The First Wildflower of Spring is…Skunk Cabbage?

March comes in like a lion, the old saw says, but the last thing any of us needs right now is for March to roar in this; after the winter we’ve been through, we’re all completely exhausted by snow and ice. I’ll take a heaping helping of lamb instead, please, thank you very much.

And right now I’ll also take whatever sign of spring I can. Which explains why I ran outside last week when I heard the familiar honking of Canada geese overhead. I looked up, and there they were: two low-flying skeins of geese in beautiful V-formation flying exactly due north– avian compasses telling me spring is coming. 

In that same vein, desperately seeking spring, I hiked the Schuylkill Center’s Ravine Loop two Saturdays ago, slogging through the snow and ice in search of the very first wildflower of spring, which blooms right about now, amazingly.

It’s skunk cabbage, named for its large stinky leaves—that strong chemical keeps herbivores like deer at bay. Its leaves aren’t up yet—they come later—but I was looking for its flowers, as the plant blooms surprisingly early, as early as late February. And the flower is tucked inside a small mottled purple hood that resembles something like the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter universe. Incredibly, this hood is thermogenic, which means it is able to generate heat to melt the snow and ice around it. Temperatures around the hood are as much as 60° higher than the air around it. Crazy, no?

But that purple hood isn’t the flower. No, tucked inside the hood is a Sputnik-like knobby orb, rather Klingon-ish. Those knobs, unsexy as they are, are its flowers. And the flowers reek too, but a different smell, one akin to rotting flesh. This serves a huge purpose: attracting its pollinators, the flies and bees that scavenge on dead and rotting flesh. They crawl into the hood looking for dead meat, crawl over and across the yellow knobs, and accidentally pollinate the flower—a highly effective strategy. The purple mottling of its hood is surprisingly common in the pant world, as lots of plants have learned how to imitate dead flesh as a means of seduction.

And one of its pollinators is a blowfly with the wonderful species name of vomitoria. Need we say more?

Oh, the heat accomplishes multiple functions; it not only melts the ice around it, critical at this time of year, but also helps disseminate the smell. And pollinators are likely to come into the hood seeking the warmth that it generates. 

After blooming, its bright green leaves come up as well, some almost two feet long, their cabbage-like appearance lending the plant its name. 

As if all this were not cool enough, the plant’s stems remain buried below the surface, contracting as they grow, effectively pulling the stem deeper into the mud. In effect, it is an upside-down plant, the stem growing downward. As the plant grows, the stem burrows deeper, making older plants practically impossible to dig up. 

Sadly, I did not find skunk cabbage on that walk—I was just a little too early. So I’m going again this weekend, and invite you to do the trek yourself. Ask our receptionist for a Center map, and hike through the butterfly meadow, turning right and heading downhill on Ravine Loop. The loop makes a big left turn when it hits Smith Run, our lovely small stream, and it’s at that exact corner that you’ll see the skunk cabbage. Turn left to parallel the stream, then look on your left immediately for the wet, soggy, muddy spots—and the hoods will be interspersed in there. 

At that same corner and all along this stretch of the Ravine Loop, skunk cabbage will soon be joined by a raft of stunning flowers, the more traditional spring wildflowers with bold colors and big smells that look to entice the first butterflies and bees of spring. They’ve got sweet names too: spring beauty, Virginia bluebell, trout lily, trillium, Jack-in- the-pulpit, Jacob’s ladder, Dutchman’s breeches, Solomon’s seal. Colorful names. And great sights for very winter-weary eyes.

They’re coming, I promise! But for now, come see the first flowers of the coming season. And happy almost-spring.


—By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director


News Flash: Beavers in Roxborough!

One of the feel-good stories on the environmental scene is the rewilding of large cities like Philadelphia, where suddenly peregrine falcons nest in church steeples and on Delaware River bridges, bald eagles pull large fish out of the Schuylkill River, and coyotes amble down Domino Lane.

In that vein, members of the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy were somewhat startled to discover that the restoration plantings they’ve doggedly placed along the Schuylkill River have been devoured by…beavers! Wait, beavers in Roxborough?

Once extirpated—a fancy word meaning locally extinct—across Pennsylvania, hunted because their fur was remarkably valuable and because we did not appreciate their ability to rearrange landscapes to their own ends. But beavers have been returning to our state over the last century, and have been seen along Tacony and Pennypack Creeks since about 2008. And now they have taken up residence in the Schuylkill River and Manayunk Canal around Flat Rock Dam.

“I first noticed beavers and their lodge in the winter of 2018,” observed Suzanne Hagner, Roxborough resident and member of the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy, “as I rode out the Schuylkill River Trail towards Shawmont. I could see where they had worn down a path into the woods on the far side of the trail and I guessed that was where they were going for food.” The lodge was near Flat Rock Dam, and they have been spotted—and photographed—as far down as Lock Street and as far up as past Shawmont Avenue, both in the canal and along the river.

