the interceptor sewer that’s right nearby the upper trail on the west side of the creek, as I got close to the Walnut Lane Bridge, I looked up at it (the bridge, that is), and it seemed about a hundred yards away, and I looked down to my left and saw a little grove in the crepuscular haze, and I wondered if that was where these enormous trees had been…
Well, in the interest of accuracy and/or precision, I went up to the bridge and paced off a hundred yards back downstream (from whence I came, that is), and I saw that I’d gotten it right and that the little grove down by the stream was about a hundred yards south of the bridge, and so that was quite likely where Wildman had seen that enormous hemlock … but I didn’t see any hemlocks down there, and most of the trees that I saw there looked to be less than 80 years old, based on their size, except for one large tulip poplar, which looked to be about a meter across, and so is probably ~100 years old, and therefore would’ve been there, as a youngster, when that tall hemlock was there, and it would’ve possibly grown right alongside it, occasionally in its shadow even, perhaps (though not much, of course, given that tulip poplars like light).
In 1996, there was a paper published in Bartonia, the Journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, written By Dr. John M. Fogg, Jr., that documented the flora of the Wissahickon Valley. It had the appropriate title, “Annotated checklist of the plants of the Wissahickon Valley” and in it he does, of course, mention hemlocks, calling them “One of the commonest and most handsomest trees of the valley.” And he goes on to say: “Often forming pure stands, especially on the west or north facing slopes, as at: Walnut Lane, Valley Green, south of Rex Avenue, above Covered Bridge.” (Fogg, 1996; Bartonia vol. 59)
Dr. Fogg did not mention the enormous hemlocks from Wildman’s book, however, he (Fogg, that is), didn’t mention much in the way of specific individual plants for other entries in this checklist, and so this doesn’t mean he didn’t see these ancient, enormous trees – and, he was botanizing the Wissahickon in the 1930s, and so I’m quite certain he would have seen them, in addition to the numerous other ones he would have frequently encountered in his visits to the Wissahickon.
Hemlocks have been common in the Wissahickon deep into Philadelphia’s history. In William P.C. Barton’s 1818 flora of Philadelphia (“Compendium Florae Philadelphicae”; v. 2; p. 182), he calls this plant “Pinus canadensis” with a common name of “Hemlock Spruce”, and describes it as “A very large and fine tree. The boards and scantling made from its trunk are called hemlock timber. On the Wissahickon ; abundant. On the Schuylkill, often met with.” Additionally, in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s 1905 Handbook of the Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity, the hemlock is listed as being in “Philadelphia – Wissahickon.”
And there are collections of hemlocks in the herbarium of the Academy of Natural Sciences (PH) that also attest to its long presence in the Wissahickon. On the label of one of these collections, collected by Henry A. Lang on the 9th of April 1924, the label indicates: “Wissahickon Ravine, common”‘, thereby indicating that much like today, there was quite a bit of hemlock there in the early 20th century. There are other collections of hemlocks at PH – from J. Bernard Brinton, M.D. (a founding member of the Philadelphia Botanical Club), collected on the 23d of June 1889 (this label simply indicates “Wissahickon”, with no further details given); and from Edgar T. Wherry (who was a botany professor at the University of Pennsylvania, among many other things), collected the 2d of August 1945, when he clipped a branch from a “Small tree on steep rocky hillside, Wissahickon Creek ravine near Thomas Mill Road”.
Additionally, in the 1901 catalog for the Andorra Nursery, which was located where the Wissahickon crosses from Montgomery County into Philadelphia, the hemlock is described as “One of our finest native Evergreens, especially beautiful along the Wissahickon Creek.” (this catalog is in the collections at the McLean Library at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society; the Andorra Nursery was founded in 1886 and closed in 1961)
And even as far back as 1818, the hemlock was a landmark of the Wissahickon, as we see from this quote, from Thomas Nuttall’s Genera of North American Plants, on the habitat of Viola rotundifolia: “On the shady and rocky banks of Wishahikon creek, about 8 miles from Philadelphia, where it was also found by Mr. Rafinesque; always under the shade of Abies canadensis…” [Abies canadensis is an old name for Tsuga canadensis]
And William P. C. Barton, in his 1818 Compendium Florae Philadelphicae, notes of Viola rotundifolia: “This very rare species grows on the dark, shady, hilly borders of the Wissahickon creek, north side, not far from Germantown. It is found generally at the roots, and under the deep shade of Abies Canadensis [=Tsuga canadensis], so abundant on that secluded and romantic part of the creek.”
Hemlocks are one of the characteristic trees of the Wissahickon, and have been for quite some time – however, the populations we see now have a different aspect compared to the ones that would have been here in centuries past. While the smaller size classes that were here in former times we most certainly still see today, the larger ones, the oldest hemlocks in the wetter areas, the ones that would have reached the sizes of the nephilim that were here in Wildman’s time in the 1930s, are no longer here.
To read about some other Wissahickon valley conifers, see here:
And, here’s an old photo showing hemlocks:
(Views of Fairmount Park Philadelphia 1866 [graphic] / Photographed by James Cremer, 18 South Eighth Street, Philadelphia. – thanks to Nick Tenaglia for letting me know about this reference)
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:
“weed in open ground about barn
along Cottman St. S.W. of Holmesburg”
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: http://new.planphilly.com/eyesonthestreet/2013/11/22/from-above-roosevelt-boulevard-oxford-circle-and-beyond-in-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 1680s; Q. 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 Bartonia, the 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:
To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban planning, see here:
In between Friends Hospital and Greenwood Cemetery, just a bit off Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia, is Oakland Cemetery. Friends Hospital, founded in 1813, is the oldest private psychiatric hospital in the US, and it also has a beautiful landscape – with its azaleas along the way down to Tacony Creek behind it, with its enormous American elm tucked away into a corner behind one of its buildings, and with the many other trees and flowers dotting and shading it throughout, it’s a surprising little refuge of calm and color in the city, as traffic along the Boulevard rushes by, just beyond the gates and fence of the hospital’s grounds. If you go back behind the buildings and down that road that is lined with those azaleas that bloom in the spring, and you take a left turn at Tacony Creek, you’ll eventually get to Fishers Lane. And if you then take a left there, you’ll get to Ramona Ave, and then, a bit more along, as you walk along Ramona, you’ll see Greenwood Cemetery on your right.
Greenwood Cemetery was, in centuries ago, the property of Benjamin Rush, physician, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and advocate of sugar maples and the maple syrup that can be derived therefrom. Why was Dr. Rush an advocate of maple syrup? This was in large part because he was an ardent abolitionist, and didn’t want Americans to be reliant upon sugar from West Indies’ sugar cane, which was reliant, in turn, on slave labor for its production. There are, currently, some extraordinarily large sugar maples there, at Greenwood Cemetery, that stand as markers to Rush’s advocacy for their products, and for his advocacy for that most basic of human rights, the right to live freely.
In the post-Rush era, this site became a cemetery, Greenwood Cemetery, chartered in 1869, and as the years wore on, maintenance became difficult to keep up, and this place became quite overgrown, and up until recently was somewhat forested, but it has recently been restored and renovated, and is an idyllic spot to walk now. And in addition to the sugar maples that I just mentioned, there is also an enormous American sycamore there, that based on its size looks to have been planted in the mid-19th century. American sycamores don’t do very well in sooty air of cities, and so this tree suggests, to me at least, a 19th century habitat that was open and well stocked with clear air.
And in between these two landmarks, in between Friends Hospital and Greenwood Cemetery, is another open area – open amid the swaths of buildings and roads that pack in, through, and around Philadelphia, it is open and green with trees and shrubs and grass, an open space in the city – Oakland Cemetery.
According to the book Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace (by the Federal Writers’ Project, in 1937) Oakland Cemetery opened in 1881 (they also mention that it’s 43 acres), however, as I’ve been told by Jackie Childs, the official start date for the cemetery is 1891. And Jackie is one to know such things – she is the fourth generation in her family to take care of Oakland Cemetery, and is wonderfully knowledgeable as to what is there, and also as to what was there before.
