Ailanthus, House Sparrows, and Eastern Gray Squirrels

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

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

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

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

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

And the Ailanthus webworm can currently be found in Philadelphia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reversed Fame

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

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

Sparrow Jack is buried in Ivy Hill Cemetery:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read even more about the Ailanthus, see here:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paper goes on to say:

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

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

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

But back to the trees…

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

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

But back to the park…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Native soil: Arkansas  $1.00/pc”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunting Park

West Fairmount Park (Michaux Grove, specifically)

Cresheim Creek

The Wissahickon (its hemlocks, specifically)

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

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:

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: )

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:, 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

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

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: ).  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:

Cedar Grove

There used to be a train station, in the lower northeast of Philadelphia, called Cedar Grove.  It was on Tabor Ave, just a bit southwest of Godfrey Ave, and was on the Frankford spur of the train line that goes to Fox Chase, which is in a bit farther part of the northeast of Philadelphia.  This spur went just about all the way to Frankford Ave, ending at a terminus between Unity and Sellers Streets.  It was a train line that carried freight and also passengers – starting in the late 19th century, it lasted well into the 20th century, going behind the Sears on the Boulevard, along the eastern edge of Northwood Park, and among the houses of heavily populated Frankford.

It also traveled through Cedar Grove.  This was the name of the neighborhood, as well as the train station, and up through the early part of the 20th century, it had open marshes and thickets, and forests with spring wildflowers, and wild flocks of birds filling the sky.

Cedar Grove is just to the east of Tacony Creek and just above the Boulevard, and in the early part of the 20th century it was quite unbuilt.  There were woods there, with beeches and oaks, and poplars and sweetgum and ash trees and sassafras, too, all growing there among each other.  In the spring there were anemones and partridge berries on the forest floor – and hayscented fern was there, as was the trout lily, one of the beautiful wildflowers of the spring, which would’ve come up year after year alongside the mayflower that was there, neighboring side by side with the bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia) and jack in the pulpits.

Another fern, royal fern, would’ve grown in low wet areas of the woods, and yet another fern, interrupted fern would’ve been a bit higher up.  Royal fern, whose latin name is Osmunda regalis, is in the same genus as the interrupted fern, Osmunda claytoniana.  The interrupted fern, however, likes it a little bit drier than its wetland cousin, and so would’ve been in areas a bit drier – upland and underneath the trees, growing along with and near the wood sedge that would’ve dotted the ground up there.

Dwarf ginseng was also in the woods of Cedar Grove, on the ground, growing among the willow oaks, and poison ivy scrambled there, too.  Pinxter, the azalea with its wild pink flowers, would’ve been a bright beacon in the forest of the early spring.

Beneath the beeches and the oaks were also Dutchman’s pipes, a plant also commonly called by its Latin name, Monotropa.  This is a parasitic plant, it doesn’t make its own sugar, it isn’t green, it doesn’t photosynthesize – it eats sugar that is carried through mycorrhizal fungi, this achlorophyllous plant parasitizing the fungus that in turn has gotten its sugar from a plant with which it is mutualistically symbiotic.

In addition to these forests, there were wide open flats, somewhat wet, in Cedar Grove, with sheep laurel and blueberries, and purple milkwort (Polygala sanguinea), too.  Swamp white oak and black willows made little canopies here and there in these wet areas, as woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus) nodded in the breeze nearby, bobbing along with the rustling of the narrow leaved and the wide leaved cattails.  Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) attracted the butterflies, and close to the ground, trailing lightly and low, was the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon).

And there were birds – enormous flocks of blackbirds flew above the flats.   And in the woods Eastern Towhees (which also used to be called, colloquially, “chewinks”) scratched and picked among the leaves, loudly and boldly, with White-throated Sparrows following behind them, picking through their trails.  American Kestrels (also known as sparrow hawks, back in the early 20th century) cruised above the long flat fields of Cedar Grove, and Ovenbirds walked among the forest trees, occasionally flying up to sit in a tree’s branch and sing.

