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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

New Buds & Blooms in the Mercy Lee Botanical Garden

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Plants of the New Jersey Pine Barrens

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The Rival of Longwood Gardens

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…and all of the world’s botanical gardens.

It’s been over a month since I made my daring move to South Philadelphia — which is actually not bad despite my bullet-riddled body — and I’ve been going gangbusters on my front- and backyard botanical collection. Soon, I’ll be able to charge five quid for entry. No friend and family discounts.

And now that I have some more space and I’m feeling far too confident in my ability to garden, I’ve tried out some species that I’ve seen abroad or on Amazon, which reminds me that I need to stop drinking while looking at plants on Amazon.

I’ve found borage to be ridiculously easy to germinate, though it droops promptly in the blasting sun; Safflower pops up readily and sturdily, although I think that might be ivy; a boxed Thalictrum can survive a lob across the room from a buffoon of a coworker who can’t read “Fragile” on the cover; quinoa seedlings just look like leggy weeds; and bleeding heart leaves are just downright gorgeous and look great next to anything. On the other hand, Mucuna pruriens takes its sweet time growing and has attracted every thug slug in the block to come and chomp on it and our basil. (Though beer traps have proved pretty successful.) And the Canna lily cutting I’ve had since my doomed job at the greenhouse just keeps hanging on, mocking me for my poor horticultural skills.

I’ve even guerrilla gardened our good-looking neighbors’ front-window flower box with some striking white and purple salvia interspersed with silver mound Artemisia. My efforts have proved beneficial on two fronts: I can enter our street into the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s green street competition, and the neighbors never close their curtains.


The real beauties — and biggest challenges — that are newcomers to our Mercy Lee Botanical Garden are Hoya ‘Strawberries & Cream’, Gloriosa superba, and Daphne odora ‘Maejima’. I smelled the latter before I saw it in Koriyama, Japan, and it’s one of the most attractive and beautifully fragrant plants I’ve ever encountered. Unfortunately, I’ve read that it’s one of the most difficult to transplant and care for. Gloriosa happens to be an incredibly toxic plant, so I’ll need to keep it in a Beauty-and-the-Beast bell jar.

As of 10 minutes ago, the botanical garden had 74 confirmed species. Since then, the collection has increased by two, after taking a quick break to walk Nico (pictured on the right, taking a piss) and meeting a neighbor who was ecstatic that someone knew about purpletop vervain and bronze fennel and on the spot uprooted a few and put them in a pot for me to take home.

Longwood Gardens, look out…

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

June 12, 2017 at 6:15 pm

Exploring FDR Park

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One massive donger: The Liberty Bell entrance of the Sesqui Expo

A good many things existing in Philadelphia came to be in 1926, thanks to the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition, a large fair held in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence. Much like its predecessor celebrating 100 years of throwing off the British yoke, the 1876 Centennial Exposition, both left their mark on Philadelphia’s landscape in its ornate, structurally unique (for their time) buildings and parks.

One such park is FDR Park, once part of a large tract of south Philadelphia land known as League Island Park. While its dominated today by sports stadiums, the park’s 80-foot, illuminated replica of the Liberty Bell must have been quite an impressive sight for fair goers. Among some other notable legacies from the fair still around today are the 11,000-pipe Curtis Organ — now in the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium — and The Fountain of the Seahorses, a gift from our good chum Benito Mussolini and which now sits behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Russian Tea House overlooking Meadow Lake was among other points of interest during the Exposition, including some delightfully named pavilions like Persia, Public Welfare, and Nuremberg.

But before the Sesqui, before the Centennial International Exhibition, before the signing of the Declaration and all the hullabaloo leading up to it, and before the settlement of the Swedes, the area appears to have been mostly underwater.

From the Philadelphia Water Department:

“The entire “Neck” (as South Philadelphia was once known) historically encompassed thousands of acres of tidal marsh, and was therefore a single drainage area…Much of the area remained marshy until the 20th century; one major filling project was undertaken to make land for the Sesquicentennial Exposition, held at League Island Park in 1926.”

A diversity of freshwater plants and wildlife and 12,000 years of Lenape inhabitance in these marshy lands was broken up by the property divisions among the sworn subjects of Penn, the diking and draining and filling of the estuaries, and the deforestation and transformation of marshes to meadows.

Tennis, children of the corn style

A swimming pool came and went (and swimming has now been banned in Meadow Lake), “picturesque” structures were built and remained behind from the Exposition, and an interstate rose over the lower portion of the park, the noise from which is the loudest I’ve ever heard standing underneath in the abandoned, derelict tennis courts.

Since the late 90s, however, and possibly stemming from (or at least influenced by) a very excellent and thorough plan (if you’re into this kind of thing) put together by the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University, the Natural Lands Restoration and Environmental Education Program, and the Philadelphia Water Department, the park has seen a comeback of native species.

“[The marshes] have been shown to support diverse plants and animals including Heteranthera multiflora and Echinochloa walteri, two endangered wetland species in Pennsylvania.” There are also thriving cattail (Typha latifolia) populations thriving in the park.

The amazingly named Red-Bellied Cooter, who popped out to say hello during my exploring

Efforts have been made to remove purple loosestrife, and, while I did spot a troubling amount of mile-a-minute, I didn’t spot a stalk of Japanese knotweed, previously known to be a nasty invasive in the park. The above-mentioned trifecta’s plan called for some thought-provoking if not difficult means of complete park restoration:

*Foresting of uplands: open fields may present an opportunity for invasives/exotics like my favorite edible, garlic mustard. Foresting will also help prevent erosion and flooding, already a problem in a city of pavement and overflowing sewers.

“Areas which are not presently used for recreation, but are being mowed could be managed as meadows by mowing infrequently and possibly burning the area to promote plant diversity. Replanting of these areas is also recommended to establish native species and deter exotic species.”

Who’s ready for a swim?

*Well-managed edge habitats: Edge habitats, or the line along forest edges, are a playground for non-natives such as tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima), princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa), and wild rose (Rosa multiflora). Managing these and eradicating such edge-advantageous species may help maintain the park’s diversity.

The master plan is packed full of other fascinating insights into water composition, quality, and management, but I didn’t read these because I had to pee.


Exploring Bartram’s Mile & Beyond

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City skyscrapers seen from the new expansion, Bartram’s Mile

For the past year, I’ve been biking to Bartram’s Garden nearly every week or every other week, taking Washington Avenue to Gray’s Ferry Avenue, the bridge along which crosses the Schuylkill River and takes you into West Philadelphia. Immediately after crossing the nail- and bolts-strewn bridge, the road briefly connects to Woodland Avenue via a dangerous, somehow-rhomboid intersection. A sharp turn onto 49th which suddenly becomes another apostropheless Grays Avenue around a curve and a slight left onto Lindbergh Boulevard after a nail-/bolts-/garbage-strewn uphill stretch will take you to

Monument dedicated to the Newkirk Viaduct

the entrance of Bartram’s Garden.

It’s not ideal, nor very picturesque, so I couldn’t be happier when they unveiled the new Bartram’s Mile over a week ago. The new expansion eliminates a portion of the usual route and runs along the west-side of the river, abruptly ending below the Grays Ferry Bridge.

Paulownia trees, with their tuberous, brilliant purple flowers, line the trail that leads up to the Newkirk Viaduct monument, dedicated to the 1838 completion of the Newkirk Viaduct over the Schuylkill River. The bridge was not replaced by other bridges until 1902.

Old abandoned truss bridge dating from 1901

If you venture past the terminus of the path, which of course would be considered trespassing and is certainly not condoned by yours truly, you’d find the cleaver- and wild rose-covered railroad tracks leading to a rusting, abandoned truss swing bridge, once grandiosly known as Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad Bridge No. 1. If you stand still along the path leading to the boat rentals at Bartram’s Garden, you can hear the old spanner groan as it swings slightly in the breeze.

Beneath the Grays Ferry Avenue Bridge

Farther inland, the path empties out underneath the Grays Ferry overpass, of graffitied columns and rough soil carpeted with Sweet Annie and a field of sumacs and mullein.

Somehow, this area will be reconstructed to continue the trail across the Schuylkill, “via a new bridge constructed with portions of an old abandoned swing bridge.”


Meanwhile, according to the article linked above, more trails and connections are being added, which is all very promising for a more bicycle-friendly city. Let’s hope this translates into fewer vehicles and buses and more bike rentals and maps from the Visitor Center…*

*(Stop by at 6th and Market for some advice on getting around Philly by bike!)

Knees of the Mysterious Trees & Bees

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Bloodroot poking out at Bartram’s Garden

Green has returned to Philadelphia, which means I’ve been setting out to Bartram’s Garden, amongst other places, to see if my Sweet Annie’s returned as well. Sadly, my lovely lass is inexplicably nowhere to be seen amongst the dead stalks of yesteryear, but there’s plenty of other curiosities to seek out in the Garden, particularly alongside the planked boardwalk leading to the Schuylkill River’s edge — the more interesting, at least botanically, forested acre of the Bartram property.

At first glance, they could be taken as new tree growths — albeit flared, sometimes chunky, and more dead than alive in  appearance — rising from the waters that swell into the swampland that supports other hydrophilic plants such as jewelweed.

Pointed, gnarly knees rising up around a bald cypress
Source: Wikipedia

But they’re not quite new growths and definitely not saplings. Bald cypress trees have been known for their unusual “knees”, woody extensions arising from underground roots both near and well out from the tree’s base. In 1819, Francois Andre Michaux, the same man who around 1790 gifted the now-gnarled yellowwood tree on the property to William Bartram, wrote, “No cause can be assigned for their existence.”

Farther along in the history of botanical studies, cypress knees were thought to have a role in retrieving more oxygen for the oft swamp-submerged tree. Yet, other scientists found that even cypresses in year-round dry conditions produced these mysterious structures. Moreso, the knees lacked lenticels and inner structures necessary for transporting oxygen throughout the tree’s interior – lenticels being the slits or holes we see in other species like silver birch and cherry tree varieties, respectively.

Other theories came about, my favorite (as in interesting, not feasible) being nutrient acquisition in which various above-ground cypress structures might snag dead tree matter and digest the degrading biomatter (sort of like the mechanism used by pitcher plants). One tauntingly puts forward the idea that these knees once served a purpose that is no longer required, much like how the hardness of avocado pits was specific to the able, crushing power of the teeth of a now-extinct mammal.

A very attractive plant, Fothergilla, in Bartram’s Gardens. The “flowers” actually lack petals and are really a cluster of aromatic stamens (the male fertilizing organ of a flower). Many of this species appear throughout Philadelphia.

A stronger theory has held on: the knees are providing better anchorage and stabilization for the tree, which tends to grow thin and tall in aquatic environments, which also happen to be places of strong and damaging winds.

Further buttressing the argument, a report by Arnoldia Arboretum states that “researchers have agreed that it is average water depth that determines the height of knees, and one observer, Mattoon, reported that the knees on trees growing in softer soils were larger than those produced by trees growing on firmer land.

The report goes on to say, incredibly, that “the tallest on record is a knee fourteen feet in height seen on a tree growing along the Suwannee River, which flows through Georgia and Florida”

So, if you’re ever wandering the meandering the riverside wooded areas of Bartram’s Garden, take some time to admire and wonder about these knees poking out of the soggy earth – having been around since at least the Upper Cretaceous period, there could be more than meets the eye and current climactic situation.

Another aromatic plant, Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum). This one in Bartram’s Garden had a scent twice as strong as other mints.

Farther up the slope of the garden on drier land, bees swarm the bottle brush plant (Fothergilla) and other herbs in the Bartram’s garden plot (sans, sadly, Sweet Annie), and what perfect time to have received my order of bee-friendly seeds from Cheerios, which recently promoted a “Bring Back the Bees” campaign. It seems most of the mix really does contain native, bee-friendly species such as purple cone flower, bergamot, sweet alyssum, New England aster, and corn poppy.

I’ll be putting down my own roots – knees with a contractual year-long signed lease promising ruthless financial ruin for premature leave of premises – in South Philly in May and which includes what metropolis folk call a “yard”. For my rural family, consult Craigslist’s apartment ad section and type this in the search function. Then laugh, while imagining how much I’m shelling out for rent.

Still, the bees will be happy in my small patio garden, and I’ll hopefully see you at Bartram’s Garden*, where I’ll be leading tours of this ever-fascinating historical, botanical site. And bygod, there’ll be Sweet Annie if I have anything to do with it.

*Or at the opening of Bartram’s Mile, a greenway running along the west bank of the Schuylkill River between Grays Ferry Avenue and 56th Street), on Saturday, April 22nd, at 11 a.m.

A pesky intruder that’s prolific in more than just Bartram’s gardens, Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). NPS recommends planting other ephemeral plants, such as bloodroot!

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

April 20, 2017 at 6:25 pm

Local (Or Semi-Local) Guide to Philadelphia

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It’s been 75 degrees in Philadelphia for the past two days, so we can safely say that winter is dead and gone. With warm weather comes more visitors passing through our city, but I’ve also recently been speaking to both younger travelers and even some more-long-term stays who want to know the more “local” must-dos and could-dos. While I’m aiming to make our Independence Visitor Center desk include more local and unique activities and events in and just outside Philadelphia, I thought I’d list my favorites and top recommendations here as well. And you can be assured that this post won’t be without mention of plants.




Benjamin Franklin Bridge

One way I get acclimated to a new place is to take morning runs in different neighborhoods, something I often did in Budapest. Not only do you obviously get around quicker, but on foot, you can stop and look, and, being morning time, there are fewer people about. One of my favorite and peaceful routes takes me across the Benjamin Franklin Parkway as the sun rises over the New Jersey horizon. On the way back across, you can watch the sun creep up the beautiful sloping glass of the tallest building (for now) in Philadelphia, Comcast Center.

Washington Avenue Green

Also one of my favorite running routes, Washington Avenue Green is worth a visit for both its fascinating history and ecology. And while it’s small, it’s one of the few green spaces you can escape to when the concrete, noise, and traffic smog get too much. This was Philadelphia’s busy immigration station from 1870 until it was torn down in 1915 and was the entry point for millions of immigrants, especially coming in droves from eastern and southern Europe. The Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent featured (and hopefully still does, though I have to confirm) illustrations of pier-side scenes, vendors and fee collectors and even brides getting married on the spot so they could enter the country legally!

Sunrise over the piers at Washington Avenue Green

Sunrise over the piers at Washington Avenue Green

The Green was recently restored to its state prior to serving as an immigration station. A path winds through bursting sprays of purple asters and beggar-ticks with red mulberry (Morus rubra) and princesstrees (Paulownia tomentosa) overhead. I’ve even found lovely white campion (Silene latifolia) growing in tall grasses and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) on the sloped embankments in between piers as well as the spindly common melilot (Melilotus officinalis).

There. I got the plant stuff out of the way. Now onto more…

Bartram’s Garden

Plants! Although this is mentioned last in the outdoors-themed to-dos in Philadelphia, it’s certainly not the least. If you’re into the outdoors and into history, I recommend reading up on the history of the garden and of the very farmer who was instrumental in Philadelphia becoming, at one point, known for being a botanical and horticultural hotspot, respected by even the forerunners of the field over in the United Kingdom.

The following PDFs or books, while a bit bland but full of fascinating stories and giving an excellent overview of the property are worth giving a read (and I’m all about book exchange, so feel free to contact me!):

PDF: History American Landscapes Survey – John Bartram’s House and Garden
Book: The Plant Hunters by Tyler Whittle

Bartram’s Garden is located a bit out of the way and in West Philly, but you can get there by tram or, my preferred method, by bicycle.


Music Venues


Not to be confused with the Chinese Rotunda at the very excellent and nearby Penn Museum. Photo absconded from Penn Museum's flickr

Not to be confused with the Chinese Rotunda at the very excellent and nearby Penn Museum.
Photo absconded from Penn Museum’s flickr

International House & The Rotunda

Over in University City, International House couldn’t be a better place for entertainment, especially for students studying abroad. The center hosts symposiums, movie screenings, concerts with music from around the world, and more. They even offer housing for students and language courses for anyone interested. The Rotunda offers a similar array of entertainment with more of an educational bent. The surrounding area boasts plenty of great places to eat, including a cozy and spicy favorite of mine, Pattaya Thai Cuisine.

Kimmel Center

Yes, it’s a pretty well-known venue, but while I’ve been to some amazing full-orchestra concerts (my favorite being The Danish Quartet), Kimmel Center has smaller venues within it, many of them free and sometimes pretty intimate. They’ve got a wide range of concerts such as freestyle jazz, spoken word, jazz, experimental, jazz, jazz, jazz…they’ve got a lot of jazz. As much as The Painted Bride at times, another excellent venue but that doesn’t get its own title heading.


Curtis Center Student Recitals

Free. And unbelievably so. These concerts are a chance for students to perform for an audience and show off their skills, and their skills are nothing short of awe-some.




Chemical Heritage Foundation

While I’ve already mentioned and definitely encourage locals and somewhat-locals to pay a visit to the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent to get a close look at the city and its beginnings, I’m also a massive fan of the free (always a good modifier) Chemical Heritage Foundation in the historic district. This small “science museum” shows how chemistry’s been used in the past as well as everyday life and features traveling exhibits such as the one I caught last year by chance, a display of ancient manuscripts that explained the chemical dyes (from PLANTS) used to illustrate their beautiful pages.

The beautiful arched entrance of the Masonic Temple. Photo from Wikipedia because I can't find mine.

The beautiful arched entrance of the Masonic Temple. Photo from Wikipedia because I can’t find mine.

Masonic Temple

Always a winner. Dan Brown’s yet to write about a murder that takes place within one of the seven gorgeous lodge rooms and thank the Masonic overlords for that. Tours are given of this place of architectural and historical interest, and you can then pop across the street to see…

Wanamaker Organ

Philadelphia’s always claiming “first” on things, often with a lot of addendums, but this one is true to its name and damn impressive. The organ – stretching up through several floors of Macy’s – is the largest playable pipe organ in the world and is played twice daily. Despite the amazing, sonorous sound it can produce, I still find it unbelievable that this organ is made up of ten effing thousand – that’s 10,000 – pipes.

St. Peter’s, Old Pine, & Mother Bethel churches

Occasionally, I’ll have a visitor ask for a historically significant church recommendation besides Christ Church. Each of these has its own unique characteristic, St. Peter’s for its trees I’ve written about previously, Old Pine for its architecture style and somber but beautiful stained glass windows, and Mother Bethel for its role in African American progressive history.




For those who know my more hate-than-love relationship with food, I’m surprised myself I’d have a listing for restaurant recommendations.

But I absolutely, unashamedly have to give my accolades to my favorite city restaurant, Kabul. If you’re not so accustomed to Middle Eastern food, I’d start out, as I did on my first visit, with the Norenge Palaw, deliciously tender lamb under a mountain of saffron rice topped with citrus peels. My mouth is watering as I write this. The portions are large, the side dishes tasty, the service great, and the atmosphere casual and no frills and yet transportive, like you’re eating in another country.

For an alternative area of food options besides the usual Old City eats and fancier Rittenhouse Square fares, I’m also fond of the East Passyunk Avenue area in South Philadelphia below Dickinson Street.


I could add so much more to each – Morris Arboretum and John Heinz Wildlife Refuge for outdoors and volunteer opportunities; smaller restaurants, local bars, and sites in my area of Queen Village (including the Shot Tower, the nearby Show Tower Café, and a cavernous second-hand bookstore at 5th and Bainbridge); and some honorable mentions for artsy and musicy venues such as Fleisher Art Memorial and Settlement Music School not to mention the numerous free concerts at Hawthorne Park during the summertime.

And now that it’s summertime in February, I recommend getting out there in your shorts and tank tops, throw caution to the wind and some Norenge Palaw in your mouth, and try out some of these fantastic places.