The cemetery was briefly known as Mt. Auburn (as is indicated on the 1895 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), but shortly thereafter came to its current name of Oakland (as is indicated on the 1910 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), and that is what we know it as now.
In 1895, electric lights were put in, as was recorded in the Journal of the Select Council of the City of Philadelphia, vol. 2 (from October 4, 1894 to March 28, 1895)
Locating electric lights for the year 1895.
Section 1. The Select and Common Councils of the City of Philadelphia do ordain, That the Director of the Department of Public Safety be, and is hereby, authorized and directed to erect electric lights on the following streets and avenues, viz. …”
Following that ellipsis, among the hundreds upon hundreds of streets noted as soon to be having electric lights, we find “south side Asylum pike opposite Oakland Cemetery” listed among them.
If you go there now, you won’t see those lights, but you will see trees that were in the cemetery at that time – at the entrance to Oakland at Adams and Ramona, for example, there is an enormous black oak (Quercus velutina) that, based on its size, I estimate to predate the cemetery. Also, it has wide and broad spreading lower limbs – this indicates that it has been open grown since its youth, thereby providing evidence that this property was not forested, even prior to its conversion to a cemetery (it would have been a farm – and so we can put together a little story that this now majestic black oak would have, in the mid-19th century, been a scrawny little sapling that was kept alive with, quite likely, the intention of shading cows in a pasture, or farmers on break from working the fields, or the owners as they watched the workers working, perhaps).
Why do those wide and spreading limbs of the black oak indicate this history? Well, when trees grow in the forest, with other trees nearby, those other trees shade out the lower limbs – and then those lower limbs become weak, and then they fall off, and so we get trees in the forest that are generally tall and straight, growing upwards, with relatively few lower limbs spreading out horizontally (and perhaps with a bit of the oblique). However, absent those neighboring trees, being “open grown” that is, and absent someone coming along and cutting off a tree’s lower limbs, a tree will branch out broadly, low and spreading, and as the years go by those lower branches will get thicker and larger, expanding in girth as they expand in length, presenting an architecture that looks like it was made to be climbed on or climbed up. The black oak at the entrance to Oakland Cemetery has just that aspect, and so we can say quite confidently that it didn’t grow up in the forest, but in a field.
If you go a bit farther in to the cemetery, up to the main house there, on your left is an old umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) – its main trunk has died back, but the suckers that have come up off the roots flower quite well, as the fruits that were there in September 2012 attest. The umbrella magnolia isn’t native to southeastern Pennsylvania, though it is native to west of here, as Ann Rhoads very persuasively argued in Bartonia, the Journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, however it has grown here for quite some time and been naturalized for about a hundred years or so, and it is a reasonably common tree to see planted, or coming up in the woods (I see it pretty often up in the Wissahickon). This one at Oakland, looking at the base that has died back and from which these suckers has arisen, is one of the largest that I’m aware of around here, and I wonder if it represents one of the earlier plantings of this tree around here. I should say also that this tree has been growing in Philadelphia for over two hundred years – Magnolia tripetala is listed in the Landreth’s nursery catalog of 1811 [which can be found in the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society], with a common name of “umbrella tree”, and it’s listed in John Bartram’s “Catalogue of American Trees, Shrubs and Herbacious Plants, most of which are now growing, and produce ripe Seed in John Bartram’s Garden, near Philadelphia. The Seed and Growing Plants of Which are disposed of on the most reasonable Terms.” ([Phila.]: ), as is noted in Joel Fry’s article “An international catalogue of North American trees and shrubs; the Bartram broadside, 1783”, in the Journal of Garden History (vol. 16, no. 1, 1996).
A bit farther down and along, just past the house, you start to see large white ash (Fraxinus americana) trees, growing wide and spreading. These trees, based on their size, I would estimate to have been planted around the time of the opening of the cemetery in the late 19th century – their placement along its paths also attests to their planting having postdated its establishment. They also look to have been pollarded. Pollarding is a process whereby the top of a tree is cut off, thereby allowing side shoots to grow up and out from where that top had been removed – this establishes a broadly arching habit, much like what one might see in an American elm, with branches stretching up and over, and if pollarded trees have been planted along side either side of a road or path, those upward sweeping limbs can meet in the middle, forming a vaulting architecture under which we may walk and cars may drive. Of course, trees can also lose their tops without the intentional intervention of people, without pollarding that is, and so you have to check that this is part of the landscaping intentions, and isn’t due to wind, or someone accidentally swiping a top or two of a tree as they pass by with a truck or something. These ash trees at Oakland are pretty much all spraying upwards from points at roughly the same height – this suggests to me that they were managed to look like this (if the breaks were accidental or due to nonhuman interventions, then I’d expect them to be expanding outwards from different heights), suggesting that they were clipped so that they could go on to form graceful ceilings under which mourners could make their ways to gravesites, and also so that Sunday visitors who simply wanted to visit a beautiful park could stroll underneath a sky of green.
Onwards and somewhat southwards, as you go along the path that goes towards Ramona Ave and Fisher Lane, and as you get nearly towards the split point of Ramona and Fisher, you’ll look down on your left and you’ll see a sewer. I was pretty excited when I saw that for the first time – why was that? Why was I excited to see this hole in the ground, a hole that pretty much just leads to other holes? Why on earth (or in earth) would I get excited to see a sewer?
Well, if you look at old maps of this site you’ll find that there were streams that used to run through it – in the 1862 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/, you’ll see a couple of streams running out of the back of what is now Oakland Cemetery, and one of them, the one to the south, was roughly where Fisher’s Lane splits off from Ramona Ave (and also running along Ramona a bit prior to Ramona’s split with Fisher); the other was up towards the Friends Asylum. The former stream (the one running near what is now Ramona and Fisher) is not on the 1855 map (here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/); the latter is. If we look on the 1843 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), both streams are on map, and on the 1808 Hills map (same place as the others), the southern (the one near Ramona and Fisher) stream is there.
There is, I should say, another sewer uphill from that old one – it is newer, and while it does, I’m quite confident, pour its water and other effluvia ultimately into that old streambed marked in those old maps, because it is newer it is not as likely to mark quite as exactly where the stream ran, like that old one does, but was more likely constructed as simple drainage for the road that it accompanies.
And so, that old sewer, and a pretty humble one at that, unlabelled and unadorned, marks the site of a stream that is no longer there – it gives us a physical landmark with which we can pinpoint where that historic stream was, a stream that was limned on old maps and has since been covered up but still carries water, though now underground. A stream that ran when Benjamin Rush lived here, advocating for abolition, a stream that ran when Friends Hospital opened, a hospital devoted to humane treatment of those who had been treated quite differently prior to that, a stream that ran when this site, Oakland Cemetery, was farmland, with a little black oak seedling far a ways up the hill, now shading the entrance to this city of the dead, but then kept alive most likely with the intention of shading pasture for farm animals, or farm workers, or farm owners – this stream still runs, but the only evidence we see that remains is that humble opening, telling us, quietly, subtly, discreetly, where the history lies beneath.
To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban planning, see here:
To read about some more natural history and open areas, including cemeteries, nearby – see here:
Though much of West Philadelphia was wetlands before it was built over with buildings and streets and avenues, and though it was striped and criss-crossed throughout with creeks and streams back then, too, there were also many areas there that were high and dry. And we can sometimes know with surprising specificity where those drier and wetter places were because we can see them on old maps, and we can locate them via locality data from plant specimens in the Department of Botany at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and we can look at old nursery catalogs and histories, and because we can follow the meanderings of Alexander MacElwee.
Alexander MacElwee, botanist and horticulturalist, documented much of the flora of the Philadelphia area, and he extensively recorded what was growing in West Philadelphia, because he lived there – at 5424 Merion Ave, to be specific, right near 54th and Lancaster. (MacElwee’s address is in the Philadelphia Botanical Club’s membership list in issue number one of Bartonia, the Journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, published in 1908).