Meadowlarks, now rarely seen in Frankford, used to be in Cedar Grove year round – in the middle of December, in flocks numbering to more than 25, they’d get flushed by a train going by and fly through the air.  And the Winter Wren was out along the train tracks, too, in the icy cold, a little chilled hobo out there in the sleet and snow.

So how do we know all this?  How can I say with such detail what was living and growing in Cedar Grove in the early 20th century, when I wasn’t there and wasn’t until many decades later?  Well, one can reconstruct former ecologies, one can estimate historic plant and animal communities, by knowing habitats of plants and animals, and figuring out, based on climate and soil and hydrology what the habitat of the site would have been in the past, and then, building from that information, one can construct a vision as to what would have been there in the past.  That’s one way to do it, and for most places in the world, that’s really the best you can do.

However, in Philadelphia, we very often have another way to do this – here, we have extensive written records and museum collections, and it’s amazing the level of detail available, documenting what has lived here before.  One might expect there to be records for cultivated plants in parks and gardens, because they were planted by people, and people can keep records.  But there is also extensive and intensive information available on many of the plants that grew without being planted by people, and for the animals that walked and flew among those plants.  Philadelphia’s rich history of natural history is unequalled for supplying this kind of information, and for keeping these records. [Note: There is also a record of a Herring Gull of which “Mr. Wm. Morris Whitaker also secured a specimen October, 1893, on a mill dam at Cedar Grove, Philadelphia, five miles from the Delaware.” from Witmer Stone’s “The Birds of Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey” (1894)]

And we can use those records, if we know about them, to learn about what was here before.  Or, if we don’t know about them, we can talk to those that do.  In 1910, Henry S. Borneman read a paper before the Historical Society of Frankford about the birds that were in the area, including Cedar Grove, in the late 19th and earliest 20th centuries.  Over a hundred years later, in 2012, Susan Couvreur and Diane Sadler, of the Historical Society of Frankford today, drew my attention to that work, with its richly detailed description of the bird life of Frankford, and also its discussions of the plants and habitats of the time.

There are also plants from Philadelphia that were, in many years past, collected, pressed, dried, and mounted on paper sheets, that are now deposited at the Department of Botany of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and these plants that were collected decades ago provide evidence of what is no longer there.  There’s also a list of historic collections of plants from Philadelphia, that was extracted from the Plants of Pennsylvania database maintained by the Morris Arboretum, that was kindly provided to me by Ann Rhoads and Tim Block (botanists at the Arboretum).  This list provides an effective guide to the many collections from Cedar Grove that have been made in the past.

There were collectors in years gone by that allowed me to develop this wonderfully rich description of a site that has changed so much.  Walter Benner collecting sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) on the 8th of July in 1926, in a moist thicket of Cedar Grove.  Samson McDowell, Jr collecting blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) in the moist woods there, on the 19th of May 1926.  These collections are now part of the Academy’s collections, and nearly 90 years later, their work allowed me to see first hand the plants that were there when they wandered through those open areas of Cedar Grove.

There are also maps, such as the 1895 and 1910 Bromley Atlases, from the Athenaeum of Philadelphia (available on, that show just how open the area was, how unbuilt it was a hundred years ago, and where the train line that cut through Cedar Grove went.

Taking these records, and applying some additional knowledge of ecology, we can describe Cedar Grove nearly as thoroughly as if we had walked through it ourselves – and a surprisingly detailed picture of this place in the early 20th century can be cobbled together.  Its open marshy areas and its forests, both of them rich with flowers and birds, the train line running through it, trees dotting the flats.  An evocative illustration can be drawn of a landscape that is no longer there.  And perhaps an evocative illustration can also be drawn of a landscape that is yet to be.

