A Peach Of A Botanist

By Peter Ross and Amy Grant

Portions of this article were adapted from a report prepared by Lori Aument for the Community Design Collaborative.

Many local residents may not realize Queen Village is actually older than the City of Philadelphia. “Philadelphia’s First Neighborhood” was settled by Swedish immigrants in 1654, 28 years before William Penn founded Pennsylvania.

These early Swedish settlers laid the foundation for a residential community that continues to thrive today. Yet, walking the densely-packed streets of Queen Village, one would be hard-pressed to find evidence of their time here. Centuries of development have turned grassy knolls into streets and intersections. The vast wilderness that once lay to the west of the Delaware River is now a thicket of buildings. Long gone are the large parcels of land dotted with wooden structures and fruitful gardens that our predecessors called home.

What we know about this long lost landscape can be gleaned from the journal of Swedish botanist and explorer Pehr Kalm (1716-1779). When Kalm traveled to Philadelphia in 1748 and 1751, he wrote extensively about the people he encountered, the places he visited, and the nature he explored. Because he used the modern Latin binomial nomenclature system, we have a thorough historical record of the plants, trees, shrubs, and vines that once filled our terrain.

Kalm’s initial observations of Philadelphia were made from the ship that brought him to the city. At a great distance from the shore, he marveled at the thick forest of oak, hickory and fir trees that lined the riverbanks. Closer to land, he delighted at farm houses “surrounded with corn fields, pastures well stocked with cattle, and meadows covered with fine hay.”

Shortly after disembarking, Kalm compiled a listing of the bountiful foliage indigenous to the area. White, red, and Spanish oaks, hickory, and blackberry shrubs were the five most common plants he catalogued. He also discovered that red maple, smooth sumac, elderberry, willow oak, and multiple kinds of grape vines, such as the fox grape and frost grape, grew in abundance.

Gloria Dei Church, located in what was then called “Weekacko,” figured prominently in Kalm’s writings as did its surroundings. Sycamore trees that grew “on the shore of the river” and near homes and gardens provided “pleasant shade in the hot season.” Mulberry trees, which are a fixture at Gloria Dei today, were “planted on some hillocks near” houses or inside courtyards. Black walnut and chestnut trees also grew in the woods and in fields near the church.

Kalm was impressed by the abundance of fresh fruit that “every countryman, even a common peasant” was able to produce. He described local peach trees as “covered with such quantities of fruit, that we could scarcely walk … without treading upon those peaches which were fallen off.”

During his botanical excursions, Kalm identified the “Spoon tree,” a species ostensibly used by Native Americans for forging spoons. He noted that “the fine branches of this tree, which are then thick covered with leaves” served as decorations at “churches on christmas day or new-years day.” Carolus Linnæus, Kalm’s mentor and friend, later named this new genus Kalmia latifolia to honor Kalm’s discovery.

The “very pleasant country” town of Philadelphia measured no “more than an English mile in length” with a breadth of “half a mile or more” during Kalm’s visit. However, he noted that the wooded areas located west of the city were rapidly being cleared for construction and industrial purposes. Cedar trees, commonly used for roofing material, were starting to become rare as early as 1748. “Swamps and Morasses formerly were full of them,” he wrote, “but at present these trees are for the greatest part cut down, and no attempt has as yet been made to plant new ones.” The increase in brick kilns and iron works also placed a high demand on wood for fuel. Kalm noted that “in the space of a few years [fuel has] risen in price to many times as much again as it had been.”

As a result of the rapid growth noted by Kalm, Philadelphia and its close suburbs was fast becoming the largest urban concentration in Britain’s North American colonies.

 

Kalm’s Common Plants of Philadelphia of 1748

From Kalm Travels in North America: Common Plants of the Woods of Philadelphia in 1748 in order of most to least prevalent:

  1. Quercus alba, the white oak.
  2. Quercus rubra, or the black oak.
  3. Quercus hispanica, the Spanish oak.
  4. Juglans [Carya] alba, hiccory [sic], a kind of walnut tree.
  5. Rubus occidentalis, or American blackberry shrub.
  6. Acer rubrum, the maple tree with red flowers.
  7. Rhus glabra, the smooth leaved Sumach [sic].
  8. Vitis labrusca and Vulpina, vines of several kinds.
  9. Sambucus canadensis, American Elder tree.
  10. Quercus phellos, the swamp oak.
  11. Azalea lutea, the American upright honey-suckle [sic].
  12. Crataegus Crus galli, the Virginian Azarole.
  13. Vaccinium ——-, a species of whortleberry shrub.
  14. Quercus prinus, the chesnut [sic] oak.
  15. Cornusflorida,thecorneliancherry.
  16. Liriodendron Tulipifera, the tulip tree.
  17. Prunus virginiana, the wild cherry tree.
  18. Vaccinium ——-, a frutex whortleberry.
  19. Prinos verticillatus, the winterberry tree.
  20. Platanus occidentalis, the water-beech.
  21. Nyssa aquatica, the tupelo tree.
  22. Liquidambar styraciflua, sweet gum tree.
  23. Betula Alnus, alder.
  24. Fagus castanea, the chesnut [sic] tree.
  25. Juglans nigra, the black walnut tree.
  26. Rhus radicans, the twining sumach [sic].
  27. Acer Negundo, the ash-leaved maple.
  28. Prunus domestica, the wild plumb [sic] tree.
  29. Ulmus Americana, the white elm.
  30. Prunus spinosa, sloe shrub.
  31. Laurus sassafras, the sassafras tree.
  32. Ribes nigrum, the currant tree.
  33. Fraxinus excelsior, the ash tree.
  34. Smilax laurifolia, the rough bind weed with the bay leaf.
  35. Kalmia latifolia, the American dwarf laurel.
  36. Morus rubra, the mulberry tree.
  37. Rhusvernix,thepoisonousSumach[sic].
  38. Quercus rubra, the red oak.
  39. Hamamelis virginica, the witch hazel.
  40. Diospyros virginiana, the persimon [sic].
  41. Pyrus coronaria, the anchor tree.
  42. Juniperus virginiana, the red juniper.
  43. Laurus oestvalis, spice-wood.
  44. Carpinus ostrya, a species of horn beam.
  45. Carpinus betulus, a horn beam.
  46. Fagus sylvatica, the beech.
  47. Juglans ——, a species of walnut tree.
  48. Pinus Americana, Pensylvanian [sic] fir tree.
  49. Betula lenta, a species of birch.
  50. Cephalantus occidentalis, button wood.
  51. Pinus toeda, the New Jersey fir tree.
  52. Cercis canadensis, the sallad [sic] tree.
  53. Robinia pseudacacia, the locust tree.
  54. Magnolia glauca, the laurel-leaved tulip tree.
  55. Tilia Americana, the lime tree.
  56. Gleditsia triacanthos, the honey locust tree.
  57. Celtis occidentalis, the nettle tree.
  58. Annona muricata, the custard apple.

This article was previously published in the May 2018 issue of QVNA Magazine.  It has been reprinted with permission.

Written by Amy Grant

Amy Grant is a graphic designer and web developer. She is the founder of the Southwark Historical Society, a volunteer based group that studies the Southwark Historical District located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.