And so, from this peripatetic botanist we can find out about about the marshes and swamps and hills and farms of 19th century West Philadelphia, and we can do this now because his field notebooks are accessioned in the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences (collection #36, to be precise).
For example, on April 15, 1893, MacElwee writes that “On Thursday eve I went out Lancaster Ave. before coming home for supper and collected 5 specimens of Symplocarpus foetidus” (underlining his)
Symplocarpus foetidus, or skunk cabbage, is an obligate wetland plant, that is, it has to grow in saturated soils. And in 1895, at 52d and Lancaster, there was a stream that ran in from the north – this was right around the corner from MacElwee’s house and therefore quite likely this is the area where he collected that skunk cabbage in 1893. However, there were other wetlands nearby – for example, there was a stream that ran up near 60th and 61st streets, and Lancaster Avenue, and that would have had wetlands along it. But I would think that for a pre-dinner walk, with food on his mind, that MacElwee would have ambled closer to home, and so quite likely it was nearby to the stream at 52d and Lancaster that he picked up this skunk cabbage, though of course it also could have been elsewhere along Lancaster Ave.
A couple months later, on the 17th of June (still in 1893), he was walking through West Philadelphia again, as was his habit, when he came across a sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) at the “West end of Cherry tree hotel 46 + Baltimore Ave W Phila”. Sycamore maples like it a bit drier, and so this indicates a dry habitat at this spot.
He also mentions, from an entry dated the 6th of April 1893, that “There’s a little tree in the lot 45 + Market near the narrow ridge of rock in the center”, indicating an upland area there, too.
And on the 16th of September 1893, MacElwee went by Sansom St. and Meadow (which is now Farragut, and is between 46th and 47th Streets), right where Eli K. Price, who had been head of Fairmount Park, had owned some property, and he (MacElwee, that is) came across some Solidago sempervirens, which he found puzzling because it is a plant that likes water, and salt, as its common name, ‘seaside goldenrod’, attests. He figured they’d been planted there, but was still impressed as “All of them are growing in ashes or dirt in which coal ashes largely prevails and have a healthy look to be in such a dry position”. And therefore, we know that this was a dry point, too, even though it had a plant growing there that’s often a wetland plant (it’s what we would call a “facultative wetland” plant).
There were wet areas nearby to there of course – including one at 45th and Market, as we see from the entry for Salix nigra (black willow), an obligate wetland plant, in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s 1905 “Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity”.
MacElwee also went to the “52nd St. Woods”, where he found some red maple. This was just a bit away from the Robert Craig Nursery, which was between 49th and 50th, in the block just south of Market St.
This nursery was a substantial operation – a catalog of theirs from 1910 (which is at the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticulural Society, and I found with the help of Janet Evans) indicates that, at that time (1910, that is), “Having increased our glass area over 50,000 square feet, we are in a position to meet our fast increasing business.” They had begonias, azaleas (naturally, this being Philadelphia), poinsettias, cyclamen, and their grand item, crotons – this nursery was known for its crotons, and they did extensive business in other foliage plants as well.
This company has a deep connection to Philadelphia, and an interesting one, too. In the 1950s, the Robert Craig Nursery celebrated its centennial and published a history of the company to accompany that celebration. This publication is in the seed and nursery catalog collection at the McLean Library at PHS and covers the company from its earliest, formative days, starting in 1845, when the Scottish immigrant Alexander Craig had a gardening business at 2d and Reeves, to the actual inception of the firm, in 1856, when Mr. Craig bought greenhouses at 18th and Wharton (quite nearby to where the Landreth nurseries had been, I should note) from “Robert Scott and Son”. They were there for a few years, until 1860, when they built greenhouses “on about four acres” at 15th and Pine, in center city Philadelphia. In 1856, Alexander Craig died at the young age of 48, and the business was taken over by his wife and sons, the elder of whom, Robert, went on to own the company.
In 1870, they moved to West Philadelphia, to 49th and Market – at its beginning this establishment “consisted of a four-room house and a few small greenhouses” and “was affectionately known during its 50 years of existence as ‘The Hill’ ” – thereby indicating that they had wisely chosen a high and dry location for their construction. There was expansion, and by 1919 there was “a large and impressive Victorian residence fronting more than 125,000 square feet of glass.”
As much of this was going on, William Craig, a son of Robert Craig’s who had not joined the family business, had briefly operated his own greenhouses, “devoted to Carnations”, at 61st and Market – he did, ultimately, go on to join the family firm, and also continued to grow carnations at 61st and Market, where he introduced the “Ethel Crocker” carnation, a flower so popular that it “necessitated the erection of two new Carnation houses in 1900.”
This area, out in West Philadelphia, really was quite rural in the late 19th century – according to this history of the Craig Nursery, “In 1877 he [Robert Craig] challenged the right of the City of Philadelphia to assess him for the cost of paving and curbing Market Street from 49th to 50th, claiming the area was rural. He carried the case to the Supreme Court and won.” (to quote directly from the decision, Craig v. the City of Philadelphia (1879), “The property through which Market street runs from Forty-third to Sixty-third streets is chiefly rural property, used for farm land and brickyards, suburban residences, cemetery lots and a hospital for the insane”). 20 years later, there were still open areas out there – on the 19th of June 1899, Alexander MacElwee collected Festuca elatior from “Waste ground, 56th and Market St.” (that collection is now in the herbarium of the Botany Department of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia).
West Philadelphia, though now so much built over (though still of course also populated with many beautiful parks), stretched to the open horizons in the 19th century, when it was filled with farms and swamps and streams and creeks, and topped with hills and dotted with flowers – there were greenhouses, and country inns, and rocky ridges here and there. It was a different world back then, as it is a different world now, but that former time is still there, in archives and libraries, and on old maps, and underneath the sidewalks of the city streets.
To read more about West Philadelphia’s ecological history, see here:
If you were to walk down Spruce Street in West Philadelphia today, going westward from the University of Pennsylvania, you would see a lot of houses, and a lot of pavement – concrete sidewalk, asphalt streets, building materials of numerous variety, all covering the ground that lies beneath. There are, of course, also many trees you would walk by – the magnificent Franklinia at the southeast corner of 42d and Spruce is a classic, and directly across from it, at the southwest corner of that same set of cross streets, is a large and majestic, though wildly trimmed, Paulownia. Also along that south side of the street is a row of houses dating from the 1880s, and they are guarded out front by their regularly spaced and by now quite large squadron of Japanese maples.
And the north side of the street is not lacking for lignin either – there is an enormous white oak in the churchyard there, on the north side of the street, in the same block that includes the Sadie Alexander School, between 42d and 43d Streets, north of Spruce. In that yard are also two pines – one an eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) and the other a Himalayan pine (Pinus wallichiana) – paired up against each other, along 42d Street, ready to be compared. These are two tree species that I’d found difficult to differentiate until I came across these two examples right next to each other, set up like a coniferous teaching collection, just waiting for some comparative taxonomy. Both of these species are five needle pines (pine trees’ needles, of all pine species, are arranged in clusters, called fascicles, and all pines either have five needles, or two-or-three needles), and those needles are somewhat light in both strobus and wallichiana, and both of them have rough, platey bark, and so it’s not easy to tell them apart, until you see them right next to each other, as one does here at 42d and Spruce. Here you can see that the needles of the Himalayan pine are longer, and more droopy (“pendulant”, one might say), as compared to the white pine’s needles, which are more upright, and look, to me, a bit like little fireworks’ bursts, as compared to the more hanging tresses of the Himalayan pine. (also, as my friend and botanical compadre Doug Goldman has reminded me, wallichiana cones are much larger than those of strobus) And if you go and take a look at them, and look at their bark, you’ll see by the horizontal arrangement of holes on the wallichiana, and the absence of such holes in the strobus, that sapsuckers (a kind of woodpecker) are able to tell these two species apart. Both of them are quite attractive trees, and both do quite well in Philadelphia, and I hadn’t realized how common the Himalayan pine is here until I learned to tell it apart from its cousin, and these two trees at 42d and Spruce were quite helpful for getting me to learn how to do that. (to read more about this block, see here: http://blog.philadelphiarealestate.com/buildings-then-and-now-sprucing-up-university-city-in-the-1880s/ )
And so, I guess I’ve made the point quite well that there are quite a few trees along Spruce Street here – now, on with the peripateticism…
As we are walking along, heading west, if we were to look back towards Penn (fondly, one hopes), we’ll see the street sloping down, and we’ll realize that our legs might be a little sore from having been walking uphill to get where we are, and that we most likely broke a sweat (we’d definitely be sweating on a day with weather like we’ve been having recently), and then as we turn around, facing our goal of heading west, then we see that there’s still a bit of hill ahead of us – up to 45th Street, where there is a rise that we can stand on top of like a little king of the world, and then, towards 46th Street, after we cross the rise, the ground angles downwards.