“You can see their work from Lock to Cotton streets,” added Kay Sykora, another key Conservancy member, “particularly in the Cotton Street area; look for the damage on the banks and trees.” She offered that there was a “small dam in the wetlands near the upper locks” but that may have been damaged by heavy storms. Tom Landsmann, president of the Conservancy, offers that “the very best place to see the beaver or signs of the beaver’s visits is from the river. Take a kayak or paddle board and look for the damaged bark or the lodges. Look just above the flat rock dam on the Philly side, but on the Lower Merion side and up river as well. Can’t miss it.”

They famously cut down saplings and trees with their chisel-like teeth, building dams and lodges with the branches, chewing the inner bark of trees as their favored food source. That tree-cutting, of course, can sometimes interfere with our own good work.

“Beavers have good taste in trees,” Tom added, tongue in cheek. “They ate over 60 trees we planted along the canal last year. But we adjusted. Last spring, we painted the uneaten trees with latex paint mixed with a lot of sand,” the grit distasteful to the large rodents. “Many of the damaged trees grew out again this summer,” he continued. “We wrapped those trees in cages this fall. We installed 130 cages along the canal near both sides of Fountain Street.”

Bernard “Billy” Brown, author of Grid magazine’s Urban Naturalist column, told me that, in addition to the cages, Riverfront North, a group doing restoration work along Pennypack Creek, “has planted species that can rebound well after being cut down by beavers, like willow species in particular.”

The Conservancy recently hosted a walk-through of the area with a self-described “beaver believer” they brought in from central PA, and their takeaway was similar. “The other approach which I believe we will have to do,” continued Kay, “is to rethink our plantings. We need to put in more herbaceous plants on the impacted banks and see if we can add things like willows to the upper wetland areas to keep them in that area, which is better suited for them and for us.”

Suzanne Hagner agrees. “There are plants, several species of low growing willow that beavers eat that we can plant and hopefully, if we get them planted soon, we can entice the beavers to move further out the trail” and away from their restoration plantings.

Billy Brown has been writing about the beaver’s return to Philadelphia for a while now. “As a reaction, I’ll say that beavers and their return to Philadelphia show the importance of waterways in connecting urban habitat with the surrounding landscape. I think most people under-appreciate how severely our system of roads isolates habitat, an issue the Schuylkill Center contends with the Toad Detour project, for example. Waterways and the green corridors around them are exceptions to the fragmentation of habitat in urban landscapes. The ability of beavers to quickly disperse through the city shows that. It’s both tantalizing and frustrating to imagine how different our urban ecosystems would be if we could more broady connect to the surrounding landscape.”

Suzanne Hagner has been reading up on beaver, passing books along to Conservancy members. “They are amazingly skilled at creating waterways and irrigation systems that lead to ecological health,” she said. “Our consultant offered that the return of the beavers was a very good sign in our area, as the beaver is an ecological system in itself. I had lived in Washington state, and had heard that beavers were being reintroduced in eastern Washington to help curb the arid areas that are prone to wildfires.”

“The return of the beaver,” notes Kay Sykora, “along with a wide range of wildlife like herons and turtles underscores the health of our river area, once one of the most damaged and polluted rivers in the country. Beaver were virtually trapped out of existence for their fur, and there was no understanding of the role they played in the environmental balance of nature. They are key to the health of our wetland areas and the range of wildlife that needs those areas to survive.”

Go for a walk along the Schuylkill River Trail, and find for yourself the pointed chiseled ends of tree trunks along the canal and river. It’s evidence of Roxborough’s newest neighbor, the beaver.


—By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Photo/Video by Linda Lee McGinnis

Playing in nature playscape

Do I have your attention?

By Gail Farmer, Director of Education

My son is in first grade and he is struggling. Struggling to sit still, struggling to be quiet, and struggling to give his teacher the long periods of undivided attention the schools are asking of our young children.  His teacher has employed several positive strategies to try and help him meet the school district’s needs:  he has a “wiggly seat” on his chair that helps him to stay in his seat, she has star charts for attending to the teacher, and most recently, a star chart to reward being “calm and quiet.” While I appreciate his teacher’s efforts to address her expectations of him in a positive way, I am dismayed that the school fails to understand their role in his struggles.

In a typical kindergarten or first grade classroom, the children are almost constantly attending – paying attention during morning meeting, to a book being read, to a worksheet to be completed, to the lesson being taught, to the reading and phonics activities, to the art projects.  The ability to direct our attention to a chosen focal point (called “directed attention”) is an incredibly important neurological capacity.  Directed attention is under voluntary control, which means that we can choose to focus our attention and resist our impulses when needed.  These abilities allow us to be perceptive and observant, behave in socially appropriate ways, to be reflective before taking action (i.e. not acting out on every emotion), to sit still, pay attention, and concentrate. Directed attention is hugely important to learning and school success. Continue reading

Field Guide: Winter Understory Trees

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

With so many efforts dedicated to tracking the biggest or tallest members of our forest, I thought it was a worthy endeavor to dedicate some time to these smaller, perhaps lesser known, understory trees in our woods.  While they will never be the biggest or tallest or most majestic, they deserve accolades of their own.  Many produce fruit that are prized by birds and mammals, especially during these winter months.  Others provide habitat and cover.  And others are just simply beautiful trees, small in stature, but with intricate details that are much easier to observe up close due to their size.

Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Dogwood (Cornus florida)
A common tree in both the woodland and residential landscape, this tree is easily identified by its white spring blooms in April or May.  In the winter, however, the bark and form gives it away.  With its light tan, scaly, shallowly furrowed bark, dogwoods take on an alligator type texture.  It has a graceful, pyramidal form and is often low branching or multi-stemmed.  Later in winter, the buds of new flowers will form like little caps on the ends of the upward facing branches. 

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
When you find a sassafras tree, you tend to find many sassafras trees.  This is one native plant that suckers readily, sending up new shoots from its root system, forming clusters of new trees.  In the forest, they are typically found in groves, easily identified by their twisted, gnarly shaped branches.  The brown bark is deeply furrowed and forms rectangular blocks with horizontal “breaks”.

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
While the common persimmon is not as common at the Schuylkill Center as the two aforementioned understory trees, there are a handful of them spread throughout old meadows and fields here.  This is another tree with distinct bark:  it resembles the scales of a dogwood, but it is thicker, more deeply furrowed, and very blocky.  You may see bright orange, plum-sized fruits hanging from its bare branches from fall through the winter.  Often they are too high to reach, but you may get lucky to snag one for a snack before the wildlife does.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
You may have come across a pawpaw grove on a hike in our woods and not even have realized it.  The few young groves that exist here more closely resemble sticks in the ground during the winter than a distinct cluster of trees and saplings.  Like sassafras, pawpaws spread through their underground root system, forming new trees by sending up shoots.  They can also be propagated fairly easily through seed, although pawpaw often has trouble with pollination and therefore its fruit production is often unreliable.  Pawpaws have smooth grey-brown bark that gets slightly more textured with age and dark brown buds.  They often have arching trunks and don’t branch until more mature.

Dotted Hawthorn (Crataegus punctata)
Dotted Hawthorn (Crataegus punctata)
Dotted hawthorns grow along forest edges and in old meadows and fields.  At the Schuylkill Center, they were planted in the 1960s along a fence row toward the front edge of the property to discourage trespassing.  How would a tree discourage trespassing, you may wonder.  Hawthorns have sharp spiky thorns, sometimes several inches long, which could be very painful to any passerby.  These thorns on the branches are a good way to identify the plant, as well as their bright red berries that persist through the winter as food for birds.  It has greyish bark that is irregularly ridged and furrowed.

Enjoy our January mobile field guide as you walk, hike, and play in the winter forest.  See other Field Guide posts here.

Field Guide: October Colors

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Enjoy our October mobile field guide as you walk, hike, and play in the fall forests.  See other Field Guide posts here.

Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) and Blue Wood Aster (Symphotrichum cordifolium)

Highbush blueberry and Blue wood asterThe deep red foliage of the blueberry bush is a great contrast to the lighter, more delicate blue wood aster.  Both of these plants have their own unique characteristics.  Highbush blueberries produce edible fruit enjoyed by humans and birds and are a nice, sculptural addition to your garden.  The blue wood asters provide a mat of tiny flowers throughout the fall season.  They tend to reseed vigorously.  Look for them in our Sensory Garden and in our forest.

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)
Poison IvyWhile you may have your own opinion on poison ivy, I’d like you to try to suspend your negative associations of rashes and calamine lotion and take in the beauty of the fall foliage.  Poison ivy is a common native vine that you may see on the forest floor or climbing up trees.  Often times, as in this photo, it’s easy to mistake the poison ivy branches for tree branches.  While you may question the  direct value of this plant to humans, the dark berries that it produces are an important winter food source for birds.  Plus, its bright yellow to orange fall color is a great pop of color in the autumn forest. Continue reading

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.

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)
Erigeron annuus_MN_6-1-15
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)
Apocynum cannabinum_MN_6-2-15

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.

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.


Nature in the City Photography Contest Winners

This winter we had a blast with the Nature in the City photo contest.  Dozens of pictures were submitted, from Philadelphia’s skyline, framed by dried coneflowers in a field, and the glory of those late-seasons now storms.  It was quite a challenge to choose the winners.  Thank you to everyone who submitted a photo.


Hard & Soft, Richele C. Dillard


Taken in the East Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, Richele Dillard’s photograph captures the intimate level at which winter can interact with the world around us. Not even these fuzzy, spent wildflower heads could escape the clutches of winter’s icy grip, remaining frozen in time until warmer temperatures could release them. The plump drip of melted water exposes the flower once more and gives hope that new life and growth will emerge soon.  Richele notes,  I find “ice melting around spent flower heads to be both beautiful & challenging.”

Emily Soloby

Emily Soloby

Emily wrote of this photo, “Sometimes, deep in South Philly, the only place to find nature is to look up.”  Even in seemingly the most constructed environments, there is always nature to be  found, and even the most commonplace sighting of birds on a power line and street trees presents an opportunity to connect with nature.  The composition of this photo is impeccable – from the symmetry of the geometric playground, powerlines, and streets; to the richness of color and the balance between the reds of the sweater, car, and awning; to the sense of having captured an everyday moment made extraordinary.

Kathleen Elizabeth Stull


Taken at the Reading Viaduct Project, this photograph remarkably captures the intersection of city and nature.  The bright white of the graffiti is beautifully complements the gold of the grass.  The organic shapes of the grass are in turn, contrasted by the sharp lines of both bricks and graffiti behind them.  We were particularly drawn to how the photograph shows nature emerging within the city.


Nature Above the City

By Ezra Tischler, Public Relations/Environmental Art Intern

The sun was starting to set as we stood on the 8th floor rooftop looking at the rising towers of Center City just a few blocks to our east. A breeze swirled across the helipad, weaving through massive HVAC units, across a garden of ornamental grasses and perennial natives. It was mid-September and the low-growing succulents of the PECO Green Roof created a nice contrast with the yellow blooms of Coreopsis ‘Crème Brulee’ and the pinkish-red Gaura lindheimeri.  Bees and butterflies buzzed and fluttered about the varied vegetation. It was hard to believe a city of concrete and asphalt bustled with automobiles, commuter trains, and scattered litter just eight stories below.

View looking east from the PECO green roof.

View looking east from the PECO green roof.

It’s probably even harder for people at street level to imagine a pollinator garden and grassy oasis, measuring over an acre, existing eight stories above on the roof of our region’s major electricity provider. The PECO green roof, built in 2009 as a partnership with the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, is the largest green roof in Philadelphia. While other green roofs found on Philadelphia’s private residences, academic institutions, and businesses pale in comparison to PECO’s 45,000 square foot roof, they certainly still contribute to the health of our metropolis and add their own pieces of nature to our city.

Helipad on the PECO green roof.

Helipad on the PECO green roof.

When we talk about nature in the city it’s easy to neglect our roofs. From the street they are usually out of sight. Many roofs are hidden behind locked doors with signs that read Authorized Personnel Only, where HVAC units, antennae, or other aesthetically undesirable mechanics are housed. The PECO green roof is off limits, even to employees, unless you attend a scheduled tour. However, roofs pose a unique opportunity to inject nature into our city, in places we might otherwise not expect. As Philadelphia continues to expand its sustainability efforts the unexpected and seldom thought of roofs may play a significant role in helping to solve our city’s environmental issues.

In 2005 the Schuylkill Center installed a 2,215 square foot green roof on a portion of our Main Education Building in an effort to display the many benefits associated with a vegetated roof. Green roofs help increase energy efficiency of buildings by regulating temperatures and decreasing the constant need for heating and cooling. They also provide habitat for wildlife and serve as havens for pollinators. Most importantly to Philadelphia, green roofs act as stormwater management tools slowing the rainwater runoff to our overflowing sewers, in turn keeping our rivers and drinking water that much cleaner. Green roofs are just one example of functional nature in the city.

Pollinator garden on the PECO green roof.

Pollinator garden on the PECO green roof.

Any sliver of nature, intentional or not, provides measurable worth across many disciplines and deserves our attention. Philadelphia is a city with a massive parks system, two major flowing rivers, and access to numerous wild areas within or immediately near city limits. We are fortunate to never be far from nature. Still, in this built environment we may lose sight of the natural beauty right in front of us. It’s this idea that makes the unexpected acre of green roof on the PECO building so magnificent.

To find nature in the city when you least expect it, when you aren’t looking for it, can be just as wondrous as hiking through the wild back-country. It’s a testament to nature’s resilience and a reminder of our complex relationship with the natural environment, one of dependence and stewardship. Sure a green roof is designed, built, and maintained by humans but the bees, butterflies, birds, and vegetation are part of a system much larger than us. Only in the city are there opportunities for such large groups of people to exist with nature. So, the next time you’re on the street or on a roof, take some time to think about all these ostensibly hidden opportunities and maybe you’ll find nature in the most unexpected of places.