A history of natural history at the Woodlands

On Sunday, the 16th of September, 2012 there was a joint program of the American Entomological Society, the Philadelphia Botanical Club, and the Woodlands Historical Mansion, Cemetery, and Landscape – “Plants and Insects of the Woodlands”.  However, this was by no means the first exploration of the natural history there…

The Woodlands was originally the estate of William Hamilton, where in the late 18th Century he established a large collection of native and imported plants and he lived until his death in 1813, having influenced landscapes through his plant introductions and landscape design (for example the Lombardy poplar, seen in the background of this print here, from 1800, was a Hamilton introduction; the tree of heaven was, as well). [to read more about Hamilton’s extensive plant introductions in the 1780s, one may look here, or at the series of papers in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, (“Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary”), published sequentially in numbers one, two and three of volume 29, in 1905] The estate was purchased and transformed into a cemetery in 1840, and now forms The Woodlands National Landmark District (also quite a bit of the land was sold, including some of it to the University of Pennsylvania). It has been continuously planted with native and introduced plants for over two centuries (and included a commercial greenhouse in the late 1830s and 1840s, run by Henry Dreer) and has been maintained as a cemetery (primarily in the rural cemetery style) for over a century and a half.

The site has an area set aside for a small apiary, with various flowers in bloom in the fall; there is an edge environment along the perimeter, and many older native and imported trees are found throughout the cemetery.

On the 16th of September in 2012, we did a broad survey of the insects and plants (woody and herbaceous) of this site and met in front of the main house at 11 AM – from there we surveyed the insects on the rare zelkova in front of the house, and then looked at other habitats (including the seven English elms, and towards the large mulberry in the back). Here are a couple of the insects we saw (and in addition to the ones shown below, and many others as well, we also saw a Locust Borer beetle on its favored food of goldenrod):

Black Swallowtail

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), the Woodlands, 16 September 2012; photograph by Larry Henderson

Chinese mantid

Chinese Mantid (Tenodera sinensis) on goldenrod, the Woodlands – in the meadow near the apiary, 16 September 2012; photo by Larry Henderson

There are historic records of insects here, as well, well prior to when we were there in 2012, including one from over a hundred years ago of the species of mantis pictured above – documented at the Woodlands in the Entomological News and Proceedings of the Entomological Section of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia: ”A meeting of the American Entomological Society was held October 25, 1906, Dr. Calvert, President, in the Chair.” “Dr Calvert said five specimens of Tenodera sinensis were seen in Woodland cemetery, West Philadelphia, during the second week of October, which had probably been introduced from the adjoining grounds of the Botanical Garden of the University of Pennsylvania” (NB: Tenodera sinensis, of which an example is in the photograph above, has also gone under the name Tenodera aridifolia at other times)  This species, originally from Asia (as its name indicates), was first discovered in North America right here in Philadelphia, by Philip Laurent, as he reports in the Entomological News in June 1898: “The specimen was captured on the 16th of last October at Mt. Airy, Philadelphia, by my neighbor, Mr. Joseph Hindermyer, who found the insect resting on the upper part of one of his tomato vine. Mr. H., not being familiar with the insect’s harmless nature, was afraid to touch it, but at last managed to secure it in a paste-board box, in which condition it was brought to me.” (thanks to Ken Frank, for sending me that reference)  Later, in Mark Vernon Slingerland’s 1900 The Common European Praying Mantis, he writes that “Three or four years ago a specimen or two of a large Mantid were found in the nursery of Thomas Meehan & Sons at Germantown, Pa” and that “Last year it was reported that there was no doubt that this large Oriental Mantid had gained a firm foothold in Meehan’s nursery and was well established there.” But back to the 21st century … we noted there were remnants of insects on the plants, too:

Hemiptera eggs from Z carpinifolia_6333 Sept 16, 2012 Ken Frank photograph

Hemiptera eggs from a leaf of the Woodlands Zelkova carpinifolia, photographed by Ken Frank, 16th of September 2012

We also noted a small, recently planted southern magnolia that is there, right in front of the mansion, and note that this species, though southern, as its name alludes, was here in Hamilton’s time, as we see from a quote from the botanist Francois Andre Michaux’s 1818 North American Sylva (English translation by Hillhouse, 1859): “In the garden of the late Mr. W. Hamilton, near Philadelphia, I saw a Big Laurel [=Magnolia grandiflora] which bore uninjured the rigorous climate of this part of Pennsylvania”.  This tree was reasonably commonly planted in Philadelphia by the late 19th century, as Joseph Meehan notes in 1897: “There are several trees about this city some of them of very large size.” (Gardening magazine, Aug 1st, 1897; thanks to Joel Fry for pointing out this reference)

Another tree that was here in Hamilton’s time that was also noted by Michaux was the black gum, also known as the tupelo – latin name: Nyssa sylvatica.  Michaux writes: “In the park of Mr. W. Hamilton at the Woodlands, near Philadelphia, I first observed the Black Gum. The river Schuylkill in this vicinity may be assumed as its northern boundary, though it is common in the woods on the road from Philadelphia to Baltimore.” (Michaux, North American Sylva, vol. 3)  Barton (1818) also notes it as being here, “On the Woodlands.” There was also a white oak (Quercus alba) here with a curious tint: “Some stocks produce acorns of a deep blue color; but I have found only two indications of this variety, one a flourishing tree in the garden of Mr. W. Hamilton, near Philadelphia, and the other in Virginia” (Michaux, North American Sylva, vol. 1).  He also noted that Quercus prinoides (“Small Chesnut Oak”) was here: “It grows spontaneously in the park of Mr. W. Hamilton, near Philadelphia.” [However, Keller and Brown (1905) don’t list Q. prinoides as being in Philadelphia, though they do have it for Bucks, Delaware, and Chester counties, and Lancaster and Northampton counties, too] There were also ginkgos there, in Hamilton’s time, this tree having been introduced by him in 1785 – and as John Thomson Faris wrote in 1932, in Old gardens in and about Philadelphia and those who made them: ‘To-day one of these is more than six feet in circumference, while the other is more than seven feet, and seventy-five feet tall.  In 1919 Professor Sargent, of the Arnold Arboretum, spoke of these as among the most noteworthy of exotic trees that have been planted in the United States.  Then he said that both trees are males, and come into flower about May twenty-eighth or May thirtieth. “Synchronously with them a female tree three miles away in Overbrook is ready to receive the pollen which may be accidentally blown from the male trees in the Woodlands” ‘ [to read more about the ginkgo, see here: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20141109_A_Philly_tradition_fades__Asian_immigrants_and_ginkgo_picking.html]

There were other plants here as well: “No catalogue of the treasures in Hamilton’s Garden would be complete that fails to mention the papaws, the English elms, the first ailanthus tree planted in America in 1784, whose descendants lived in the garden for many years, the buckeye, the catalpa, the honey-locust and the mossy-cup oak.  Then there were specimens of the princess tree, the cypress, the purple beech, the box elder, the persimmon, and the yellow jasmine which was attached to the mansion.