Paulownia tomentosa, the empress tree

Paulownia trees are blossoming across the city now.  If you ride the El to Frankford,  northeast out from center city, and you look out over the rooftops, you’ll see bright purple flowers growing on trees, all the way along the way, coming up in vacant lots, or in backyards, or from cracks in buildings high above the ground, or from cracks in the sidewalk down among the feet, with pretty much all of those trees having gotten where they are on their own, or with just the help of the wind.  Or, if you walk the Benjamin Franklin Parkway northwest out from City Hall, you’ll also pass Paulownias there – these ones planted by people, in Logan Circle, halfway up the way to the Art Museum, and though having arrived there with help from humans, they also, just as well, are flowering fully in profusion here in Philadelphia, now.  Anywhere they can get a hold, the Paulownia trees will grow, and the Paulownia trees will blossom, usually in May, or also in April, as they are doing this year.

This tree was originally from Japan, and arrived in Britain in 1840, having arrived in France a few years prior to that. The Paulownia got there because of Philip Franz von Siebold, and it was named for Anna Palowna, the hereditary Princess of the Netherlands, who was also the daughter of the Empress of Russia.  And so it was an empress tree from the very beginning of its nomenclatural life.

Philip Franz von Siebold was a physician from what is now the south of Germany, who worked for the Dutch military in the far east.  Working in Japan in the early part of the 19th century, he was at first restricted in his ability to leave his post and travel around the country because Japan was mostly closed to westerners at the time, but his medical skills ultimately gave him access to areas that others did not have – and so he was able to indulge his passion for natural history, in addition to others.  Taking full advantage of this capacity to collect, Siebold sent back plants and plants and plants upon plants, sending them back home to Europe, and one of those plants was the Paulownia.

And so the Paulownia arrived in France in the 1830s.  Daniel J. Browne, in his 1846 Trees of America, notes that the Paulownia was in the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris, and had hit a height of twenty feet by 1842, with leaves two feet in diameter, and had survived the winter of 1838-1839 “without any covering”.  It had arrived, survived, and thrived.

We know an impressively large amount about how this tree came to be there.  Joseph Henri François Neumann, the man who took care of the hothouses at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, wrote about the Paulownia, and what he wrote was translated and published in Andrew Jackson Downing’s journal, the Horticulturalist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste, in 1846:

“Some time ago I received a foreign seed, which produced a tree. This tree I kept two years in the hot-house because I had but a single specimen, and I was fearful of losing it.  But soon after finding that the shelter did not suit its habits, I planted it in the open air.  There it found a temperature similar to that of its native country. It soon developed itself with great luxuriance.  The leaves became at least ten times larger than when in the hot house, which was probably too warm for it.  Here it soon showed its flower and fruit and was in fact the fine tree from Japan to which botanists have since given the name of Paulownia imperialis.  I am far from wishing to boast of having naturalized or acclimated it, since we cannot say that its nature has changed, or that it would not have stood at first with the greatest facility in our climate.  But we can say that it finds at Paris almost the same temperature as in Japan, and that it thrives very well here.”

The Paulownia arrived in America soon thereafter.  Daniel Browne (again writing in his 1846 Trees of America) says the introduction of Paulownia to the US was via Parson’s in 1843.  Its presence at the Parson’s Nursery in Queens (NYC) by 1843 is noted in the American Agriculturalist of August 1843, and so we can be reasonably sure it was there, but it most likely also came into the US via other avenues as well.

William Kenrick, writing out of Boston, in his New American Orchardist in 1844 writes of “Paulownia… A new and splendid tree from Japan” and provides the following background:

“At the Garden of Plants in Paris the tree blossomed for the first time early in May 1842 the parent tree of all in France.  In Normandy, the tree, while young, is tender, afterwards hardy.  Such is my account, from the distant but most authentic resources The trees first sent me from France, early in 1842, being lost in the wreck of the ship Louis Philippe, new specimens were again sent early in 1843.”

And so it sounds as though it arrived in Boston at about the same time it would’ve gotten to Parson’s.

