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History and Nature Intertwine at The Wagner Free Institute of Science

Originally written by David Hewitt on the blog Growing History; adapted by Wagner’s Cara Scharf

North Philadelphia, with its closely packed houses and shops, cracked sidewalks and streets, and vacant lots and overgrown parks, is not necessarily where you’d expect to find a historic landscape.

London PlaneIt’s there, however, in the yard of the Wagner Free Institute of Science. Though there are many historic plants in the yard, some of the most noticeable are the large trees such as London planes (Platanus x acerifolia) and silver maples (Acer saccharinum) that ring the yard. Their size alone suggests they have been here for a while, but how long and where did they come from?

The first question is reasonably straightforward to answer.  To find out how old a tree is, you either cut it down and count its rings or you take a core sample and count the rings that way.  The latter leaves the tree standing, so Wagner faculty member David Hewitt, Ned Barnard, a fellow historic tree enthusiast and author of New York City Trees, and a few others used an 18” corer to take a long, narrow piece out of both a London plane and a silver maple in the Wagner’s yard in October 2011. Both trees were found to be in the range of 110 or 115 years old.

WOnce the age was narrowed down, Hewitt went to the Wagner’s archives to see if he could find record of the Wagner acquiring the trees. He found that they likely came from a nursery owned by Thomas Meehan in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, and were added around the turn of the 20th century. Meehan was a significant figure in 19th century botany and horticulture, founding two horticultural publications and working for Bartram’s Garden before he founded his own nursery business which planned many notable gardens including the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, and the English Garden at the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonville, Florida. In a letter from Thomas Meehan (dated February 22, 1900) he mentioned that he had been ill. He died in 1901, so the Wagner yard may well be the last landscape he worked on.

History is everywhere, and so are plants.  The two are intertwined, and even in the middle of the city they tangle together, and the one can tell us about the other, the trees can tell us what was there before, and what was there before tells us about the trees that are there today – and even though they may be layered over and it may take some digging and coring, they all have something to say, and they all can say it, if you just look.

In addition to the Wagner, Philadelphia is rich with examples of historic plants and gardens such as Bartram’s, Wyck Historic House and Garden, the Schuylkill Center, Fairmount Park, etc. Take some time, while the weather is still conducive to outdoor activity, to check some of these sites out!

About the Growing History blog: This is the blog of “Growing History: The Philadelphia Historic Plants Consortium”. The consortium links institutions, creating a network of gardens and historic plants with materials propagated from the sites themselves.  Plants exchanged will serve as material for education in their shared history, in science, and conservation. The blog disseminates the stories behind the plants and the landscapes they occupy.

About the Wagner Free Institute of Science: The Wagner is a Victorian-era natural history museum and has been a provider of free science education since 1855. Visitors are welcome Tuesday through Friday, 9 to 4 pm, though please note the museum will be on a summer break and closed to the public the last two weeks in August (17th through the 28th). If you’re interested in spending time in our historic yard, join us for the Honey Happy Hour, part of the 6th Annual Philadelphia Honey Festival, on Friday, September 11th from 5 to 7 pm. More details on this event can be found here.

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What to do outside before summer is over

By Kiley Sotomayor, Summer Environmental Art Intern

Now that we are in the final month of summer vacation, it is the perfect time to fit in something you’ve been unable to do all summer in between graduation parties, sports games, and weddings. For me, that means doing new things and spending as much time as possible outside. The Schuylkill Center is a great place to do both! I’d like to recommend three things to check off your list before August flies by:

  1. Hit the trails. We as a country spend about 8.5 hours a day in front of the screens, usually sitting. To get out of a screen rut, take a healthy break by going for a hike, bonus points if you go with friends. It will give your eyes a rest while waking up your body and may even increase your social savvy more than social media.  Even though August signals the end of wineberry picking, there is still a lot to check out on the trails. Whether you spot a lone deer making its way across a path or catch sight of a #Stormsnake, hiking along a shaded trail is a nice change of pace from the bright city sidewalk.

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Natural Philadelphia: Where Do We Fit In?

By guest contributor Rhyan Grech, Audubon PA

Are humans a part of nature?  This important question spans generations, geographic locations, fields of study, vocations, religions, political parties and the city of Philadelphia. Working to protect wildlife and their habitats in the fifth most populated metropolitan area in the country may sound like a one-step-forward-two-steps-back sort of process, but it’s exactly what Audubon Pennsylvania and many other organizations are doing. And illustrating the relevance of our work to every city resident is a challenge we all share. Continue reading

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What’s blooming at the Schuylkill Center?