If we were here a hundred and twenty years ago, this would have looked quite different, though some of the angles would have still been similar. In the early 1890s, the surfaces we see now would not have been here, not the sidewalks, nor the asphalt. Though this dip was here, it was through a very different landscape – it was a different world back then, and one we know about in surprising detail, due to the wanderings of Alexander MacElwee, among other sources.
The go-to book to learn about botanists of Philadelphia up until the 20th century is John Harshberger’s The Botanists of Philadelphia and Their Work, and the following biographical information is from that book –
Alexander MacElwee was born in Scotland in 1869 to a relatively large family (he was one of eleven children). Alexander was the eldest of the younger MacElwees, and he went to school before finally getting to go to work at the age of twelve years old. After a couple of years of working in Glasgow, he went to join his parents who had already arrived here in the new world of Philadelphia. His first job, this was in 1883, was working in a garden at 39th and Walnut – the garden was owned by A. J. Drexel (see the 1895 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), who would go on to start up the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry, which would then go on to become Drexel University in west Philadelphia, just north of Penn. (NB: that location is now occupied by Penn’s Fels Institute of Government – do any of the plants now there date to MacElwee’s time? I don’t know)
MacElwee worked in Drexel’s garden, and also began to learn formal botany by going to meetings of the Botanical Section of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and after a few years, he moved up, both geographically and hierarchically – he went to work at Hugh Graham’s nursery, right near Girard College in North Philadelphia . This nursery was at 18th and Thompson, and Mr. MacElwee “had charge of several houses, one entirely of ferns, another of palms, etc (Harshberger, 1899). [The Graham Nurseries was at the NW corner, caddy corner across from St. Joe’s, as may be seen on G. M. Hopkin’s 1875 map of Philadelphia – incidentally, as is noted in his obituary in volume 38 of the magazine “Christian Nation”, Hugh Graham worked as department manager for John Wanamaker prior to becoming a somewhat major Philadelphia florist (he also had “large nurseries at Logan Station, near Philadelphia” [as of 1895, they were at 13th and Loudon, bounded on the west side by Old York Rd]); Mr. Graham died of pneumonia on the 14th of March 1903.]
But MacElwee was to move on soon again – to work as an apprentice bricklayer for a time (during which he had the spare time to expand his knowledge of natural history by field work and by working with botanical museum collections), and then on to work in John Wanamaker’s garden in Jenkintown, and then on to the College of Pharmacy (now the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia) to work with their museum collections of dried, pressed plants. And as he worked, he learned, and in 1894 he went to work for the University of Pennsylvania laying out the Botanical Garden that was being planned.
As we learn from MacElwee’s obituary in Bartonia (the journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club), No. 9, 1925-26, “Mac” continued to work at a number of places, until 1917 when he “was appointed landscape gardener by the park commissioners of Philadelphia.” His dream was to have an arboretum, and he worked assiduously towards that end – traveling to the Arnold Arboretum, to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, to the Seed and Plant Introduction Service in Washington, DC. He gathered an immense number of plants and brought them back home to propagate – “thousands of the rarer rhododendrons, flowering cherries, barberries, hydrangeas, hollies, lilacs, roses, crab apples, oaks, loniceras, etc., etc., were started in the Park nurseries, intended for the Arboretum. Now that the master spirit has gone the project of the Arboretum has rested almost inactive, but these young trees and shrubs remain and form a nucleus from which MacElwee’s dream should be developed.” Mr. MacElwee passed away on the 23d of January 1923.
While he was alive, Alexander MacElwee, like most botanists, liked to be on the go – he was like this with respect to his working life, as we have seen in the above paragraphs, and also with respect to his day to day ways and wanderings, which he diligently recorded with pencil, pen and paper. And from these writings of his perambulations, we can learn what was here before.
MacElwee’s field notes are in the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and going through them, with the help of the Academy’s archivists, Clare Flemming and Megan Gibes, we see a man who liked to walk, and they also show with great detail the places where he walked.
Like 46th and Spruce, for example, the dip in the road that I mentioned above. MacElwee walked near there, in the early 1890s, and after he got home, he wrote the following:
“March 27, 1893
This eve, when coming home from work through the marshy hollow south of Walnut St. and west of 46th Street, I found some boys fishing for tadpoles. I was not aware that one could find tadpoles this early in the season. These I seen were of good size, having heads about 1/2 long, and tail twice as long. The boys caught them by dipping up a large can of water out of the stream and then pouring the water out slowly and catching the tadpoles as they appeared and putting them into another which contained their captives. One of the boys said he was going to raise them in an aquarium.”
(the underlining is from the original)
This isn’t the only mention he makes of this area – in an entry for the 1st April 1893, he mentions finding Alnus (alder), in flower, in a marsh west of 45thSt. and between Walnut and Spruce. A few days later, on the 6th of April 1893, he came across “A large spreading tree in the hollow 46 + Chestnut”, at the southwest corner, that was “Probably Acer saccharinum” (i.e., silver maple – a tree still commonly seen throughout west Philadelphia as a street, yard, and park tree – but on its own, without humans planting it, it’s generally a wetland tree).
A bit later on in the year, on the 17th of June of 1893, Alexander MacElwee took a walk and came across a shrub of the Eastern Wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) “in front of farm house about 47 and Pine St.”, and some American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) in the “Spruce St. Swamp”,. as he called it. That same day (the 17th of June, that is), and right nearby, he saw an American hornbean (Carpinus carolinianus) “At spring W. side of Spruce St. swamp”.
If we look at Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s Handbook of the Flora of Philadelphia (published in 1905), we see a couple of entries that also let us know that this area was a wet one, such as –
“Sagittaria Engelmannia …Shallow water. Summer.
Philadelphia – 46th and Spruce Streets”
This entry is quite likely based on a collection that is in the herbarium of the Department of Botany of the Academy of Natural Sciences, here in Philadelphia – it is a specimen labeled Sagittaria latifolia (the current name of this plant that Keller and Brown list under S. engelmanniana), and the label’s locality data says “stream near 46th and Spruce Sts” and is dated the 4th of September 1887. [this also indicates are reasonably high quality wetland was there at the time – in Small et al’s 1994 paper in Restoration Ecology, “A Macrophyte-Based Rapid Biosurvey of Stream Water Quality: Restoration at the Watershed Scale”, they report Sagitaria latifolia from nearly 27% of the high quality streams they surveyed in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, yet not at all from their low quality stream sites]
Another entry in Keller and Brown’s flora locates a wet area here – a record of Salix alba (white willow), which prefers “Moist soil” (as Keller and Brown note) is also there, noted as being at 46th and Chestnut.
However, this area wasn’t all swamp and wetland – there would have been some drier, upland areas, too, as is indicated by another collection by Alexander McElwee, of Castanea dentata, from 46th and Spruce, this one from the 3d of July 1887 (and also currently accessioned in the Academy’s herbarium). Castanea dentata, or the American chestnut, as it is more commonly known, isn’t one to grow in swamps around here (though up in New England I would see it sometimes in moist areas), and so its presence, as indicated by this collection, in turn indicates that some areas were up above the wet – it wasn’t all swamp and marshes.
And so from these notes from these fieldbooks in the Academy’s archives, and from collections in the Academy’s botany department, and from Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s book, we see that up until the end of the 19th century this was an open area, the area nearby to 46th and Spruce, with farmhouses, and wetlands – streams, hollows, and marshes. And it went on, this open area, out south and westward:
“On one of the vacant fields near 50 + Baltimore Ave. is a large spot where sods had been cut off last spring. I notice that all this spot (and it is quite extensive) a thick crop of Ambrosia artemisaefolia (roman wormwood) has sprung. It is rather remarkable. This land has not I suppose been turned under by the plough for years. There are one or two other things among it, but the Ambrosia predominates where the sod has been cut off. growing densely to a uniform height of 7 or 8 inches. In many cultivated fields further on I noticed plenty of it. But it is not so remarkable in such situations.”
And as further evidence of open areas in this part of town, in Keller and Brown’s 1905 Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity, they list Centaurea nigra (knapweed) as having a habitat of “Waste places” and a locality of “48th and Baltimore”.
There were also more wet areas, going west – Black Oak Park (now called Malcolm X Park) had some, out at 51st and Pine (the park extends down to 52d and Larchwood), as is shown by the entries in the Plants of Pennsylvania database for Carex annectens and Cyperus odaratus, with locality data identified as “Black Oak Park” – both of these are facultative wetland plants (that is, they can grow in wet areas, but don’t require it, and can grow in drier spots), and so while they don’t indicate absolutely a wetland, they do imply some moist area was there, in what is now a dry city park, still with trees throughout its environs, though, and even at least one that is a wetland tree. At the northern boundary of the park, between 51st and 52d Streets along Pine Street, there is a magnificent blackgum tree (Nyssa sylvatica), a tree also known as the tupelo – a tree that on its own is a wetland plant, but also does pretty well as a tree in drier areas (like a city street or park), and it stands tall in the middle of west Philadelphia, at the northern border of Malcolm X Park.
By the 1920s, at least, this park was pretty dry, as is indicated by the following photos:
These scattered collections and references illustrate just how much of west Philadelphia had wetlands and hills, and wetland plants and upland plants, and farms and farmhouses, too – up until at least 1910, this area west of 46th Street was still open, as is indicated by G. W. Bromley’s map (accessible here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/ ). And if one were to look at Mr. Bromley’s 1895 map, a map that is also available at the aforementioned address, one would see a stream running up north along 46th Street, and by looking back a little further in time, for example to Samuel Smedley’s 1862 map, one would see that this stream was a tributary of Mill Creek, which flowed into the Schuylkill after stopping for a break at a mill pond at what is now Clark Park (a large park that spreads south from 42d and Baltimore Avenue). [and there was “Desintegrated Feldspar. Kaolin.” here as well: “Feldspar in a state of decomposition exists on the canal road, and on Mill creek, near the Baltimore turnpike…” (Isaac Lea, “An Account of the Minerals at present known to exist in the vicinity of Philadelphia”, Vol. 1, Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, December of 1818)]
These areas, while now paved over, filled in, and leveled, still have parks and yards and street trees – they have changed and been changed, been paved over and built upon, but as always, life remains and plants grow, in different environments than before, and often, though not always, with different plants than were there before, but marking, in everlasting flux, the perpetually changing times the city lives through, always and in all ways, and endlessly transformed.
And of course it is not only the plants and the landscape that change, but the animals as well, such as the birds, as is noted in George Nitzsche’s 1917 article in the Penn Gazette (“Bring Song Birds Back to Campus!”), where he notes a list of 72 birds compiled in 1906 by Cornelius Weygandt (Professor of English at Penn) and his compatriots, and comments on the changes in the avifauna, from the ten years prior, to his time then – he notes one change especially: “The English sparrow has invaded, in greater numbers each year, our suburbs, our public parks and squares, and other little breathing places in great cities.” This was due in part to expanding urbanization but also to the introduction of this European species to the new world, an introduction that was the largest here in Philadelphia: “This year (1869) witnessed the importation, in one lot, of a thousand Sparrows by the city government of Philadelphia ; and this probably Is the largest single importation of Sparrows ever made to this country.” (Walter Barrows, 1889, “The English Sparrow in North America Especially Its Relations to Agriculture”) And so the changes wrought come from many causes.
Of course, while some things do change, others don’t so much, and so I would like to close with a final quote from Alexander MacElwee, from 1893:
“Requisites for the Botanist and Entomologist while on the march.
1:- Money. This is an indispensable article and mainly used for carfare, ferries, etc
2:- Provisions. This may consist of a good lunch of sandwich. pastry or extra side dishes can be dispensed with. It is surprising how delicious a couple of slices of bread and butter with a little cheese is after tramping several miles in the country, washed down with a draught of water from a spring of wayside creek.”
Plus ça change…
To read more about West Philadelphia’s ecological history, see here:
Paulownia trees are blossoming across the city now. If you ride the El to Frankford, northeast out from center city, and you look out over the rooftops, you’ll see bright purple flowers growing on trees, all the way along the way, coming up in vacant lots, or in backyards, or from cracks in buildings high above the ground, or from cracks in the sidewalk down among the feet, with pretty much all of those trees having gotten where they are on their own, or with just the help of the wind. Or, if you walk the Benjamin Franklin Parkway northwest out from City Hall, you’ll also pass Paulownias there – these ones planted by people, in Logan Circle, halfway up the way to the Art Museum, and though having arrived there with help from humans, they also, just as well, are flowering fully in profusion here in Philadelphia, now. Anywhere they can get a hold, the Paulownia trees will grow, and the Paulownia trees will blossom, usually in May, or also in April, as they are doing this year.
This tree was originally from Japan, and arrived in Britain in 1840, having arrived in France a few years prior to that. The Paulownia got there because of Philip Franz von Siebold, and it was named for Anna Palowna, the hereditary Princess of the Netherlands, who was also the daughter of the Empress of Russia. And so it was an empress tree from the very beginning of its nomenclatural life.
Philip Franz von Siebold was a physician from what is now the south of Germany, who worked for the Dutch military in the far east. Working in Japan in the early part of the 19th century, he was at first restricted in his ability to leave his post and travel around the country because Japan was mostly closed to westerners at the time, but his medical skills ultimately gave him access to areas that others did not have – and so he was able to indulge his passion for natural history, in addition to others. Taking full advantage of this capacity to collect, Siebold sent back plants and plants and plants upon plants, sending them back home to Europe, and one of those plants was the Paulownia.
And so the Paulownia arrived in France in the 1830s. Daniel J. Browne, in his 1846 Trees of America, notes that the Paulownia was in the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris, and had hit a height of twenty feet by 1842, with leaves two feet in diameter, and had survived the winter of 1838-1839 “without any covering”. And by the 1860s, lichens were growing on Paulownias in the Jardin du Luxembourg (Nylander 1866). It had arrived, survived, and thrived.
We know an impressively large amount about how this tree came to be there. Joseph Henri François Neumann, the man who took care of the hothouses at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, wrote about the Paulownia, and what he wrote was translated and published in Andrew Jackson Downing’s journal, the Horticulturalist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste, in 1846:
“Some time ago I received a foreign seed, which produced a tree. This tree I kept two years in the hot-house because I had but a single specimen, and I was fearful of losing it. But soon after finding that the shelter did not suit its habits, I planted it in the open air. There it found a temperature similar to that of its native country. It soon developed itself with great luxuriance. The leaves became at least ten times larger than when in the hot house, which was probably too warm for it. Here it soon showed its flower and fruit and was in fact the fine tree from Japan to which botanists have since given the name of Paulownia imperialis. I am far from wishing to boast of having naturalized or acclimated it, since we cannot say that its nature has changed, or that it would not have stood at first with the greatest facility in our climate. But we can say that it finds at Paris almost the same temperature as in Japan, and that it thrives very well here.”
The Paulownia arrived in America soon thereafter. Daniel Browne (again writing in his 1846 Trees of America) says the introduction of Paulownia to the US was via Parson’s in 1843. Its presence at the Parson’s Nursery in Queens (NYC) by 1843 is noted in the American Agriculturalist of August 1843, and so we can be reasonably sure it was there, but it most likely also came into the US via other avenues as well.
William Kenrick, writing out of Boston, in his New American Orchardist in 1844 writes of “Paulownia… A new and splendid tree from Japan” and provides the following background:
“At the Garden of Plants in Paris the tree blossomed for the first time early in May 1842 the parent tree of all in France. In Normandy, the tree, while young, is tender, afterwards hardy. Such is my account, from the distant but most authentic resources The trees first sent me from France, early in 1842, being lost in the wreck of the ship Louis Philippe, new specimens were again sent early in 1843.”
And so it sounds as though it arrived in Boston at about the same time it would’ve gotten to Parson’s.
Well within twenty years of its introduction, the Paulownia was recognized as the vigorously growing tree it is – in the Transactions of the American Institute of the City of New York for the Years 1859-1860, a discussion is reported in which it is discussed how an inquirer might “prevent his maple trees from being destroyed by worms” and one answer given is “He must give up the Maple and plant Ailanthus.”, to which William Robert Prince, nurseryman of Queens, NYC, adds “Or Paulownia.”
This tree’s speedy growth is something that Thomas Meehan noted in his American Handbook of Ornamental Trees, writing that “It is as rapid a grower as the ailanthus, the wood and trunk of the tree also resembling it”, in 1853.
Andrew Jackson Downing also recognized the similarity to Ailanthus – “The Paulownia is an entirely new ornamental tree very lately introduced into our gardens and pleasure grounds from Japan and is likely to prove hardy here wherever the Ailantus stands the winter, being naturally from the same soil and climate as that tree.” Downing also writes of the Paulownia: “In its growth this tree while young equals or exceeds the Ailantus …” (from A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 2d edition, 1844)
Downing noticed its amazingly fast growth, too – “In rich soils near Paris it has produced shoots in a single season 12 or 14 feet in length.” – but given that rapid expansion who wouldn’t have noticed how speedy it grew? Downing also records the Paulownia’s flowering time as being about the same as now, “Its flower buds open during the last of April or early in May…” and also that it was “yet very rare”.
Downing believed that if the Paulownia were to end up being as hardy as they “confidently anticipate”, that “it will be worthy of a prominent place in every arrangement of choice ornamental trees.” (the above quotes from Downing are all from the 2d edition of his Treatise, in 1844)
But at this point, no one really knew the plant, and just how large and fast it could grow – Joseph Breck wrote in his Breck’s Book of Flowers in 1851: “To all appearances it will not grow to a very large size in our climate”.
And William Darlington writes in his book “American Weeds and Useful Plants” (2d edition, 1863), that the Paulownia is “A tree of very rapid growth and having a strong resemblance to the Catalpa. The young trees are remarkably vigorous and bear leaves of an enormous size. It is a little too delicate for the climate of New York, for three years preceding the present (1858) the flower buds have been very generally killed by the severe winters. The capsules remain on the tree for a very long time and injure its appearance.”
At its earliest days in the occident, as you might expect, the attributes of this tree were unknown – again from his Book of Flowers in 1851, Breck quotes Andrew Jackson Downing as writing: “When the Paulownia was first introduced into the Garden of Plants, at Paris, it was treated as a delicate green house plant. It was soon found, however, that it was perfectly hardy on the Continent and in England.” Nobody at that time knew just how well this tree could grow in the temperate cities of Europe and North America, but they tried it out nonetheless, and found it to be able. Very able.
The Paulownia, early on after its first introduction into the west, was seen as having enormous potential for horticulture, being a tough, fast growing tree with beautiful flowers, and it was predicted that it would soon be everywhere.
The tree likely came into Philadelphia through Robert Buist, the nurseryman who had a garden called Rosedale in what is now southwest Philadelphia. Meehan writes of the Paulownia (in the American Handbook of Ornamental Trees, 1853): “There are many fine specimens, though but recently introduced in some of our streets at Rosedale and many other places in the vicinity.” (thanks to Joel Fry, of Bartram’s Garden, for pointing me towards this quote – Joel also mentions that “This book by Meehan is largely a catalogue and description of the mature trees at Bartram’s Garden ca. 1851. The Paulownia does not seem to have been at Bartram’s then, or at least Meehan doesn’t specifically note it was here.”)
And so the Paulownia was rapidly being planted broadly. And it was also being planted in places of prominence. Thomas Meehan writes in his Gardener’s Monthly in September 1882, of the Paulownia:
“One of the first trees, perhaps among the very first trees introduced into the country, is now in Independence Square, Philadelphia. It must be about thirty-five years old. It was one of the first lot imported by the late Robert Buist, and presented by him to the city. It is probably eight feet in circumference, and may be sixty feet high.”
That tree was still there at the end of that century, as Meehan wrote in 1899
“Probably the largest specimen Empress Tree – Paulownia imperialis – in America, is in Independence Square, Philadelphia. It is one of the first lot introduced into America about fifty years ago, and was a gift to the city by the late Robert Buist, one of America’s famous nurserymen. It is now eleven feet in circumference, equalling in girth some of the old American Elms that were in the plot before the Revolution.”
But a tree isn’t just a trunk – it also has flowers. Meehan also wrote, in that 1882 article mentioned above, when he writes about the Paulownia, that “This magnificent tree has been in bloom abundantly everywhere this season”. He attributes this abundant blooming to attributes of Paulownia floral development: “The flower buds are formed in the autumn and are more or less injured by the winter. The past season being mild the flowers are unusually abundant.”
We, today, here in Philadelphia, had a mild winter this past year, perhaps providing us with pretty much the same thing as Meehan saw in the fall of 1882. A mild winter that would have led to less frost and cold damage to the overwintering buds means we may well be seeing more blooms than usual this year, in 2012, due to last year’s warm wintry months.
The flipside to this is that the overwintering flower buds of the Paulownia could also be seen as a problem – Thomas Meehan, in his Gardener’s Monthly, in 1865 (volume VII no. 6), writes:
“Upon the rural estate of S.G. Sharpless, Esq., on the Philadelphia and Westchester railroad, one of the finest in Chester county, there is a Paulownia Imperialis Tree, growing very thrifty; it forms blossom buds plentifully every year, but never blooms; and it is supposed that the cutting winds of winter so injure the buds that they cannot expand in spring.”
A similar concern was raised elsewhere, and later – in 1908, Angus Duncan, writing in England, in his book Hardy Ornamental Flowering Trees and Shrubs, sung the praises of Paulownia, but lamented that “Though perfectly hardy in other respects it is unfortunate that the season at which the Paulownia flowers is so early that, unless the conditions are unusually favourable, the flower buds get destroyed by the frost.”
There were other concerns – in another issue of Meehan’s Gardener’s Monthly from 1865 (volume VII, no. 2), Thomas Meehan also recommends “Paulownia, for those who like sweet or showy flowers regardless of an ugly growth.” So the habit was not necessarily considered attractive.
But into the 20th century, the Paulownia was still fully able to take a place of prominence. In the 1920s, in Philadelphia, when Logan Circle was set out with plants, this circle having been placed in the midst of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the grand boulevard that is our own Champs Élysées, our own reminiscence of France, of Paris, this parkway that is the Philadelphia passage from city to parkland, designed by Paul Philippe Cret to be our cultural boulevard stretching outwards from the center of our town to the heavens of art and nature – when Logan Circle was set like a gem within this diagonal jewelry of a drive, it was set with trees, and those trees were Paulownias.