The rarest species in the garden, of course, except the ginkgo tree, were the four representatives of Zelkova crenata, from the Caucasus.”  (John Thomson Faris (1932); Old gardens in and about Philadelphia and those who made them) Plants grown from seeds collected on the Lewis and Clark expedition grew here as well, in Hamilton’s time, as is related by Faris, again, but this time quoting Rodney True (botany professor at Penn): “The seeds collected by the expedition seem in a measure to have been taken in charge by Jefferson, who divided the major part of them into two portions, which were given to Bernard McMahon, a botanist and nurseryman living in Philadelphia, and to William Hamilton of the same place, the wealthy landowner of the famous gardens known as the Woodlands, by whom they were successfully grown.”  (John Thomson Faris, 1932, Old gardens in and about Philadelphia and those who made them)

Additionally, historically, there were greenhouse plants here, thousands of them in Hamilton’s time, and beyond, as is described in a 1908 article on Henry Dreer (whom you’ll remember from above ran a commercial operation at the Woodlands), in Gardening magazine (vol. XVI):

“In 1839 the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article eulogizing a fine display the young firm had made at Parkinson’s saloons, then a favorite gathering place for fashionable folk of the city.  It is interesting to note, from the clipping, which is reproduced in the book, that 8,000 dahlias were included in the decorations, the date being September 26, 1839.  These and the other flowers used came from the greenhouses of the firm which were then located on the Hamilton estate, Woodlands, where is now Woodlands cemetery”

According to the history of Dreer’s in their 70th anniversary Garden Book, published in 1908:

“Parkinson’s Restaurant was then at 714 Chestnut Street. Twenty-four years later, Mr. Henry A. Dreer purchased this building where he had made his first public exhibition of flowers and removed thither his seed store which had outgrown its former location. There it has remained until the present day, a period of 45 years. Numerous additions and enlargements have been necessary and a few years ago a large new seed warehouse was erected nearby on Washington Square [this was at 710 South Washington Square – the building is still there] , but the old store with its many associations is still retained.  The ground where it stands was formerly owned by Robert Morris, financier of the Revolution. “

If you go there today, or look on Google Street View, you can see that the building at 714 Chestnut is still there:

If you angle up you can see that top part of 714 Chestnut looks to be quite similar to how it was a century ago, also for 716; and for 714, if you go there in person, you will see that the words you can see in the areas just below the second floor windows (“Seeds” to the left, “Plants” to the right) that were there in 1908 are still there today. The Dreer nurseries ultimately moved to Riverton, NJ (and this was the site of the first known US introduction of the Japanese Beetle, in 1917) – they also had nurseries at 35th and what is now Wallace, in Mantua (as one can see from the 1862 Smedley map here) and also at Belmont Avenue and Ford Road near where Belmont Reservoir is now – this is noted in the 1862-3 Dreer catalog; and can be seen in the 1895 and 1910 Bromley maps where one can see that in 1895 the Dreer nursery was just south of the Belmont Reservoir, where the filter plant now is, and by 1910 it was replaced by that filter plant.

But back to the Woodlands…

There’s historic records of other plants there, as well – in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s 1905 Hand-Book of the Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity, we find Artemisia absinthium, Aster paniculatus, Cynanchum nigrum, Duchesnea indica (Indian strawberry), Erigeron philadelphicus, Lamium purpureum (deadnettle), Papaver somniferum, Silphium perfoliatum, Solidago flexicaulis (seen by Thomas Githens [specimen not at PH]), Verbesina alternifolia, Xanthorrhiza apiifolium (“reported at one time along Schuylkill near Woodlands” – the current binomial for this plant is Xanthorrhiza simplicissima, but it is still called yellowroot in the common parlance), and Xanthoxylum americanum, all listed with locality of the Woodlands. [NB: this is a complete list of plants from the Woodlands that are listed in Keller and Brown] And in the herbarium of the Botany Department of the Academy of Natural Sciences, there is a collection from Sept. 21, 1943, by N. A. Erisman, of Impatiens biflora (=capensis), whose habitat and locality is listed as: “moist ground along streamlet, between University Boulevard & Woodland Cemetery” Also at the Academy are collections of wild strawberry (Fragaria virginica) from the Woodlands, from the 8th of May 1887 (collected by Alexander MacElwee) and the 14th of September 1894 (collected by Thomas S. Githens).

And in William P. C. Barton’s 1818 Compendium Florae Philadelphicae, he notes of Sonchus floridanus (what we would call Lactuca floridana): “On the bank walk of the Schuylkill from Gray’s Ferry to Kingsess Gardens.  Also on the Woodlands near the Schuylkill; not common.”  And of Callitriche heterophylla – “In springs, rivulets and brooks, where the water is clear – on the bank-walk to the Woodlands most abundant”.  And there were carnivorous plants, the round leaved sundew, or Drosera rotundifolia: “Common in sphagnous and cranberry swamps in Jersey, and in bogs this side of the river.  On and near the Woodlands, frequent.”  And another wetland plant, Eriophorum virginicum, Virginian cotton-grass, “In boggy grounds, common.  On the Woodlands, abundant.”  And Heteranthera reniformis, “An aquatic plant, with broad kidney-shaped floating leaves…” that was “In the neighborhood of Philadelphia, common; in the stagnant shallow waters, on yellow clayey soil, opposite to the entrance to the Woodlands, and close to the road, abundant”.  And Pycnanthemum incanum: “It possesses the fine odour of Origanum vulgare.  On a bluff bordering the Schuylkill, Woodlands; abundant.”  And Comandra umbellata – bastard toadflax – which was “Very rare in this neighborhood [i.e, Philadelphia]; I have only found it at the Woodlands along the banks of the Schuylkill.”  And Virginian speedwell, Leptandra virginica, what we’d now call Veronicastrum virginicum – “Somewhat rare, though plentiful where found.  Woodlands, on the bluff of a hill bordering the Schuylkill; and in a shady wood near Powellton.”  And Sisyrinchium anceps (what we would call S. angustifolium), a blue-eyed grass, “In fields, not infrequent, particularly on the Woodlands.”  And Liatris spicata, the blue blazing star “…a very elegant plant.  Flowers purple, in long crowded spikes.  Near Frankford, and on the Woodlands; rare.  Possesses medicinal vitrtues.”  And Elymus villosus (hairy wildrye) – “On the rocky eminences near the Schuylkill, west side, between Market street bridge and the Woodlands.  Rare.”  And Trifolium reflexum (Buffaloe Clover): “On the bluff bordering the Schuylkill, Woodlands ; rare.”  And, Fedia (Valerianella) radiata, or “beaked cornsalad”, as it is called by some, or “Lamb’s lettuce”, as it is called by others (including Barton): “Often met with in fields west of the Schuylkill, but most abundant between the upper-ferry bridge (near Lemon-hill) and Kingsess Gardens, along the course of the Schuylkill, and not far from its margins.  In great profusion between Market street bridge and the upper-ferry, along the declivity of the high bank.”  For a geographic note here, under Collinsonia, Barton notes: “Also in the woods between Kingsess Gardens (Bartram’s) and Gray’s Ferry”, and so, presumably, “Kingsess Gardens” refers to Bartram’s Garden.

The Woodlands was, in general, extraordinarily well regarded botanically in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as we can see from Frederick Pursh’s description of it, in his Flora Americae Septentrionalis (1814), which immediately follows his description of Bartram’s:

“Not far from the latter place are also the extensive gardens of William Hamilton, Esq., called the Woodlands, which I found not only rich in plants from all parts of the world, but particularly so in rare and new American species. Philadelphia being a central situation, and extremely well calculated for the cultivation of plants from all the other parts of North America, I found this collection particularly valuable for furnishing me with a general knowledge of the plants of that country, preparatory to more extensive travels into the interior, for the discovery of new and unknown subjects. Mr. John Lyon, (of whom I shall have an opportunity to speak hereafter,) who had the management of these gardens, was then about to give them up : having the offer of being appointed his successor, I embraced it, and accordingly in 1802 I entered upon the situation. During my stay in this place, which was until 1805, I received and collected plants from all parts of North America ; and when Michaux’s “Flora Boreali-Americana” appeared, which was during that time, I was not only in possession of most of his plants, but had then a considerable number not described by him.”

The landscape was a bit different, in Hamilton’s time, more pastoral, in parts, as we see from a letter he wrote to his gardener, sent on the 12th of June 1790: “After the immense pains I took in removing the exotics to the north front of the House by way of experiment, & the Hurry of coming away preventing my arranging them, you will naturally suppose me anxious to know the success as to ye plants and the effect as to appearance in ye approach & also their security from cattle.” (from “Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary (concluded)”; The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1905), pp. 257-267) [according to John Thomson Faris (Old gardens in and about Philadelphia and those who made them; 1932), Benjamin H. Smith, the author/compiler of the above cited work, was “the grandson of the secretary who bore the same name.” (that is, he was the grandson of Hamilton’s ‘Private Secretary’ of the paper’s title); he also collected hawthorns at Bartram’s Garden]

There’s also a historic record of insect-plant interactions at the Woodlands (an interesting counterpoint, perhaps, to the mammal-plant interactions just mentioned); from the Asa Gray Bulletin, vol VI  (1899), John Harshberger notes: “On June 29, 1894, while walking in Woodland Cemetery, Philadelphia, where Scutellaria pilosa grows abundantly, I saw an humble bee at work perforating the flowers of this pretty skull-cap.” There is even a record of a Turbellid, a planarian like worm, called Phagocota gracilis, as we see in Roman Kenk’s Freshwater Triclads (Turbellaria) of North America IV: the polypharyngeal species of Phagocota (Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology, Number 80, 1970), where he cites a locality for this species as “Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia (*Hyman 1937a: 399)” [the “Hyman” refers to Libby Hyman and the “1937” refers to her 1937 paper in the Transactions of the American Microscopical Society [56:298-310] ).  This species was named by Joseph Leidy, in 1847, ‘who indicated its geographic distribution as “springs in Eastern Pennsylvania” ‘

And minerals, too – in volume one of the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, published in December of 1818, Isaac Lea writes “An Account of the Minerals at present known to exist in the vicinity of Philadelphia”, and includes “Mica.  Glimmer.”:

“This occurs exceedingly abundant in the primitive formation of our neighbourhood. We find it in hexaedral prisms and tabulated, on the Schuylkill, near Germantown, and on the Wilmington road near the Woodlands, where I have found hexaedral crystals of black mica, circumscribed by those of a light brown, forming curious specimens.”

There is, additionally, a history of slime molds here, as is noted in John Harshberger’s 1901 paper in the Botanical Gazette (Vol 31), “Observations upon the Feeding Plasmodia of Fuligo septica” (Harshberger was a botany professor at Penn):

“While searching for Mycetozoa [=slime molds] in the wooded valley incorporated as part of Woodlands cemetery, West Philadelphia, a luxuriant growth of Pleurotus sapidus was found upon some partially decayed logs, which had been piled up in a loose manner preparatory to burning. In removing several large pieces of this fungus, small patches of yellow plasmodium were found upon the lamellar surface of the fully expanded pilei.  These protoplasmic masses had moved out from the rotten log where they were seen in the crevices, and had invaded the gill surface of Pleurotus sapidus.”

As we move forward in the 20th century, there’s also aerial photos that include the Woodlands, as can be seen here, from 1936, and here from 1939, and another from 1936, and yet another from 1936.  And if you look in the back in this one:

West Phila 1939_Library Company Digital Arachives

West Philadelphia, 1939 – Aero Service Corporation. Image from the Library Company of Philadelphia digital collections; the Woodlands can be seen in the upper left of the photograph

you can see how the Woodlands, by the 1930s, was a swath of green in a heavily urbanized environment. The Woodlands has been maintained and managed since Hamilton’s time, as we see from this quote, in a letter he wrote on the 12th of June 1790: “Common sense would point out the necessity of my having constant information respecting the grass grounds at Bush Hill [another Hamilton property in Philadelphia] and at the Woodlands which must be now nearly in a state for mowing. . . It would have been an agreeable circumstance to me to have heard the large sumachs & lombardy poplars as well as the magnolias have not been neglected.” (from “Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary (concluded)”; The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1905), pp. 257-267) And so then, as today, the grounds were mown, trees were tended – though now there is less acreage, it is still thoughtfully taken care of today.

On the 30th of May 1955, Edgar T. Wherry collected Festuca elatior from a “Sandy mud-flat at west end of campus, U.P., [=University of Pennsylvania] / Woodland Ave. near 38th St.” (that collection is now in the herbarium of the Botany Department of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia).

Following a long tradition that dates from Benjamin Smith Barton in the early 19th century and goes on to John Harshberger in the early 20th century, and that I continue today in the early part of the 21st, of taking Penn classes to the Woodlands, I took my City Planning class to the Woodlands on the 21st of March 2014 – and we saw a Woodcock (Scolopax minor), right in front of the house and whinnying as it flew away. [For an earlier and nearby record of a Woodcock, see Samuel Scoville’s “The Wildness of Philadelphia“, written in 1925, wherein he writes thusly about what have elsewhere been called the spruce street swamps: “In that same enchanted spot, where one could step from a crowded city street and be safe among the sweet wild folk in another world, I roused my first woodcock, who had dropped there one March day to rest.”]

On the 10th of February, 2015, we did a survey of the Woodlands, primarily focused on winter fruit and winter birds.  We noted that the Taxus baccata behind the house had no arils, and that the Chinese holly right nearby it had no fruit on it (Jessica Baumert mentioned that American Robins had eaten the fruit from that tree not long before the day we were there). There were sapsucker holes in the Pinus nigra near the house and in the Ilex opaca near the carriage house, and in a Chamaecyparis, too.  In a row of hollies just beyond the fence on the western side (in the area currently used for recreation), there were abundant fruits on the trees, and we saw a Mockingbird, an American Robin, and a gull flying overhead.  We shortly thereafter heard a nuthatch call.  There were hornets nests in the yew near the western fence and in a hackberry closer to Woodland Avenue and another in a black cherry.  In a set of four yew (Taxus baccata) trees – numbers 106, 107, 108 and 109 – we saw three Golden-crowned Kinglets actively feeding at the outer edge of the canopy crown; we watched for over 15 minutes (they were at and just slightly above eye level), and at times the birds flew in our direction, and we easily approached within 1.5 meter of them, and they continued to eat and flit.   We heard male and female cardinals chirping to each other across the drive just west of the entrance, and further east, across another path, we heard another pair doing the same (M in Chamaecyparis, F in Cryptomeria).  Pieris japonica was in fruit.  Three chickadees were actively feeding in an ash tree near the scrubby area near the VA hospital.  Nearby to that, in that aforementioned scrubby area, was a nest that looked like that of a hawk’s (it was similar to a squirrel’s, but it was made of sticks instead of leaves).  A redbud had fruit on it, as did a Chinese holly near the carriage house.  At the back fence a Hedera helix vine had fruit on it.  There was a robin’s nest in a hackberry near the carriage house, and as we left, at about 2PM, a Carolina wren was calling and singing in the meadow, perched up high as we watched.

There’s also a long history of birding at the Woodlands, as we see from 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 he notes that there were additional birds found at the Woodlands (Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Indigo Bunting, Magnolia Warbler, and House Wren).  [to look at modern bird lists for the Woodlands, see here] And he describes Hamilton Walk as “shaded with tall poplars, weeping willows, maples, oaks and other American shade trees planted as memorials to eminent Pennsylvanians…”

Nitzsche notes the changing environment, from bucolic, to the one we see in the photo above, and mentions the loss of bird species on the Penn campus, and encapsulates that sentiment in a line “…even the robins now seem to consider our campus an unfit place to rear their young.” He also notes:

“The peaceful atmosphere of Woodlands Cemetery and the primitive nature of the ravine which separates Woodlands from our Botanic Gardens should bring many attractive songsters [=birds] to the University grounds.”

For directions and more information on the Woodlands, visit: www.woodlandsphila.org

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

https://cemeterylandmanagement.wordpress.com/

To read about some more landscape history and natural history of cemeteries  – see here:

Wissinoming (including Mt. Carmel Cemetery)

The Trees of Monument Cemetery

Oakland Cemetery

A different zelkova (Woodlands Cemetery)

Feral landscaping (Woodlands and Mt. Moriah cemeteries)

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William Hamilton, Lombardy poplars, and the landscape of cemeteries

From Erica Maust, of the Woodlands Historic Mansion, Cemetery, and Landscape:

“In 1784, William Hamilton introduced the Lombardy poplar to North America on his Philadelphia estate, The Woodlands. In 1788, a visitor to The Woodlands wrote that Hamilton’s walks were “planted on each side with the most beautiful & curious flowers & shrubs. They are in some parts enclosed with the Lombardy poplar except here & there openings are left to give you a view of some fine trees or beautiful prospect beyond…”

Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut was the first private, non-profit cemetery in the world. Organized in 1796 as “the New Burying Ground in New Haven,” it was one of the earliest cemeteries to have a planned layout with privately owned family lots, named streets and avenues, and arrangements of ornamental plantings. The original 1796 planting scheme of the cemetery featured regular rows of–you guessed it!–Lombardy poplars (the very same tree Hamilton introduced to North America 12 years earlier), along with a poplar grove and meadow at the rear of the cemetery.

44 years later, in 1840, Hamilton’s very own landscaped Woodlands became a planned, rural cemetery, preserving his landscape and horticultural pursuits.”

For more, see here:

https://www.facebook.com/woodlandsphila

And for more about William Hamilton and the Lombardy poplar:

http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/904.pdf

A yellow rose in West Philadelphia

In the 19th century, A. J. Drexel lived in a mansion at the southeast corner of 39th and Walnut, and as with any estate of the time, it had a garden and was landscaped (Alexander MacElwee worked there in the 1880s).

As the 20th century rolled in, the property was purchased by Samuel S. Fels, who “made his money in the manufacture of Fels Naptha, a popular household soap“, and the institute that now bears his surname is currently there, in the building that Fels had built in 1907.

Are there plants there now that date to when this site was an estate? Yes, there is a copper beech just to the east of the Fels Institute building, right near the street, on just the other side of the fence, that from its size looks to date to the late 19th century, and so would have been there when Drexel was, and when Fels was, and on to the current time.(note: copper beeches were often estate plantings in the mid to late 19th century and can outlast the estate itself, like the magnificent copper beech currently standing in Overington Park, in Frankford)

copper beech

Copper beech, 39th and Walnut; Photo by MH Andrews Holmes; 24th of May 2013

And if we go down the street a little bit, to the next door down, towards 38th Street, in front of the building that now houses the offices of the President of the University of Pennsylvania, the former Eisenlohr Hall, there is a large rose, that was blooming with yellow flowers this past week:

yellow rose bars

Photo by MH Andrews Holmes; 24th of May 2013

I’m not sure how old that rose plant is, but its girth seemed to indicate a substantial age –

yellow rose stem

Photo by MH Andrews Holmes; 24th of May 2013

And so I wondered if perhaps it might have been there when that block was occupied by Drexel and was landscaped by Alexander MacElwee, and/or if perhaps it dated to the time of Fels, when he was living here.

And so I looked at some old pictures – 

If we look at a photo of this block from 1912, we see buildings that are still there, and some that are not:38th and walnut

The first building, on the left, in the foreground, is no longer there – but the second set back is; it’s directly to the east of the house with the yellow rose.

And if we look even closer, between the third and fourth trees back, on the left side of the street, we see the post behind which that yellow rose is currently growing.  And if we then look even a bit closer, we see what looks to be a row of three shrubs, perpendicular to the street and running south, that look to have pretty dense foliage, unlike what this rose most likely would have looked like as a younger plant.

And so this rose most likely was not there in Drexel’s time.

If we look at another photo of this block, this time from the opposite direction (i.e., looking east), and from 1931, we see this:

39th and walnut 1931

The first house on the right is the house with the yellow rose, and we can see that it is quite densely landscaped in 1931 – and by 1970 at least the front part of that landscape was changed to a much more open aspect:

3812 walnut 1970

And so we see that there was extensive removal of shrubbery from the front of the building by that time (1970, that is).  This suggests that what was there prior to the early 1930s (i.e., the time of Samuel Fels) was removed by 1970, and therefore would imply that this rose does not date to his time, either.

But we can’t see to the side where the rose is now, and so we don’t know for sure it was there or not, and so our question goes unanswered, as to whether this yellow rose was there in the time of Fels, based on old photographs.

But there is a quick work around to this question, one that answers it clearly and concisely: this rose cultivar wasn’t introduced until 1956, and so we know that it post dates the time of Drexel, and the time of Fels (who passed away in 1950).

And so, the yellow rose of West Philadelphia, while beautiful, is not ancient.

yellow rose reaching towards the sky

Photo by MH Andrews Holmes; 24th of May 2013

Which hawthorns are at Bartram’s Garden, and where are they?

Joel Fry, Curator at Bartram’s Garden, answers these questions, and more….

[please note that hawthorn (= the genus Crataegus) taxonomy contains many uncertainties, and that Joel has noted where modern names are not clearly applicable to historic names and where identification of plants is not clear cut – and hence the use of words like “possibly” and “likely”, inter alia]

The 3 trees southwest of the Bartram House all seem to be Crataegus flabellata, fanleaf hawthorn.

The tree that is southeast of the Bartram House and down the steps from the upper terrace (i.e., in what we call the “Lower Garden”) is likely Crataegus succulenta var. macracantha, fleshy hawthorn.

The tree at the southeast gate to the historic garden is Crataegus mollis, downy hawthorn.

Additionally there are a number of hawthorns planted on the entry drive, and there are others that may have been planted or may be volunteer seedlings.

Along the Bartram village side of the entry lane are many Crataegus phaenopyrum, Washington hawthorn. These were planted in the 1950s by the John Bartram Association. There are also a few isolated Washington hawthorns on the CSX railroad [this refers to the railroad tracks that pass through Bartram’s below grade] side of the entry, that look larger and may have been planted earlier, in the 1940s or 1930s.  But at that date the current entry road to the garden did not exist, so it seems an unlikely place for planting. They might be volunteer trees that sprouted in the brush along the railroad in the first half of the 20th century.  Or they could have also been planted in the 1950s, but grew larger due to better conditions.

There is also a large, old Crataegus crus-galli, cockspur hawthorn along the CSX side of the entry, that recently lost most of its top growth, but still seems alive. This is a very large hawthorn that could easily date to the first third of the 20th c. There are other cockspur hawthorns as volunteer trees throughout the entire site. There is one very near the gate into the administration building and garden barn, and several down along the river bank in the wetland at the foot of the historic garden.

There is another very large volunteer hawthorn along the main CSX railroad line just before 54th and Lindbergh. It grows right on the edge of the cleared bank at the railroad bridge, and is lately partially engulphed in paper mulberries. This hawthorn also looks like a volunteer tree, as it is halfway down the slope of the railroad cut. I saw recently the tree is now covered with a very large quantity of large scarlet fruit. It is different from any of the other Crataegus in the garden, and may be Crataegus pedicellata (C. coccinea), scarlet hawthorn, which has large clusters of large, soft fruit.  This scarlet hawthorn seems to grow like the downy hawthorn with a larger trunk and large, wooly leaves, but much more fruit which is scarlet, rather than yellowish orange. It also looks to be free of the rust or fungus that attacks some of the other hawthorns and their fruit.

Crataegus pedicellata, scarlet hawthorn is one of the hawthorns recorded for the John Bartram period so it would be useful to have more examples, and it may be one of the most attractive/useful of all the native hawthorns.

There are also 2 or more hawthorns in the historic Orchard tract, mostly along the edge of the 1838 railroad cut. These don’t fruit well, and are currently much overgrown,  covered with porcelain berry or other vines, so it’s difficult to identify what they might be.

Additionally, Joel supplies the names of Crataegus that John Bartram used in his seed box lists in the 18th century:

Firstly: John Bartram generally used the genus “Crataegus” to mean what is now called Amelanchier, or Aronia/Photinia, although he also used the genus “Mespilus” to mean some modern Amelanchier.  I think this relates to the great variability of stamens that forced theses several genera into different Linnaean Classes–one of the great failings and confusions of the original Sexual System.

When John Bartram named what are now considered Crataegus he almost always called them some type of “thorn” in English. [These names range from 1754-1769]

Bartram’s “narrow leaved thorn” or “cockspur thorn” = modern Crataegus crus-galli

“broad leaved thorn” = Crataegus flabellata (possibly)

“dwarf haw” = Crataegus uniflora (possibly)

William Bartram’s plant lists add a few more Crataegus species, that were likely growing at Bartram’s Garden. In 1783 he (Willam Bartram, that is) adopted the genus “Mespilus” in describing all the hawthorns. Like his father he used “Crategus” [Willam Bartram’s spelling] for modern  Aronia/Photinia  and some Amelanchier.  [All from the 1783 broadside Catalogue of Bartram’s Garden.]

“Mespilus Spinoza, Cockspur Hawthorn” = Crataegus crus-galli

“Mespilus Apiifolia, Carolina Hawthorn” = Crataegus marshallii

“Mespilus Azarol, Great Hawthorn” = Crataegus mollis (possibly)

“Mespilus Humilis, Dwarf Hawthorn” = Crataegus uniflora (possibly)

[Note: there was a Crataegus named for John Bartram, that was collected, by Alexander MacElwee, at a locality noted as “Lane near Bartram’s old garden” on “June 3, 1901”, and given the name “Crataegus bartramiana, specimens of it are currently at the herbarium of the Academy of Natural Sciences (PH); it was also collected by MacElwee on 20 September 1902 and B. H. Smith on the 24th of May 1905 and the 25th of May 1912 (noted as from “type tree!”).  There is also a record of Crataegus tatnalliana growing at Bartram’s, from a collection at PH, collected by B.H. Smith on the 28th of August 1904, and also a note in Keller and Brown’s 1905 Flora of Philadelphia]

For more about Bartram’s:

Rhubarb

Some botanical history

Drier West Philadelphia

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:

https://growinghistory.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/the-spruce-street-swamps/

The Spruce Street Swamps

If you were to walk down Spruce Street in West Philadelphia today, going westward from the University of Pennsylvania, you would see a lot of houses, and a lot of pavement – concrete sidewalk, asphalt streets, building materials of numerous variety, all covering the ground that lies beneath.  There are, of course, also many trees you would walk by – the magnificent Franklinia at the southeast corner of 42d and Spruce is a classic, and directly across from it, at the southwest corner of that same set of cross streets, is a large and majestic, though wildly trimmed, Paulownia.  Also along that south side of the street is a row of houses dating from the 1880s, and they are guarded out front by their regularly spaced and by now quite large squadron of Japanese maples.

And the north side of the street is not lacking for lignin either – there is an enormous white oak in the churchyard there, on the north side of the street, in the same block that includes the Sadie Alexander School, between 42d and 43d Streets, north of Spruce.  In that yard are also two pines – one an eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) and the other a Himalayan pine (Pinus wallichiana) – paired up against each other, along 42d Street, ready to be compared.  These are two tree species that I’d found difficult to differentiate until I came across these two examples right next to each other, set up like a coniferous teaching collection, just waiting for some comparative taxonomy.  Both of these species are five needle pines (pine trees’ needles, of all pine species, are arranged in clusters, called fascicles, and all pines either have five needles, or two-or-three needles), and those needles are somewhat light in both strobus and wallichiana, and both of them have rough, platey bark, and so it’s not easy to tell them apart, until you see them right next to each other, as one does here at 42d and Spruce.  Here you can see that the needles of the Himalayan pine are longer, and more droopy (“pendulant”, one might say), as compared to the white pine’s needles, which are more upright, and look, to me, a bit like little fireworks’ bursts, as compared to the more hanging tresses of the Himalayan pine.  (also, as my friend and botanical compadre Doug Goldman has reminded me, wallichiana cones are much larger than those of strobus)  And if you go and take a look at them, and look at their bark, you’ll see by the horizontal arrangement of holes on the wallichiana, and the absence of such holes in the strobus, that sapsuckers (a kind of woodpecker) are able to tell these two species apart.  Both of them are quite attractive trees, and both do quite well in Philadelphia, and I hadn’t realized how common the Himalayan pine is here until I learned to tell it apart from its cousin, and these two trees at 42d and Spruce were quite helpful for getting me to learn how to do that.  (to read more about this block, see here: http://blog.philadelphiarealestate.com/buildings-then-and-now-sprucing-up-university-city-in-the-1880s/ )

And so, I guess I’ve made the point quite well that there are quite a few trees along Spruce Street here – now, on with the peripateticism…

As we are walking along, heading west, if we were to look back towards Penn (fondly, one hopes), we’ll see the street sloping down, and we’ll realize that our legs might be a little sore from having been walking uphill to get where we are, and that we most likely broke a sweat (we’d definitely be sweating on a day with weather like we’ve been having recently), and then as we turn around, facing our goal of heading west, then we see that there’s still a bit of hill ahead of us – up to 45th Street, where there is a rise that we can stand on top of like a little king of the world, and then, towards 46th Street, after we cross the rise, the ground angles downwards.

If we were here a hundred and twenty years ago, this would have looked quite different, though some of the angles would have still been similar.  In the early 1890s, the surfaces we see now would not have been here, not the sidewalks, nor the asphalt.  Though this dip was here, it was through a very different landscape – it was a different world back then, and one we know about in surprising detail, due to the wanderings of Alexander MacElwee, among other sources.

The go-to book to learn about botanists of Philadelphia up until the 20th century is John Harshberger’s The Botanists of Philadelphia and Their Work, and the following biographical information is from that book –

Alexander MacElwee was born in Scotland in 1869 to a relatively large family (he was one of eleven children).  Alexander was the eldest of the younger MacElwees, and he went to school before finally getting to go to work at the age of twelve years old.  After a couple of years of working in Glasgow, he went to join his parents who had already arrived here in the new world of Philadelphia.  His first job, this was in 1883, was working in a garden at 39th and Walnut – the garden was owned by A. J. Drexel (see the 1895 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), who would go on to start up the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry, which would then go on to become Drexel University in west Philadelphia, just north of Penn. (NB: that location is now occupied by Penn’s Fels Institute of Government – do any of the plants now there date to MacElwee’s time?  I don’t know)

MacElwee worked in Drexel’s garden, and also began to learn formal botany by going to meetings of the Botanical Section of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and after a few years, he moved up, both geographically and hierarchically – he went to work at Hugh Graham’s nursery, right near Girard College in North Philadelphia .  This nursery was at 18th and Thompson, and Mr. MacElwee “had charge of several houses, one entirely of ferns, another of palms, etc (Harshberger, 1899).  [The Graham Nurseries was at the NW corner, caddy corner across from St. Joe’s, as may be seen on G. M. Hopkin’s 1875 map of Philadelphia – incidentally, as is noted in his obituary in volume 38 of the magazine “Christian Nation”, Hugh Graham worked as department manager for John Wanamaker prior to becoming a somewhat major Philadelphia florist (he also had “large nurseries at Logan Station, near Philadelphia” [as of 1895, they were at 13th and Loudon, bounded on the west side by Old York Rd]); Mr. Graham died of pneumonia on the 14th of March 1903.]

But MacElwee was to move on soon again – to work as an apprentice bricklayer for a time (during which he had the spare time to expand his knowledge of natural history by field work and by working with botanical museum collections), and then on to work in John Wanamaker’s garden in Jenkintown, and then on to the College of Pharmacy (now the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia) to work with their museum collections of dried, pressed plants.  And as he worked, he learned, and in 1894 he went to work for the University of Pennsylvania laying out the Botanical Garden that was being planned.

As we learn from MacElwee’s obituary in Bartonia (the journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club), No. 9, 1925-26, “Mac” continued to work at a number of places, until 1917 when he “was appointed landscape gardener by the park commissioners of Philadelphia.”  His dream was to have an arboretum, and he worked assiduously towards that end – traveling to the Arnold Arboretum, to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, to the Seed and Plant Introduction Service in Washington, DC.  He gathered an immense number of plants and brought them back home to propagate – “thousands of the rarer rhododendrons, flowering cherries, barberries, hydrangeas, hollies, lilacs, roses, crab apples, oaks, loniceras, etc., etc., were started in the Park nurseries, intended for the Arboretum.  Now that the master spirit has gone the project of the Arboretum has rested almost inactive, but these young trees and shrubs remain and form a nucleus from which MacElwee’s dream should be developed.”  Mr. MacElwee passed away on the 23d of January 1923.

While he was alive, Alexander MacElwee, like most botanists, liked to be on the go – he was like this with respect to his working life, as we have seen in the above paragraphs, and also with respect to his day to day ways and wanderings, which he diligently recorded with pencil, pen and paper.  And from these writings of his perambulations, we can learn what was here before.

MacElwee’s field notes are in the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and going through them, with the help of the Academy’s archivists, Clare Flemming and Megan Gibes, we see a man who liked to walk, and they also show with great detail the places where he walked.

Like 46th and Spruce, for example, the dip in the road that I mentioned above.  MacElwee walked near there, in the early 1890s, and after he got home, he wrote the following:

“March 27, 1893
This eve, when coming home from work through the marshy hollow south of Walnut St. and west of 46th Street, I found some boys fishing for tadpoles.  I was not aware that one could find tadpoles this early in the season.  These I seen were of good size, having heads about 1/2 long, and tail twice as long.  The boys caught them by dipping up a large can of water out of the stream and then pouring the water out slowly and catching the tadpoles as they appeared and putting them into another which contained their captives.  One of the boys said he was going to raise them in an aquarium.”

(the underlining is from the original)

This isn’t the only mention he makes of this area – in an entry for the 1st April  1893, he mentions finding Alnus (alder), in flower, in a marsh west of 45thSt. and between Walnut and Spruce.  A few days later, on the 6th of April 1893, he came across “A large spreading tree in the hollow 46 + Chestnut”, at the southwest corner, that was “Probably Acer saccharinum” (i.e., silver maple – a tree still commonly seen throughout west Philadelphia as a street, yard, and park tree – but on its own, without humans planting it, it’s generally a wetland tree).

A bit later on in the year, on the 17th of June of 1893, Alexander MacElwee took a walk and came across a shrub of the Eastern Wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) “in front of farm house about 47 and Pine St.”, and some American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) in the “Spruce St. Swamp”,. as he called it.  That same day (the 17th of June, that is), and right nearby, he saw an American hornbean (Carpinus carolinianus) “At spring W. side of Spruce St. swamp”.

If we look at Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s Handbook of the Flora of Philadelphia (published in 1905), we see a couple of entries that also let us know that this area was a wet one, such as –

“Sagittaria Engelmannia …Shallow water.  Summer.
Philadelphia – 46th and Spruce Streets”

This entry is quite likely based on a collection that is in the herbarium of the Department of Botany of the Academy of Natural Sciences, here in Philadelphia – it is a specimen labeled Sagittaria latifolia (the current name of this plant that Keller and Brown list under S. engelmanniana), and the label’s locality data says “stream near 46th and Spruce Sts” and is dated the 4th of September 1887.  [this also indicates are reasonably high quality wetland was there at the time – in Small et al’s 1994 paper in Restoration Ecology, “A Macrophyte-Based Rapid Biosurvey of Stream Water Quality: Restoration at the Watershed Scale”, they report Sagitaria latifolia from nearly 27% of the high quality streams they surveyed in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, yet not at all from their low quality stream sites]

Another entry in Keller and Brown’s flora locates a wet area here – a record of Salix alba (white willow), which prefers “Moist soil” (as Keller and Brown note) is also there, noted as being at 46th and Chestnut.

However, this area wasn’t all swamp and wetland – there would have been some drier, upland areas, too, as is indicated by another collection by Alexander McElwee, of Castanea dentata, from 46th and Spruce, this one from the 3d of July 1887 (and also currently accessioned in the Academy’s herbarium).  Castanea dentata, or the American chestnut, as it is more commonly known, isn’t one to grow in swamps around here (though up in New England I would see it sometimes in moist areas), and so its presence, as indicated by this collection, in turn indicates that some areas were up above the wet – it wasn’t all swamp and marshes.

And so from these notes from these fieldbooks in the Academy’s archives, and from collections in the Academy’s botany department, and from Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s book, we see that up until the end of the 19th century this was an open area, the area nearby to 46th and Spruce, with farmhouses, and wetlands – streams, hollows, and marshes.  And it went on, this open area, out south and westward:

“On one of the vacant fields near 50 + Baltimore Ave. is a large spot where sods had been cut off last spring.  I notice that all this spot (and it is quite extensive) a thick crop of Ambrosia artemisaefolia (roman wormwood) has sprung.  It is rather remarkable.  This land has not I suppose been turned under by the plough for years.  There are one or two other things among it, but the Ambrosia predominates where the sod has been cut off. growing densely to a uniform height of 7 or 8 inches.  In many cultivated fields further on  I noticed plenty of it.  But it is not so remarkable in such situations.”

And as further evidence of open areas in this part of town, in Keller and Brown’s 1905 Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity, they list Centaurea nigra (knapweed) as having a habitat of “Waste places” and a locality of “48th and Baltimore”.

There were also more wet areas, going west – Black Oak Park (now called Malcolm X Park) had some, out at 51st and Pine (the park extends down to 52d and Larchwood), as is shown by the entries in the Plants of Pennsylvania database for Carex annectens and Cyperus odaratus, with locality data identified as “Black Oak Park” – both of these are facultative wetland plants (that is, they can grow in wet areas, but don’t require it, and can grow in drier spots), and so while they don’t indicate absolutely a wetland, they do imply some moist area was there, in what is now a dry city park, still with trees throughout its environs, though, and even at least one that is a wetland tree.  At the northern boundary of the park, between 51st and 52d Streets along Pine Street, there is a magnificent blackgum tree (Nyssa sylvatica), a tree also known as the tupelo –  a tree that on its own is a wetland plant, but also does pretty well as a tree in drier areas (like a city street or park), and it stands tall in the middle of west Philadelphia, at the northern border of Malcolm X Park.

By the 1920s, at least, this park was pretty dry, as is indicated by the following photos:

Black Oak Park (now called Malcolm X Park) – entrance – 51st and Larchwood; 16th of May, 1927 – image from PhillyHistory.org

Black Oak Park (now called Malcolm X Park) – 52nd and Pine Streets – 28th of March 1921 – image from PhillyHistory.org

These scattered collections and references illustrate just how much of west Philadelphia had wetlands and hills, and wetland plants and upland plants, and farms and farmhouses, too – up until at least 1910, this area west of 46th Street was still open, as is indicated by G. W. Bromley’s map (accessible here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/ ).  And if one were to look at Mr. Bromley’s 1895 map, a map that is also available at the aforementioned address, one would see a stream running up north along 46th Street, and by looking back a little further in time, for example to Samuel Smedley’s 1862 map, one would see that this stream was a tributary of Mill Creek, which flowed into the Schuylkill after stopping for a break at a mill pond at what is now Clark Park (a large park that spreads south from 42d and Baltimore Avenue). [and there was “Desintegrated Feldspar.  Kaolin.” here as well: “Feldspar in a state of decomposition exists on the canal road, and on Mill creek, near the Baltimore turnpike…” (Isaac Lea, “An Account of the Minerals at present known to exist in the vicinity of Philadelphia”, Vol. 1, Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, December of 1818)]

These areas, while now paved over, filled in, and leveled, still have parks and yards and street trees – they have changed and been changed, been paved over and built upon, but as always, life remains and plants grow, in different environments than before, and often, though not always, with different plants than were there before, but marking, in everlasting flux, the perpetually changing times the city lives through, always and in all ways, and endlessly transformed.

And of course it is not only the plants and the landscape that change, but the animals as well, such as the birds, as is noted in George Nitzsche’s 1917 article in the Penn Gazette (“Bring Song Birds Back to Campus!”), where he notes a list of 72 birds compiled in 1906 by Cornelius Weygandt (Professor of English at Penn) and his compatriots, and comments on the changes in the avifauna, from the ten years prior, to his time then – he notes one change especially: “The English sparrow has invaded, in greater numbers each year, our suburbs, our public parks and squares, and other little breathing places in great cities.”  This was due in part to expanding urbanization but also to the introduction of this European species to the new world, an introduction that was the largest here in Philadelphia: “This year (1869) witnessed the importation, in one lot, of a thousand Sparrows by the city government of Philadelphia ; and this probably Is the largest single importation of Sparrows ever made to this country.”  (Walter Barrows, 1889, “The English Sparrow in North America Especially Its Relations to Agriculture”)  And so the changes wrought come from many causes.

Of course, while some things do change, others don’t so much, and so I would like to close with a final quote from Alexander MacElwee, from 1893:

“Requisites for the Botanist and Entomologist while on the march.

1:- Money. This is an indispensable article and mainly used for carfare, ferries, etc

2:- Provisions. This may consist of a good lunch of sandwich.  pastry or extra side dishes can be dispensed with.  It is surprising how delicious a couple of slices of bread and butter with a little cheese is after tramping several miles in the country, washed down with a draught of water from a spring of wayside creek.”

Plus ça change…

To read more about West Philadelphia’s ecological history, see here:

https://growinghistory.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/drier-west-philadelphia/

A different zelkova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://cemeterylandmanagement.wordpress.com/

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

Some Plants and Insects of the Woodlands

The trees of Monument Cemetery

Oakland Cemetery

Wissinoming, including Mt. Carmel cemetery

Cedar Grove

Hunting Park

Feral landscaping (Woodlands and Mt. Moriah cemeteries)

And to read about some other trees, see here:

American elms

“Penn treaty” elms

The saucer magnolia

American Chestnut

The Callery pear

Paulownia tomentosa, the empress tree

London planes and American sycamores

The sophora

Fringe tree