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Welcome to our new mobile Field Guides!  We’ll regularly post guides about what’s blooming, what animals you can see, and other interesting things to observe in the woods, meadows, and streams.  These posts are designed to be easy to read on a phone, meaning you can take this mobile field guide out with you as you walk, hike, and play.  See other Field Guide posts here.

Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera)

The most common tree you will see on the Schuylkill Center’s property, this tree has distinct yellow and orange flowers and leaves that look like cat ears.  They grow quickly with very straight trunks, often the first to reclaim open spaces in our forest.  Serving an important ecological purpose as well, this tree supports 19 native Lepidoptera species.  You may see yellow petals with an orange stripe this time of year – a sure sign that there are tulip poplars overhead.

Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

These beautiful, showy flowers are from a catalpa tree – a late spring showstopper!  With elongated heart-shaped leaves, this tree could easily be confused with the invasive, nonnative empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa) that also can be seen at the center.  Later in the year, the catalpa gets long string bean-like seed pods that hang from branches.

Virginia spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana)Tradescantia virginiana_MN_6-1-15
Named for its angular leaf arrangement, native spiderwort can be seen in several meadows here.  This plant opens its flowers in the morning and closes them later in the afternoon, with the individual blooms only lasting one day.  They self-seed well and add great color to the landscape.

Daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus)
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These rainswept fleabane were spotted in our front garden.  Typically located in meadows, woodland edges, or disturbed roadside sites, the dried flowers of this annual plant were believed to rid a home of fleas.  These flowers bloom throughout the season, attracting predatory insects to combat insect pests.

Dogbane, Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)
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In the same family at milkweed, this plant has a very high value to pollinators despite its small, inconspicuous greenish-yellow flowers.  It may be easier to spot this plant by its reddish stem, and thin, long seed pods later in the year that release seeds with fluffy white pappus attached.  While it is a food source for adult butterflies, specifically monarchs, all parts are poisonous to herbivores.  As a result, it grows well here despite our large white-tail deer population.

Photo Credit Kim Wood (1)

PLAY Manayunk: The Way-Way-Back Story

By Guest Contributor Melissa Andrews, Destination Schuylkill River

PLAY Manayunk is happening on Saturday, May 16 in Manayunk and celebrates outdoor recreation, fitness, and healthy living in our area.  Did you know that this event is inspired by major changes to the neighborhood over multiple decades, and that Manayunk’s own canal towpath is a major character in that story?

A walk on the towpath on a beautiful day feeds the senses.  All along the path, there are views of the canal and adjacent Schuylkill River, but patience and repeat visits yield more unusual sights.  Turn around the bend near the Flat Rock Dam, and you might see – and hear – a melodious flock of Carolina wrens; closer to Main Street Manayunk, you can greet the canal’s resident great blue herons, red-bellied turtles, or pumpkinseed sunfish.  There is also a growing collection of murals and three-dimensional art; muralist Paul Santoleri’s new work on the Fountain Street steps is worth the short walk up from the towpath toward Umbria Street.

Photo Credit Kim Wood (2)The towpath can also pique your hunger.  Depending on how the wind is blowing from Main Street, you may pick up the scent of spicy noodles with chilies, a grilling burger, pulled pork tacos, or the intoxicating smell of fresh-baked bread.  From the efforts of numerous community groups who help tend plantings, the towpath is also an ideal place to stop and smell the flowers.

You will not be alone in experiencing these sensations.  Every day, people who work and live in Manayunk and its surrounding Philadelphia and Lower Merion neighborhoods come to the towpath to run, bike, stroll, fish, and enjoy a rare moment in nature.  Now, with the completion of the new Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreations Center, you can catch a show put on by the Manayunk Theater Company or the Delaware Valley Opera Company.  Better yet, you can jump into a pick-up game of basketball.

While life along the canal seems idyllic now, it has not always been so.  In the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, the towpath helped Manayunk rise to prominence as an industrial neighborhood that contributed to Philadelphia’s overall industrial revolution.  Manayunk’s factories and mills produced a wide range of wares, most notably textiles and paper.  The water from the Schuylkill River and towpath powered their production, and carried the final products down to the City of Philadelphia and from there out into the world.

Like any industrial town, Manayunk was packed with workers, grit, smoke, and noise, as well as the mules that helped pull commercial barges along the canal.  During this time, the waterway – so useful for the creation and transit of Manayunk’s goods – became degraded: the old familiar story of economic gain at ecological expense.  Without labor regulations, the factory workers also suffered.  Men, women, and children alike faced long hours, dangerous machines, and hazardously poor air quality.  Hard work was the word of the day, with most factories operating three shifts a day, six days a week.  Under this intensive use, the once idyllic riverside became a location that most people avoided during their few respite hours.

By the late twentieth century, most heavy industry had moved out of major cities, if not out of the country.  Manayunk was no different.  With most factories and mills shut down, the commercial corridor became dilapidated and mostly vacant, and the once-busy towpath and canal became silent and overgrown.

Manayunk’s second life began in the 1980s, as a new wave of entrepreneurs opened an eclectic variety of shops and restaurants in the center core of the district and moved progressively outward.  New business owners and residents not only began rehabilitating buildings, but also initiated intense cleanup and reclamation projects on the river, canal, and towpath, placing pressure on public officials to also invest in these resources.

Manayunk is now once again filled with the sights and sounds of a returning natural world.  Visitors who revel in these open spaces, along with numerous fitness, health, and recreation groups who use these outdoor areas as their playground, advocate for more of these experiences and opportunities.  This return to nature is what we at Manayunk Development Corporation are celebrating at PLAY Manayunk on Saturday, May 16.  We invite you and your family and friends to Venice Island (7 Lock Street) to take part in all of the outdoor activities that the area has to offer, and experience this new chapter of Manayunk’s history for yourself.

 

Photo Credit Kim Wood (1)About the author:
Melissa Andrews is Project Manager and Watershed Education Coordinator at Destination Schuylkill River, a project of the Manayunk Development Corporation that focuses on planning, programs, and projects on water and land.  With a background in environmental planning and design, she loves being able to step out her door – both at work and at home – and have quick access to some of the best parks and trails that Philadelphia has to offer.

 

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The First Wildflower of Spring

 By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

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All kinds of extraordinary things happen in a springtime forest: animals like woodchucks and insects emerge from of their long winter’s naps, birds return from migration, tree buds pop open, and wildflowers begin blooming on the forest floor.

And those flowers appear in an elegantly orchestrated parade, blossoming in a predictable order.  The parade always begins with skunk cabbage, in full bloom now in several wet spots in the Schuylkill Center’s woods.

Except their flowers are not quite as colorful as tulips and crocuses, and they are very differently scented.

While many of us know skunk cabbage from its big smelly leaves growing out of swampy places, few of us know the flower.  It hides within a small, purple mottled leaf-like structure folded into a hood, looking like something a wizard in a Harry Potter movie might wear.  And tucked into that hood is the flower, actually flowers, poking out of a round ball resembling a small Sputnik satellite.

Those flowers give off a smell reminiscent of dead and rotting flesh, and the purple hood masquerades as dead flesh as well. So beetles that eat carrion—dead stuff—are attracted by the smell, see the dead-meat hood, crawl inside looking for food, and in their search accidentally pollinate the flowers.

Mother Nature has a wicked sense of humor.

Cooler still, the skunk cabbage hoods give off heat as they grow, a characteristic not that common in the plant world.  As they grow in wet places, the marshy spots that are their habitat are often iced over in late winter and early spring, the skunk cabbage hoods can actually burn their way through, melting the ice as they grow.

With skunk cabbage now up and stinking away, the wildflower parade has begun. At that same 90-degrees corner on Ravine Loop, skunk cabbage will soon be joined by a raft of stunning flowers: spring beauty, Virginia bluebell, trout lily, trillium, bloodroot, Jack in the pulpit, Jacob’s ladder, Dutchman’s breeches.  Come visit and see these beauties.

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Note: A version of this essay was published in the Roxborough Review in the natural Selections column on March 20, 2015.

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Introducing Nature in the City

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

When I stepped outside yesterday the morning air was chilly and damp, the sky overcast.  A bus rumbled by me and pulled up to the corner, as I walked by I heard the announcer call out the stop and route number, and listened to my shoes make soft thumping sounds on the pavement.  All around me stood buildings, some only a few stories tall, others much larger.  Everywhere I looked, I saw concrete, glass, steel, and plastic.  But there is more here, in the city, in Philadelphia.

When I look closer, I see moss growing on the side of an old building.  Elsewhere, the leafless forms of city trees draw delicate, graceful lines across a narrow street.  Last spring I found a beautiful, pale blue robin’s egg, cracked open and discarded after the chick hatched, lying on the asphalt alongside Spruce Street, a reminder that humans are not the only things living here.  Nature is here too, in the city.

Today, 80% of Americans live in cities, and as climate change continues, we can expect to see this trend continue and expand globally; we’re headed for a very urban world.  People need nature, we need it in undeveloped mountain ranges, in parks and nature centers, in the city.  This makes it even more important to see and value the natural world that we find in the places where we live.  This idea can mean a lot of different things, perhaps it’s about urban land trusts, or about community gardens, maybe it’s about nature centers and making nature accessible.

This year we’ll be exploring what nature in the city means, to the Schuylkill Center, to our community, to Philadelphia.  Stay with us and keep your eyes open for more on nature in the city throughout the year.

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Giants of the Forest: Reading the forest

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Tuliptree (1)Every day at the Schuylkill Center I am reminded of the passing of time, the history of the land, and the immense power of plants to change our landscape.  Amazed at how the trees could grow so tall in just 50 years, I stand in awe of the towering tulip poplars (also called tuliptrees) which rise high above old fields once clear cut for agriculture.  As winter approaches and vegetation retreats, ruins and farm walls of old homesteads – signs of literally hundreds of years of human occupancy – reveal themselves as markers of the past.

Tuliptree (2)Trees can also be a source of information to us; they are simultaneously signs of resilience and indicators of land use patterns.  Some of our oldest, biggest trees are situated just at the edges of former farm fields, where they could stretch and branch in all directions due to unlimited sunlight.  In the forest, the same species would be taller and thinner, with branches reaching directly up toward the sun shining through a break in the forest canopy.  For many years, these remarkable old trees have drawn interest from visitors, staff, and volunteers at the Schuylkill Center.

In the summer of 1974, volunteer Gus Wiencke assembled an extensive report entitled “Biggest Trees at the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center,” detailing land history and size, species, location, and even sketches of growth patterns of the property’s largest trees.  The original survey presents 57 trees that measure over 6 ½ feet in circumference, although many far exceed that now.  The survey was partially updated in 1986 and again in 2012, when eight more trees were added to the list.

It has been 40 years since Gus compiled this list of biggest trees, yet I’m experiencing his observations in a similar way these days.  He concludes, “Year after year, traces of the old farm fields grow dimmer and a forest spreads in the protected haven of the Nature Center.  Our biggest trees are the aristocrats in a unique, unviolated area of self-propagated woodland.”  These trees exist with little help from us, and in many cases, perhaps, in spite of us.  They are beautiful and vital beings in our ever-changing landscape.  Join us at the Giants of the Forest walk in January to see some of these big trees, learn about why they remained during the farm years, and find out what they can tell us about the past.

Note: an excerpt from this article appeared in the winter 2014-2015 Quill, the Schuylkill Center members newsletter.

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Weaving Art into Nature

By Ezra Tischler, Public Relations and Environmental Art Intern

LandLab resident artists Kaitlin Pomerantz and Zya Levy, of WE THE WEEDS, have been busy collecting invasive plants like oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute, wisteria, Japanese stiltgrass, and bush honeysuckle at the Schuylkill Center. These gathered vines are then woven together using hand-built looms, creating beautiful tapestries of varying color and texture. Be sure to check out their guest blog post detailing the process and progress of their botanical weaving project.

Zya, taking full advantage of her resident artist title, recently spent some time exploring the Schuylkill Center’s property. Her exploration resulted in some impromptu land art capturing the transitory nature of autumn. Dried grasses and fallen vines clumped together in mounds may not catch the eye of most meadow visitors. Zya, however, saw the mounds as an opportunity to create temporary nests. Here is a gallery of some of the nests, but they won’t last long and are certainly worth seeing in person:

Zya also met with visiting groups from Nature Preschool, inviting the children to try their hand at botanical weaving:

 

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Fall of light

By Anna Lehr Mueser, Public Relations Manager

This morning as I drove down the driveway to the Schuylkill Center,  passing the large meadow to the north then the gentle slope of forest where the Pine Grove and Founders Grove stand, I realized the leaves are nearly gone.

Here and there a plume of yellow or red glows against the pale forest.  These days I look into the woods to see colors, and instead, I see the fall of light.  The trees stand empty, their beautiful forms exposed.  A soft fall of light, visible deep in the woods, carries a hazy, dreamy quality.  Graceful twists and turns of sassafras trees are brought into view now that the foliage is gone.  Subtle yellows and browns and greys are painting meadows, the remainders of fall wildflowers.

Although the hours of sunlight are shrinking daily, this time of year the woods open up, glowing with light.