Well within twenty years of its introduction, the Paulownia was recognized as the vigorously growing tree it is – in the Transactions of the American Institute of the City of New York for the Years 1859-1860, a discussion is reported in which it is discussed how an inquirer might “prevent his maple trees from being destroyed by worms” and one answer given is “He must give up the Maple and plant Ailanthus.”, to which William Robert Prince, nurseryman of Queens, NYC, adds “Or Paulownia.”

This tree’s speedy growth is something that Thomas Meehan noted in his American Handbook of Ornamental Trees, writing that “It is as rapid a grower as the ailanthus, the wood and trunk of the tree also resembling it”, in 1853.

Andrew Jackson Downing also recognized the similarity to Ailanthus – “The Paulownia is an entirely new ornamental tree very lately introduced into our gardens and pleasure grounds from Japan and is likely to prove hardy here wherever the Ailantus stands the winter, being naturally from the same soil and climate as that tree.”  Downing also writes of the Paulownia: “In its growth this tree while young equals or exceeds the Ailantus …”  (from A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 2d edition, 1844)

Downing noticed its amazingly fast growth, too – “In rich soils near Paris it has produced shoots in a single season 12 or 14 feet in length.” – but given that rapid expansion who wouldn’t have noticed how speedy it grew?  Downing also records the Paulownia’s flowering time as being about the same as now, “Its flower buds open during the last of April or early in May…” and also that it was “yet very rare”.

Downing believed that if the Paulownia were to end up being as hardy as they “confidently anticipate”, that “it will be worthy of a prominent place in every arrangement of choice ornamental trees.” (the above quotes from Downing are all from the 2d edition of his Treatise, in 1844)

But at this point, no one really knew the plant, and just how large and fast it could grow – Joseph Breck wrote in his Breck’s Book of Flowers in 1851: “To all appearances it will not grow to a very large size in our climate”.

And William Darlington writes in his book “American Weeds and Useful Plants” (2d edition, 1863), that the Paulownia is “A tree of very rapid growth and having a strong resemblance to the Catalpa.  The young trees are remarkably vigorous and bear leaves of an enormous size.  It is a little too delicate for the climate of New York, for three years preceding the present (1858) the flower buds have been very generally killed by the severe winters.  The capsules remain on the tree for a very long time and injure its appearance.”

At its earliest days in the occident, as you might expect, the attributes of this tree were unknown – again from his Book of Flowers in 1851, Breck quotes Andrew Jackson Downing as writing: “When the Paulownia was first introduced into the Garden of Plants, at Paris, it was treated as a delicate green house plant.  It was soon found, however, that it was perfectly hardy on the Continent and in England.”  Nobody at that time knew just how well this tree could grow in the temperate cities of Europe and North America, but they tried it out nonetheless, and found it to be able.  Very able.

The Paulownia, early on after its first introduction into the west, was seen as having enormous potential for horticulture, being a tough, fast growing tree with beautiful flowers, and it was predicted that it would soon be everywhere.

The tree likely came into Philadelphia through Robert Buist, the nurseryman who had a garden called Rosedale in what is now southwest Philadelphia.  Meehan writes of the Paulownia (in the American Handbook of Ornamental Trees, 1853):  “There are many fine specimens, though but recently introduced in some of our streets at Rosedale and many other places in the vicinity.” (thanks to Joel Fry, of Bartram’s Garden, for pointing me towards this quote – Joel also mentions that “This book by Meehan is largely a catalogue and description of the mature trees at Bartram’s Garden ca. 1851. The Paulownia does not seem to have been at Bartram’s then, or at least Meehan doesn’t specifically note it was here.”)

And so the Paulownia was rapidly being planted broadly.   And it was also being planted in places of prominence.  Thomas Meehan writes in his Gardener’s Monthly in September 1882, of the Paulownia:

“One of the first trees, perhaps among the very first trees introduced into the country, is now in Independence Square, Philadelphia. It must be about thirty-five years old. It was one of the first lot imported by the late Robert Buist, and presented by him to the city. It is probably eight feet in circumference, and may be sixty feet high.”

That tree was still there at the end of that century, as Meehan wrote in 1899

“Probably the largest specimen Empress Tree – Paulownia imperialis – in America, is in Independence Square, Philadelphia.  It is one of the first lot introduced into America about fifty years ago, and was a gift to the city by the late Robert Buist, one of America’s famous nurserymen.  It is now eleven feet in circumference, equalling in girth some of the old American Elms that were in the plot before the Revolution.”

But a tree isn’t just a trunk – it also has flowers.  Meehan also wrote, in that 1882 article mentioned above, when he writes about the Paulownia, that “This magnificent tree has been in bloom abundantly everywhere this season”.  He attributes this abundant blooming to attributes of Paulownia floral development: “The flower buds are formed in the autumn and are more or less injured by the winter. The past season being mild the flowers are unusually abundant.”

We, today, here in Philadelphia, had a mild winter this past year, perhaps providing us with pretty much the same thing as Meehan saw in the fall of 1882.   A mild winter that would have led to less frost and cold damage to the overwintering buds means we may well be seeing more blooms than usual this year, in 2012, due to last year’s warm wintry months.

The flipside to this is that the overwintering flower buds of the Paulownia could also be seen as a problem – Thomas Meehan, in his Gardener’s Monthly, in 1865 (volume VII no. 6), writes:

“Upon the rural estate of S.G. Sharpless, Esq., on the Philadelphia and Westchester railroad, one of the finest in Chester county, there is a Paulownia Imperialis Tree, growing very thrifty; it forms blossom buds plentifully every year, but never blooms; and it is supposed that the cutting winds of winter so injure the buds that they cannot expand in spring.”

A similar concern was raised elsewhere, and later – in 1908, Angus Duncan, writing in England, in his book Hardy Ornamental Flowering Trees and Shrubs, sung the praises of Paulownia, but lamented that “Though perfectly hardy in other respects it is unfortunate that the season at which the Paulownia flowers is so early that, unless the conditions are unusually favourable, the flower buds get destroyed by the frost.”

There were other concerns – in another issue of Meehan’s Gardener’s Monthly from 1865 (volume VII, no. 2), Thomas Meehan also recommends “Paulownia, for those who like sweet or showy flowers regardless of an ugly growth.”  So the habit was not necessarily considered attractive.

But into the 20th century, the Paulownia was still fully able to take a place of prominence.  In the 1920s, in Philadelphia, when Logan Circle was set out with plants, this circle having been placed in the midst of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the grand boulevard that is our own Champs Élysées, our own reminiscence of France, of Paris, this parkway that is the Philadelphia passage from city to parkland, designed by Paul Philippe Cret to be our cultural boulevard stretching outwards from the center of our town to the heavens of art and nature – when Logan Circle was set like a gem within this diagonal jewelry of a drive, it was set with trees, and those trees were Paulownias.

And those trees lasted for decades – every spring sharing their blooms with the Parkway, and with the Academy of Natural Sciences right across the street, and with the main branch of the Philadelphia Free Library right there on the other side.  These trees were taken down a few years ago, due to concerns related to their old age, and they were replaced shortly thereafter with new Paulownias, and those are the ones that are blooming there now.

But, however, to get back to the past, there were additional problems noted of the Paulownia, in addition to its “ugly growth” and the potential loss of its blooms due to too cold winters or late frosts – something that made this tree so attractive early on, its ability to thrive and survive in our climate, and more precisely in human constructed habitats in our climates, also gave it the potential to spread wildly in our cities, and, perhaps more of a cause for concern, to spread in yards and nearby uncultivated areas.

By 1905, it had “Escaped from cultivation”, as was noted in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s “Handbook of the Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity”, and even earlier, Nathaniel Lord Britton, in his 1901 “Manual of the Flora of the Northern States and Canada” mentions that Paulownia had “Escaped from cultivation N. Y. and N. J. to D. C. and Ga.” (the similarity in wording between Keller and Brown and Britton is not coincidental, by the way – Keller and Brown cite Britton’s Manual as their source, and also I transcribed the Britton commentary from Brown’s copy of the Manual, that he (Brown) had bought in 1901, fresh off the press – that copy is now at the Academy of Natural Sciences).