And those trees lasted for decades – every spring sharing their blooms with the Parkway, and with the Academy of Natural Sciences right across the street, and with the main branch of the Philadelphia Free Library right there on the other side. These trees were taken down a few years ago, due to concerns related to their old age, and they were replaced shortly thereafter with new Paulownias, and those are the ones that are blooming there now.
But, however, to get back to the past, there were additional problems noted of the Paulownia, in addition to its “ugly growth” and the potential loss of its blooms due to too cold winters or late frosts – something that made this tree so attractive early on, its ability to thrive and survive in our climate, and more precisely in human constructed habitats in our climates, also gave it the potential to spread wildly in our cities, and, perhaps more of a cause for concern, to spread in yards and nearby uncultivated areas.
By 1905, it had “Escaped from cultivation”, as was noted in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s “Handbook of the Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity”, and even earlier, Nathaniel Lord Britton, in his 1901 “Manual of the Flora of the Northern States and Canada” mentions that Paulownia had “Escaped from cultivation N. Y. and N. J. to D. C. and Ga.” (the similarity in wording between Keller and Brown and Britton is not coincidental, by the way – Keller and Brown cite Britton’s Manual as their source, and also I transcribed the Britton commentary from Brown’s copy of the Manual, that he (Brown) had bought in 1901, fresh off the press – that copy is now at the Academy of Natural Sciences).
And by the 1920s, there were localities where it had fully filled in – such as occurred in northwest Philadelphia: “More than twenty years ago the late Alexander MacElwee collected the Bird Cherry in the northwestern part of Philadelphia, along Gorgas Lane in Germantown. In 1921 there was an opportunity with Mr. MacElwee’s assistance to re-explore this region which is near the head of Wingohocking Creek. He selected a position along the Philadelphia and Reading Railway just northwest of where Washington Lane Station is now located as probably the spot where he made his collection in 1899. Here, escaped the processes of “improvement,” are still remnants of natural woodland, now, however, filled up solidly in many places with the Empress Tree and the Gray Birch (a naturalized species here), as well as with an equally weedy growth of the Wild Black Cherry. Seedlings of the Bird Cherry and young trees up to six or seven feet high may be found scattered through the woodlands for at least a quarter mile. Near a picturesque, ruined old springhouse in these woods is a thirty-foot tree of the Bird Cherry. The large size and the proximity to the springhouse suggest the possibility of its being a relic of cultivation and the “mother tree” of the Bird Cherries in this vicinity.” (from Bayard Long’s “Naturalized Occurrence of Prunus padus in America”, Rhodora vol. 25, October 1923); I note that this is just northwest of where Meehan’s Nursery was, as one can see in a 1910 map, and that the above cited paper came out just before that nursery closed.
In the 1940 Andorra Hand-book of Trees and Shrubs, it is noted of the Paulownia that “It originally came from China, but has escaped from cultivation, and only when the great panicles of flowers, in May, pick it out of the landscape, do we realize how wide and general is the escape.”
And so, as time rolled on, the Paulownia fell from favor for many in horticulture – Michael Dirr in his Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs (2011) calls it a “total loser” (“In the standard frame of reference for shade trees”, at least).
In the 1980s, the Paulownia was still being sold, such as here. Its extraordinarily rapid growth was still a selling point, as were its brilliant flowers. And its valuable wood made it a target for criminals, such as the case of the “Fairmount Park chainsaw massacre” that was reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the 20th of May, 1983.
The prior year and a half had seen a spate of Paulownia thievery, with rustlers cutting down the trees to sell the wood in Japan to be used for “bridal trousseau chests, jewelry boxes and coffins.” This happened at least four times, with up to dozens of Paulownias being taken down – and in broad daylight, too. One arrest was made at 9:30AM on the 9th of May (in 1983).
In the Inquirer report of the above story, William Mifflin, the horticulturalist for Fairmount Park at the time, is quoted as saying that the Paulownia had never been planted intentionally by city landscapers and that the tree was introduced because its seeds were used as packing for porcelain shipped from China and that those seeds were then discarded as the packages were unpacked, thereby disseminating the seeds.
The article also mentions “Probably the most majestic display encircles the Logan Square fountain.”
None of those trees encircling that fountain were ever stolen, so far as I’m aware. They were also all planted there.
But it wasn’t only Philadelphia that saw this arboreal larceny. There was also a report in the New York Times, on the 18th of May 1989, of Paulownia thievery – “Several trees were lost on Riverside Drive a few years back, and the population of paulownias at Winterthur … has also been reduced by theft.”
And so there were, and are, a number of problems with growing Paulownias – they grow too fast, they flower too early, their wood proves too tempting for thieves… from its initial high hopes upon its introduction, reality intruded and the Paulownia, the empress tree named for royalty, has been found to be a tree like others, with some qualities that people like, and others that people do not.
Paulownias are still sold – for their colorful flowers and for their extraordinarily rapid growth, and sometimes with the caveat that they can take over a yard. And they also grow on their own, in vacant lots and along train tracks, up on the roofs of buildings and also in their concrete capped backyards, in all these places and many others, they come up on their own, without help from the hand of man or woman.
You can look out the window of a train going through North Philadelphia, you can look out the window of the El as it goes through Kensington and Frankford, you can look out the window of a car as it goes along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, at Logan Circle – through all these windows, in all these places, you can see the Paulownia; and at Cloverly Park, in Germantown, there is an especially large one, and there is also very large one at the Barnes Arboretum in Merion. It is a very democratic tree, growing throughout Philadelphia – sometimes put where it is by us, sometimes not, but it is all over the place, either way. Seemingly sometimes everywhere, the Paulownia grows and does so regardless of whether we put it there, or not.
To read about some other trees, see here:
[note: Paulownia trees are just beginning to flower in Philadelphia on the 8th of May 2014; they’re in full bloom throughout the city on the 9th of May 2015 – after a very late and cold winter, too]
All around Philadelphia, and in many other cities as well, the streets are lined with London Plane trees. These trees, with their trunks of exfoliating bark making them look to be covered in military camouflage, are recognizable from a hundred yards away. Or so I used to think, until I looked closely at the confusion and complexity that surrounds this seemingly simple and so common tree.
The London Plane is of hybrid origin – it is the offspring of two different species, the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and the Oriental plane (Platanus orientalis), and it is a tree that did not exist prior to European colonization of the new world. Before then, American sycamores and Oriental planes were kept separate by an ocean (the Atlantic if you’re going east from the US, or the Pacific if you want to go all the way around the other way), and they didn’t come together until the 17th century, when John Tradescant the Younger, a botanist and gardener (as was his father – John Tradescant the Elder, that is), came to the colonies in the early part of that century and in 1636 took the American sycamore to England. There were also Oriental planes in England at that time (they’re originally from the more eastern parts of Europe), however though the geographic distances that had previously kept the orientalis and occidentalis separate were gone, still for some time after 1636 age differences would have maintained that separation, as it takes time for trees to grow, and to make flowers, and to shed pollen, and to make new seeds for new plants. And so for some time these different plants, though now together after having been so long separated, would still have remained distinct from one another.
By 1700, though, east had met west. We know this because in that year Leonard Plukenet, yet another English botanist, described an intermediate between the Platanus species that were already known (i.e., orientalis and occidentalis), and so from this we can infer that the London plane had arisen by then, an intermediate that looked like what it was, a hybrid cross of two morphologically distinct species. How, when, where and why this happened, we do not know exactly, except that it was in England in the latter part of the 17th century (the latter part because it would have had to have been long enough after 1636 to have allowed for the seeds Tradescant brought back to have grown into seed bearing trees themselves). Other than that, we can’t say with more detail, with any confidence at least, when this hybridization event occurred.
It also isn’t clear when this hybrid, the London plane, came to the US (or one could say semi came back to the US, since half its genetics is from the new world) and to understand why, you have to understand the plants.
London planes look quite a bit like their parent species, as you might expect, since that’s how genetics works (like begets like), and so it can be difficult to differentiate them. This is something I learned recently – I had thought for years it was easy to tell them apart, to differentiate the London plane from the American sycamore. But, as with so many things, I realized that the closer I looked, the more complicated it became.
There are, broadly speaking, four main characters that are useful for telling these trees apart, the London plane and the American sycamore. Two of those characters involve the bark. On London planes, the military camouflage appearance mentioned above, in the first paragraph, is found up and down the trunk of the tree – on American sycamores, the bark is thick and rough up most of the main trunk of the tree, only exfoliating (peeling away) further up. And American sycamores generally have a white, and commonly bone-white, tone to the underbark that is exposed from the peeling away of the outer bark layers, while the London plane’s underbark will have a yellow or green tinge (or sometimes even a salmon orange color, as is found on a tree in Pastorius Park in Germantown, here in Philadelphia).
The leaves also differ – the leaves of both trees are lobed, and in the London plane, the center lobe is longer that it is wide, whereas the sycamore’s is generally wider than it is long. A final character separates the two – the flowers (and then later, of course, the fruits) are borne on dangling peduncles (what we might call “stems” in normal English), and in American sycamores these are borne singly, while on the London plane they hang in twos and threes.
Something else also differentiates these trees – their habitats. If you’re in the floodplain of a river or creek and you see a tree that looks like an American sycamore, it probably is. If you’re on a city street, and you see a tree that looks like a London plane, it most likely is. London planes are phenomenally sturdy street trees – they’re called “London planes” because they are and were so common throughout London, and while yes this is due to their attractiveness, it’s also because they were able to grow in the soot filled air of 19th century cities, and so became exceedingly popular, especially in London with its thick industrial era atmosphere. Since its introduction to urban life, this tree has had times of peak interest, and times of reduced interest, as is noted in William Flemer III’s article “Island and Median-Strip Planting”, in Arnoldia [vol. 44(4), pp, 14-28 (Fall 1984)]: “The London plane tree has gone through several cycles of popularity and disapproval. Many years ago a few nurserymen grew the trees from seed that produced great variation in habit of growth and disease resistance and this may be one cause for the disapproval. Another may be the plane tree’s vulnerability to canker stain disease, a serious condition spread by pruning tools or other mechanical means. The severity of the disease once led the city of Philadelphia to enact ordinances that prohibited planting the tree.” But, I should add, even though the London plane has had its ups and downs in popularity, it still, generally, will do better in an urban environment than the American sycamore will. This habitat differentiation is noticeable if you go to the Powell house on 5th Street in downtown Philadelphia – there is a London plane planted right next to an American sycamore. The London plane is doing quite well, happy as can be – the sycamore, much less so.
Another habitat in which one seems to often encounter American sycamores is graveyards. There’s an enormous sycamore in Greenwood Cemetery, in Frankford, and another one in the churchyard/graveyard of St. James the Lesser, which is up near Laurel Hill Cemetery – there’s also some planted in the Palmer Burial Ground in Fishtown, and quite a few planted in West Laurel Hill, just over the city’s border, in Bala Cynwyd; there’s also an enormous one in the Germantown Friends burial ground that you can see easily and clearly from Germantown Ave, if you’re standing just a bit west of Coulter St.; there’s also one in the Friends Meeting House yard at 4th and Arch – there used to be a cemetery there, too. [there’s also a very large American sycamore at the Germantown Cricket Club, next to the parking lot] The symbolism of this makes sense, planting sycamores in Christian cemeteries. In the gospels, e.g., in Luke 19, when Jesus is going through Jericho, Zacheus, the chief tax collector in town, climbs what is called a sycamore to see Jesus as he is walking by – Jesus sees Zacheus up in the tree and calls to him, and Zacheus then “received him joyously”, as it says in the King James Version. Now, this tree from the bible is said to have most likely been a sycamore fig, and certainly was not the sycamore that we have in the US, but the symbolism, one might imagine, would still work and would be effective, because in a graveyard in which the dead await the return of the messiah, one would want a tree for them to climb up on Jesus’s return, so they can see him, and perhaps more importantly, be seen by him.
American sycamores can also grow to enormous size – in the early part of the 20th century, the American Genetic Association put out a call for photos of and associated data for the largest trees in America. They published results of this in 1919, in the Journal of Heredity, and the largest tree by far was an American sycamore in Worthington, Indiana – it was 42 1/4 feet in circumference. London planes can grow quite large, but I’m not aware of any that come close to that kind of size.
However, even though there are a number of differences between these plants, it can still be difficult to tell them apart. Why? Because even though the London plane is of hybrid origin, it still makes viable seeds, and those seeds are enormously variable, because they contain the genetics of both the parent species, in every combination available. Also, the London plane can back cross with its parent species, thereby further mixing up the characters. And so, many of the trees I see in Philadelphia that I once would have easily called “London plane”, I’ve come to notice often have a mix of the characters with those of American sycamore – and so separating them isn’t so easy.
This all helps to make it difficult to figure out when the London plane came to the US – if we find it difficult now to separate them, it’s not like it was any easier in previous decades or centuries, and trees identified as Oriental planes and American sycamores in old documents quite easily could have been misidentified London planes. William Hamilton, owner of the Woodlands and an avid plant collector who sent numerous plants over from England in the 1780s, when he wrote to his gardener in 1785, he mentioned he had sent over 12 plants of “platanus orientalis”. This may well have been London plane trees. Or it might not have been. We will most likely never know, because absent the plant itself, the name alone just doesn’t tell us for sure what it is. This is the case for listings in numerous nursery catalogs (including Meehan’s) – Platanus orientalis, for example, may be listed for sale, but we just can’t be sure if that was what they were selling, and so tracking the movement of the London plane is difficult, if not impossible, to do. An example of this confusion can be found in an article in the magazine “Park and Cemetery Landscape Gardening” from 1916, where, in an article enumerating “Trees for Adverse City Conditions” includes “Platanus orientalis (The Oriental or London Plane)”
And even the plant’s name is confused and confusing. The latin name most commonly used for the London plane is Platanus x acerifolia (the “x” indicates its hybrid status), however, another valid name is Platanus x hybrida – this confusion arises because we don’t know which name, hybrida or acerifolia, came first, we don’t know which was assigned before the other. This is important to botanical taxonomists (i.e., people who name plants) because sometimes a plant is named more than once; for example if someone thinks they’ve discovered a new species, and they describe it and name it, but it turns out that they just didn’t know that someone else had named it before, well that first name that was applied previously is the one that is supposed to be used, and not the later one. This often simplifies things because the choice is based simply and solely on date of publication of the name of the species. However, it’s not always easy to figure that out, and this is one of those cases – while we know that both of these names for the London plane were assigned in 1805 (hybrida by Félix Brotero, a Portuguese botanist, and acerifolia by Carl Willdenow, a botanist in Berin), we don’t know exactly when within that year these names were used, and so priority is confused, and so are we.
And there are further questions of nomenclature here – due to the backcrossing with the parent species, and because plants grown from seeds that are progeny of a hybrid are not, strictly speaking, hybrids themselves, it furthermore becomes complicated as to whether or not many of the London planes we see should truly be called hybrids, and therefore include that little “x” in there.
The confusion doesn’t end there. Due to that Brotero name, “hybrida“, one might think that the hybrid origin of the London plane was clear and understood early on, or at least by the earliest part of the 19th century. But even this wasn’t clarified until much later, in 1919, when Augustine Henry and Margaret Flood thoughtfully marshaled the evidence – intermediate morphology that is between the two parent species, highly variable seeds that show traits of both parent species in various combinations – in a paper in the Proceedings of the Irish Royal Academy that clearly indicate that yes, the London plane is a hybrid of the trees from two continents. So perhaps the confusion does end there, at least for that one question, and at least for now.
To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban planning, see here:
To read about some other local Platanus, see here:
To read about some other trees, see here:
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:
For maps of West Park, see here: