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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.


The Prickly & Pawpaw Patch of Pennypack Park

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Pennypack Park map

Pennypack Park map

The alliteration is back, as is my voracious weight gain.

Now that I’m not breathing through Jell-O and the cool season’s moving in, I thought it’d be good to do some trail running and seed collecting (I grandiosely tell my colleagues I’m “botanizing”) in some of the parks of the Philadelphia environs.

Adjacent to the free parking lot across from Fox Chase Farm and off of Pine Road, there’s a quaint paved trail running along the West side of Pennypack Creek and which apparently runs the nine-mile length of the rising smoke—like sliver slicing through Northeast Philadelphia.

Had I seen this, I wouldn’t have crossed the creek onto the east side and wouldn’t have run into a recreation of Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin and – worst of all – wouldn’t have had my first taste of Passionflower, Pawpaw, and Prickly Ash at an unlikely gem that was the Pennypack Environmental Center.

With the exception of Prickly Ash, which has its own unique appearance, it seems odd that Pawpaw and Passionflower thrive as far north as they do, especially given the latter’s exotic look.

My botanical finds started with a pee, and a pee is incidentally how I happened on this fine Environmental Center.

My botanical finds started with a pee, and a pee is incidentally how I happened on this fine Environmental Center.

As with any plant, I’ve found in my readings and researchings that Passionflower, or Passiflora incarnata, has been used for everything from anti-anxiety and cough medicines to the ever-perplexing treatment for both constipation and diarrhea. While I didn’t have the need to relieve either that day, the Environmental Center’s ranger – I’ll call him Pete, as that’s what he said he was called by his wife at least on Thursdays – shared with me a swelled, papery-skinned Passionflower fruit, inside of which was a gooey mass of seeds held together like frog spawn. The flavor was sweet, but the gelatinous substance was difficult to separate from the seeds. A lot of effort, but a sweet, grapey reward.

Pickin' up pawpaws, puttin' 'em in your pocket

Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in your pocket

The Pawpaw fruit is one of the more unusual berries to see dangling from above, and, while sweet, it has a more custardy, banana-y flavor. In “Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations”, the authors claim that the pawpaw – derived from the Spanish word “papaya” (another flavor of the pawpaw fruit noted by some) – was grown by a number of American Indian tribes and was then later rediscovered by my favorite Philadelphian botanist, John Bartram, who then sent some species to his horticultural pen pal Peter Collinson in Britain.

With all the problems over the years with banana cultivation, it’s surprising that this fruit isn’t more prevalent in the market (maybe due to its short shelf life once off the tree?), but people like Pete are bringing it back – the park ranger’s stand towers over the Environmental Center’s entrance and still has at the time of this posting plenty of berries ready to drop. Even a recent posting claims that Bartrams Gardens has a stand of pawpaws made possible by the Philadelphia Orchard Project and used as an ingredient in an ice cream brand promoted by the Gardens.

The Gardens has also promoted the attempt of Philadelphia Distilling (claiming to be the first craft distillery in the state of Pennsylvania since prohibition) to recreate John Bartram’s Bitters. One of the ingredients of this “cocktail additive” happened to be growing just in back of the Environmental Center. The ranger took a small red seed from a branch of thorny-trunked tree and told me to put it in my mouth, bite down – but not too hard – and not to swallow.

Prickly Ash berries

I’m fairly certain he was a park ranger.

Pricky Ash, or Zanthoxylum americanum, is of the same family as Sichuan pepper. Upon crushing the seed and releasing the hydroxy-alpha sanshool molecules, the tongue experiences paresthesia – another damn good P word – or, in other words, a numbing and tingling sensation. I had my unwitting colleagues try the seeds: one experienced paresthesia but not the changing flavors from spicy to minty to sweet that I had experienced, while the other accidentally swallowed the seed.

Again, herbalists have used the plant’s various parts to quell their farts and for other excretorial purposes, but one I can readily accept is its role in Native American life in alleviating toothaches – the park ranger did, in fact, initially introduce the tree as the “toothache plant”. It’s also a boon for Giant Swallowtail butterflies, which lay their eggs on the plant’s leaves. All the more reason to encourage more plantings.

Prickly Ash: also a great way to keep kids out of your yard.

Prickly Ash: also a great way to keep kids out of your yard.

For those who’d like to attempt propagating Passionflower and Pawpaw by seed as I am, I found the following sites to be helpful so far:

While I’ve not found a trustworthy online guide or text for growing Prickly Ash from seed, Pete suggested a month in cold peat moss storage and then planting in any soil (as it’s a hardy plant that tolerates a range). I’ll trust Pete – his name, after all, does start with a P.


My meditations are interrupted only by the faint rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway

Post Philly Flower Show Review

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The highly anticipated 2016 Philadelphia Flower Show has come and gone, and so suddenly it seems.

Being that it was my first, I’ve no basis for comparison, but I can pick out the highlights that made the event worthwhile for the 30 bucks I didn’t pay (thanks, part-time job perks!).

Big Timber Lodge

Big Timber Lodge

Big Timber Lodge

At the entry of massive Hall A was Big Timber Lodge, an impressive, rustic wooden-beam structure stretching loftily to the Convention Center rafters. Beneath the beam-hung floral chandeliers were ferns and fading columbines galore among the pines.

Wooden-cage animal models such as bison and maybe elk (a new species of elk unsure of its decisions in life) featured throughout the exhibition, stuffed and draped with twigs, flowers, mosses, and such. Funny how most of the life forced for the Flower Show would wilt well before its natural time — as long as they compost, I’m fine with it!

Pink ColumbinesCHARRED!

One of my favorite exhibits unfortunately had some technological problems and an upsetting lack of information, but as soon as I saw the charred logs at its entrance, I recognized it as a representation of the succession of a forest following a fire.

Go here for a brief overview of succession at Yellowstone National Park.

Rock plantsNatural Landscapes

“These look like they’ve been here for years!” My sister keened to the realistic settings painstakingly installed by Stoney Bank Nurseries (representing Yellowstone National Park), Hunter Hayes Landscape Design (representing Valley Forge National Historical Park), and J. Downend Landscaping, Inc. (representing Arcadia National Park).

HorsesFloral Structure Displays

Well into my third wine and vaguely aware of my need for a proper toilet despite all the natural ones about me, I and my equally wined sister ventured into the space designated for floral sculptures and displays. This blurry display did not impress us, though the flower-stuffed cardboard display, a nod to the natural arches in the aptly named Arches National Park, was quite the photogenic opportunity for visitors.



The red flower and glass chandeliers, representing the Chandelier Tree — a 276-foot-tall coast redwood tree in Leggett, California, with a 6-foot-wide-by-6-foot-9-inch-high hole cut through its base to allow a car to drive through — were a magical and captivating display arranged by the Institute of Floral Designers.

All in all, while it had interest in its tie with the NPS and well-installed natural exhibits, most I spoke with were a bit disappointed by the lack of the “exotic”, some finding that even the natural landscapes were all too familiar. Those same people had been previously wow’ed by the 2012 exhibition, which had a

Floral chandeliers

Floral chandeliers

Hawaii theme, and the 2015 movies-themed exhibition (which would’ve been so timely considering this month’s new Pixar exhibit at Franklin Institute!).

Even still, I hope the Flower Show helped to highlight the importance of our national parks and encourage parents to in turn encourage their kids to become Junior Rangers — I watch kids come to the NPS desk at the Independence Visitor Center and see how excited they are when they stamp their Passport Books and take the oath to become part of the great program.

Floral and cardboard arches

Floral and cardboard arches

For those looking for more botanical adventures, I can’t recommend enough Morris Arboretum, located a bit out of the way north of Philadelphia but entirely worth the effort getting there. This sanctuary of trees features a gorgeous, shady Katsura and an equally gargantuan Blue Spruce, one of the most amazing miniature railroads I’ve ever seen and, just as so, the most amazing herb and rose garden, and a number of fascinating ground plants like a favorite species of mine, Epimedium.

Beautiful hanging Abutilon

Beautiful hanging Abutilon

Worth visiting as well are the native plants of Bartram’s Garden and, of course, the east coast’s premier plant palace,  Longwood Gardens. I’ve also been impressed by Scott Arboretum out in Delaware County, part of Swarthmore College, about 11 miles southwest of Philadelphia.

The 2016 PHS Philadelphia Flower Show

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This month in Philadelphia, the International Flower Show will kick off from March 5—13 with this year’s theme “Explore America”, and I’ll not only be working there as part of my job but also visiting with my arch nemesis/biological sister.

I have high expectations for this year and have been researching the flora found in the parks being represented at the botanical bonanza event celebrating “100 years of National Park Service”. Well, in fact, I’ve made up a list of the fantastical flora I hope to be on display from the parks chosen to be a part of the show:

Yosemite National Park

Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea)

Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea)

Snow Plant (Sarcodes sanguinea)

Crimson Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

Henderson’s shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii)

Harlequin Lupine (Lupinus stiversii)

Valley Forge National Park

Nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum)

Spotted Wintergreen/Pipsissewa (Chimaphila maculate)

Indian cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana)

Nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum)

Nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum)

Yellowstone National Park

Striped Coral-Root (Corallorhiza striata)

Calypso Orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

Hooded Ladies-Tresses (Spiranthes spiralis)

Other parks being highlighted include Acadia and Cape Cod, Shenandoah, and “everything from the Everglades to Hawaii’s Volcano National Park”, according to The Trentonian, a New Jersey publication that seems to have a better idea of what’s going on in Philadelphia than the adolescent-led Philadelphia Business Journal.

Striped Coral-Root (Corallorhiza striata)

Striped Coral-Root (Corallorhiza striata)

My dream list above is far from what I really think will be featured at the event, which will most likely boast the usual display of chrysanthemums,

But perhaps this is also a chance for the Park Service to demonstrate what it is they actually do and its illustrious and hard-fought history in preserving America’s lands home to these botanical beauties.

Also: Read an article by a Flower Show veteran and exhibitor here.

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

March 2, 2016 at 8:34 pm

To Sow a Delicious Invasive

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Today, I was excited to sow my stratified garlic mustard seeds. May the ignorant of botany-based bloggers be aghast and rank me among those who still opt to use kudzu for soil control.

Garlic mustard leaves and flowers

Garlic mustard leaves and flowers

I’m a massive fan of Alliaria petiolata, or garlic mustard, and have been since being introduced to the leafy green living in Ridley Park, Delaware County, with my sister. Her boyfriend had pointed it out as a nuisance that kept popping up in their yard, and I immediately recognized it from a book, strangely enough, given to me as a Christmas gift by my sister some years ago.

The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Mushrooms, Fruits, and Nuts by Katie Letcher Lyle is one of the few books I’ve taken to writing notes in the margins, and it’s from this handy guide I first heard of garlic mustard and its wonderful culinary and medical uses.

True to southeast Pennsylvania, the author sufficiently describes the plant as appearing “to have infiltrated fields, paths, and the edges of woods with its pretty, light green, scalloped round leaves that smell and taste faintly of garlic.”

And she goes on to mention mustard garlic’s invasive behavior, which may be thanks to its allelopathic tendencies, basically putting out chemicals in the soil to inhibit the growth of certain other surrounding plants.

Milkweed at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum

Milkweed at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum

I saw widespread evidence of this during my brief volunteering with the Visitor Center at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. The largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania, this refuge is home to protected nests of bald eagles and turtles and a fertile grounds for native milkweeds and toadflax.

Unfortunately, given the refuge’s disturbed and industrial past, it is plagued by invasive species like white poplar (Populus alba), false indigo-bush (Amorpha fruticosa), and, of course, garlic mustard.

And there exist numerous news articles on methods and proposals for the eradication of garlic mustard, all of which seem so very deplorable: the introduction of rogue and unpredictable weevil predators, fire control, chemical spraying, etc.

Mile-a-Minute Weed in Cobb's Creek in Delaware County

Mile-a-Minute Weed in Cobb’s Creek in Delaware County

Whilst volunteering for Weed Warriors, a program run by the refuge, I listened to veteran volunteers lament the spread of garlic mustard throughout the refuge, overcrowding and -shadowing other potential plants. The only other contender for worst invasive, according to them, is mile-a-minute weed, or Persicaria perfoliata. And during my time with the refuge’s visitor center, I was elated when the volunteers told me I could harvest garlic mustard to my heart’s content.

And while I’m skeptical of the green’s affect on asthma, I was happy to fill up to my heart and bodys’ content with Vitamin C and absolute tastiness. Both the leaves and stems are fantastic in any rice dish and even in a simple salad. Though, as Lyle wisley points out in her book, the leaves mustn’t be boiled/cooked so much that they become slimy; adding them in to a boil or steam in the last few minutes is best.

Though I’ve since moved from Delaware County, I hope to rejoin the refuge’s volunteer force, not just for the garlic mustard but because I really do trust and believe in their efforts to rehabilitate this fantastic preserve. You can join me this spring and summer in my eradication efforts/harvesting by reaching out to the Friends Group coordinator Suzanne Kelley at

Chit’n’Chat: Schuykill Oil Spill

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A yellow boom surrounds the immediate spill area

A yellow boom surrounds the immediate spill area

A yellow boom corralled ice floats on Schuylkill River just below the Market Street bridge, some rust-tinged and most looking as though it had been sprinkled with a bit of turmeric.

A group of men looked down at ice floating farther down along the Schuylkill River Trail, one of whom, an official from the Philadelphia Water Department, wagged his head solemnly as he spoke of the 4,200 gallons of heating oil that spilled into the river Monday.

Either restricted from saying too much to the public or as in the dark as most news sites reporting on the situation, he said the oil leaked out from a nearby, unknown or -specified facility. Downriver, as I noticed biking up the trail, was a noticeable oil sheen, and the air smelled quite heavily of oil. He motioned toward the ice enclosed in an oval by the boom and said that, rather than improving the effort by trapping the oil, the ice was just making progress slower.

The only thing to do at this point, he said, was monitor the water downstream while skimming the oil from the surface of the water and sucking the rest into a large hose leading into giant storage tanks on the Schuylkill embankment.

Interestingly enough — or not, depending on your definition of “interesting” — I recently happened on a book, Mycophilia by Eugenia Bone, in the Philadelphia public library that I’ve been meaning to read since it came out in 2011, months after the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.

Schuylkill River Oil Spill 2

Closer view of the yellow/rust-tinged oil among ice floats

While parts of the book make me salivate what with the author’s descriptions of cheeses (fungus — or mold, rather — being responsible for the production of some of my favorites including Gorgonzola and Blue cheese) and wine pairings with mushrooms, it’s loaded with fascinating information on the brilliant ways funguses – or fungi, if you’d rather – can break down even the most chemically complex of structures. Oil being one of them.

In the 2007 San Francisco Bay oil spill, cleanup organizers used a combination of hair and oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) to absorb and break down oil from a cargo ship that rammed the base of a Bay Bridge tower, spilling 58,000 gallons of fuel. And other such “mycoremediation” efforts have taken place with varying levels of success.

It’s perhaps hard to believe fully that this promising method of bioremediation could work, but, then again, as Bone points out in her book, radioactive-tolerant and “-eating” fungus (radiotrophic; using melanin, which is present in varying levels in human skin, to convert the radioactive particles) has been found growing in the very confines of the present-day Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear plants.

Schuylkill River Oil Spill 3

Facing south along the Schuylkill River Trail boardwalk

This subject, of course, also seems unusually far-flung from my usual posts on all-things botanical, but I’ve since learned that fungus is present in nearly all plants, within their cells and the surrounding soil, working in a long-held symbiotic relationship with their hosts, breaking down materials and forming mutualistic networks in forests to swap nutrients (as they do not photosynthesize) and also receiving and offering protection.

Although it’s said fungus is more related to humans than plants, it’s apparent that the latter cannot be studied neglecting mycology. Judging by the studies I’ve read, however, there appears to be a lot more work needing to be done before officials readily look to bioremediation for something like a 4,200-gallon oil spill in the Schuylkill.*


*The event was not considered a serious enough spill in coastal waters by one report. Also, on another note, according to a study, water temperature is very much a factor in the efficacy of mycoremediation, favoring warmer waters in cleanup efforts.

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

January 29, 2016 at 9:08 pm

Storm Jonas in Philly

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Top: Cars blanketed with snow on South 2nd and Catharine streets, Queen Village

Left to right: Intersection of 2nd and Catharine streets, cross-city skiier, houses along Queen Street, garden in Old City, Carpenter’s Hall in Old City, National Park Service vehicles in Old City, Second National Bank courtyard, rear of Second National Bank in Old City, Independence Hall, Independence Visitor Center, front of Second National Bank, alleyway in Old City

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

January 23, 2016 at 12:55 pm