And by the 1920s, there were localities where it had fully filled in – such as occurred in northwest Philadelphia: “More than twenty years ago the late Alexander MacElwee collected the Bird Cherry in the northwestern part of Philadelphia, along Gorgas Lane in Germantown. In 1921 there was an opportunity with Mr. MacElwee’s assistance to re-explore this region which is near the head of Wingohocking Creek.  He selected a position along the Philadelphia and Reading Railway just northwest of where Washington Lane Station is now located as probably the spot where he made his collection in 1899.  Here, escaped the processes of “improvement,” are still remnants of natural woodland, now, however, filled up solidly in many places with the Empress Tree and the Gray Birch (a naturalized species here), as well as with an equally weedy growth of the Wild Black Cherry.  Seedlings of the Bird Cherry and young trees up to six or seven feet high may be found scattered through the woodlands for at least a quarter mile.  Near a picturesque, ruined old springhouse in these woods is a thirty-foot tree of the Bird Cherry. The large size and the proximity to the springhouse suggest the possibility of its being a relic of cultivation and the “mother tree” of the Bird Cherries in this vicinity.” (from Bayard Long’s “Naturalized Occurrence of Prunus padus in America”, Rhodora vol. 25, October 1923); I note that this is just northwest of where Meehan’s Nursery was, as one can see in a 1910 map, and that the above cited paper came out just before that nursery closed.

In the 1940 Andorra Hand-book of Trees and Shrubs, it is noted of the Paulownia that “It originally came from China, but has escaped from cultivation, and only when the great panicles of flowers, in May, pick it out of the landscape, do we realize how wide and general is the escape.”

And so, as time rolled on, the Paulownia fell from favor for many in horticulture – Michael Dirr in his Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs (2011) calls it a “total loser” (“In the standard frame of reference for shade trees”, at least).

In the 1980s, the Paulownia was still being sold, such as here.  Its extraordinarily rapid growth was still a selling point, as were its brilliant flowers.  And its valuable wood made it a target for criminals, such as the case of the “Fairmount Park chainsaw massacre” that was reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the 20th of May, 1983.

The prior year and a half had seen a spate of Paulownia thievery, with rustlers cutting down the trees to sell the wood in Japan to be used for “bridal trousseau chests, jewelry boxes and coffins.”  This happened at least four times, with up to dozens of Paulownias being taken down – and in broad daylight, too.  One arrest was made at 9:30AM on the 9th of May (in 1983).

In the Inquirer report of the above story, William Mifflin, the horticulturalist for Fairmount Park at the time, is quoted as saying that the Paulownia had never been planted intentionally by city landscapers and that the tree was introduced because its seeds were used as packing for porcelain shipped from China and that those seeds were then discarded as the packages were unpacked, thereby disseminating the seeds.

The article also mentions “Probably the most majestic display encircles the Logan Square fountain.”

None of those trees encircling that fountain were ever stolen, so far as I’m aware.  They were also all planted there.

But it wasn’t only Philadelphia that saw this arboreal larceny.  There was also a report in the New York Times, on the 18th of May 1989, of Paulownia thievery – “Several trees were lost on Riverside Drive a few years back, and the population of paulownias at Winterthur … has also been reduced by theft.”

And so there were, and are, a number of problems with growing Paulownias – they grow too fast, they flower too early, their wood proves too tempting for thieves… from its initial high hopes upon its introduction, reality intruded and the Paulownia, the empress tree named for royalty, has been found to be a tree like others, with some qualities that people like, and others that people do not.

Paulownias are still sold – for their colorful flowers and for their extraordinarily rapid growth, and sometimes with the caveat that they can take over a yard.  And they also grow on their own, in vacant lots and along train tracks, up on the roofs of buildings and also in their concrete capped backyards, in all these places and many others, they come up on their own, without help from the hand of man or woman.

You can look out the window of a train going through North Philadelphia, you can look out the window of the El as it goes through Kensington and Frankford, you can look out the window of a car as it goes along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, at Logan Circle – through all these windows, in all these places, you can see the Paulownia; and at Cloverly Park, in Germantown, there is an especially large one, and there is also very large one at the Barnes Arboretum in Merion.  It is a very democratic tree, growing throughout Philadelphia – sometimes put where it is by us, sometimes not, but it is all over the place, either way.  Seemingly sometimes everywhere, the Paulownia grows and does so regardless of whether we put it there, or not.

To read about some other trees, see here:

The saucer magnolia

American Chestnut

American elms

“Penn treaty” elms

The Callery pear

The Caucasian zelkova

London planes and American sycamores

The sophora

Fringe tree

[note: Paulownia trees are just beginning to flower in Philadelphia on the 8th of May 2014; they’re in full bloom throughout the city on the 9th of May 2015 – after a very late and cold winter, too]

Chrysosplenium americanum

Some things last, some things don’t.  A tree like an oak, or a Sophora, or an elm that’s survived Dutch elm disease, these might last for decades, or even into centuries.  A wetland, however, and its concomitant plants, is very often a consistency of change, and this is especially true of the kind of wetland found in the lower areas of Philadelphia – as a stream winds and moves itself through the sand and gravel of the coastal plain, as the ebb and flow of the tides moves the soil here and there, as storms come and go, these wetlands change and shift, perpetually, as they always have.  They can also, especially if they are broad and flat, as many wetlands tend to be, get built upon.  If this happens, if a wetland is gone and built on, it can be difficult if not impossible to reconstruct just where it was, or what it looked like, or what grew there.  But this, sometimes, can be done.

There has been an ongoing effort in Pennsylvania to document the plants of this state, and this effort has led to collections of plants from across PA, and publications based on those collections (including the Plants of Pennsylvania by Ann Rhoads and Tim Block, now in its second edition), and to a database listing these collections – the Pennsylvania Flora Database.  In this database are thousands of plant records for Philadelphia, including one for Chrysosplenium americanum, the American golden saxifrage.

This collection was made by Bayard Long on the 1st of January, 1951, in East Oak Lane, near 2d St and 65th Ave.  Bayard Long was a botanist who worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences for about 50 years, up until the early 1960s, though he never took a paycheck – he was independently wealthy, loved plants, and devoted his time to learning about them, to studying them, to writing about them, and to collecting them.  He was extraordinarily well regarded – Merritt Fernald, botanist at Harvard University and author of the last two editions of Gray’s Manual of Botany (which was the guide to the plants of northeastern North America for most of the 20th century), considered Long a colleague.  Bayard Long’s expertise was well known to anyone who worked on or was interested in the botany of North America at the time, and it still is.

And Bayard Long, on new years day, 1951, went to collect plants in North Philadelphia.

He collected this little plant, Chrysosplenium americanum, and documented it.  This species is a smallish plant, maybe a few inches high, with greenish flowers generally less than a quarter inch across that bloom in spring to early summer – it grows in shady, muddy areas, and would be walked over, if walked by at all, by most people.  And Bayard Long collected it on a winter day, the first winter day of 1951.  And 60 years later, I found out about it, as I looked through the Philadelphia county records of the Pennsylvania Flora Database.

This plant, the American golden saxifrage, is an obligate wetland plant – it is a plant that is not found in drier, upland areas, but is only found in areas regularly inundated with water. This is where it needs to live, and so we know that if it was growing at 2d and 65th, and we do know that it was, then there was a wetland there.  And so I wondered where Bayard Long collected it, where was the wetland that he went to on that cold day in January, over half a century before?  I thought at first it might have been at the Oak Lane Reservoir, between 3d and 5th Streets and between 65th and Chelten Avenues.  Perhaps there had been a wet area associated with the reservoir, a seep perhaps, or a bank or a bit of overflow, where the American golden saxifrage could’ve taken hold.  And, perhaps, 2d Street and 65th Avenue was just the closest street crossing, or where he’d started collecting that day, and so that was what was written down as the locality data.  But Bayard Long was precise, and he was accurate.  If he had collected it at the reservoir, he would have written that he had collected it at the reservoir.  So that wasn’t it.

And so there had to be a wetland very close to or right at 2d and 65th – and there was.  If you look at the G. W. Bromley map of Philadelphia from 1910, you’ll see two streams reaching around, encircling 2d and 65th, and inbetween them, inbetween those streams, would have been a wetland – habitat for this obligate wetland plant.

I’ve never seen this plant in Philadelphia, and so I looked to see if the site might, somehow, still be open, and perhaps Chrysosplenium americanum might, somehow, still be there.  But it’s now covered over.  In the 1950s, Cardinal Dougherty High School was built on top of that site – and after looking at the old maps, the first thing I wondered is what that place looked like before the building was built, when it was open, and the wetland was there.  Well, the school’s website provides.  Cardinal Dougherty history includes a photograph of the groundbreaking for Cardinal Dougherty High School, four and a half years after Bayard Long collected there, and we can see what it looked like then:

Cardinal Dougherty groundbreaking 28th of June 1955

Cardinal Dougherty groundbreaking, 28th of June 1955
Photograph from:

And so the first thing I wondered about, what it looked like, is in part answered.  There was a wooded area there, as we can see from the background, and so the entire area wasn’t always flooded.  This is also evidenced by the people standing there – none of them are wearing heavy boots and so the meadow they’re in most likely wasn’t flooded at least at the time this photograph was taken.  But late June is a bit past the time to get spring floods, and so while this area was not a wet meadow in the summertime, it may well have gotten wet in the earlier springtime.  And even though right then and there it was reasonably dry, we know from the old 1910 map that there were streams running nearby and we know from that old plant collection of Bayard Long’s that there was a wetland there into the early fifties.

And so the second thing I wonder about is if the high school’s basement floods.  Because flowing beneath this school, below the buildings, are streams, as flow beneath many sites in Philadelphia.  Packed away, covered from the daylight, they still flow beneath the city as sewers, or seeping through the ground.  Through pipes and through dirt, the water still runs, it still moves – and when that water moves, those ancient streams will flow, and when they flow, they will flow, and the water will wander where ever it will, even into a Catholic school’s basement, if there are cracks or holes in the walls or the floors, which there may well be.

Cardinal Dougherty High School is now closed.  It’s last class was graduated in 2010.  The buildings still remain, but the school is no more – it no longer is what it once was, and it no longer does what it once did.  This was a wetland sixty years ago, and then it was a school for decades, and it will be something else next.  But things will get left behind as evidence of what was here, or perhaps they won’t.  Things change, but often some things stay.  Even though the wetland where Cardinal Dougherty’s buildings now stand is itself now gone, a memento of it remains, in the Chrysosplenium americanum that Bayard Long collected in 1951.  And so we know what was here, because someone kept it.

There are other wetland plants with histories in Philadelphia – plants such as Micranthemum micranthemoides, Aeschynomene virginica, Zizania aquatica, Sagittaria latifolia (also known under a former name, engelmannia) – all of them tracking historic wetlands that are no longer there, or if they are there, they are changed from how they were in the past.  We can still, sometimes, track back to see how they were, to see where the water flowed above and saturated into the ground, and maybe even to find a picture to see what they looked like, back then.  But like everything, those wetlands are no longer as they were.  However, we can still piece together these little puzzles to think about what they once might have been when they were assembled so differently than they are today.



(Note: in 1860, Joseph Darrach reported Chrysosplenium americanum as flowering in April in Philadelphia; this was reported in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia)