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Posts Tagged ‘plants in Philadelphia

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.



Spring Events & Attractions in Philadelphia

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The annual Philadelphia Flower Show is coming up quick (March 11-19), and we are so Spring ready at the Independence Visitor Center.


In my never-ending quest to push green activities in Philadelphia at the Center, I recently put up a display of my top favorite destinations for Spring. And as always, we receive the publication, Grid magazine, which is an excellent resource for ecological events in and just outside of Philadelphia proper.

This year’s Flower Show, though highly focused on tulips and all their variegations, also highlights the Dutch horti- and agriculture’s need to utilize space ecologically and economically, given the country’s limited, below-sea-level geographical setting. And I find this year’s exhibition fitting and called-for in a place like Philadelphia, which in my mind should today be a Kew Gardens-ranking botanical destination.
Sadly, it’s not, and “park” designation is barely merited unless it’s including “-ing lot”. As a “greene country towne” home to some of the pioneers of American botany and horticulture, I feel Philadelphia is frustratingly and embarrassingly lacking promotion of what is was and could be.

While I’ve mentioned a few of the following sites in a previous post, it’s absolutely worth mentioning them again in the top places I recommend visiting for your Spring (and beyond Spring) visit/stay/ambiguous-duration-of-inhabitance-similar-to-my-own in and around Philadelphia.

Bartram’s Gardens


Where? 54th Street & Lindbergh Boulevard

How do I get there? While it’s a bit of a trek from downtown, Bartram’s is accessible by public trolley #36 to 54th Street. If you’re just paying for roundtrip, have exact change or tokens ($2.25 per token or combo price for purchase at major stations downtown or at Independence Visitor Center).

Cost? Usually free!


A bright yellow wood poppy bursting above its leafy canopy in Bartram's Garden

A bright yellow wood poppy bursting above its leafy canopy in Bartram’s Garden

This should be the Kew Gardens of America, and, yet, it’s not all it could be and isn’t so well known to visitors. Bartram and his son were American pioneers in horticulture/botany, and the former site of the Bartram residence and gardens is the place to go if you want to understand the beginnings and aspirations of Philadelphia. At Bartram’s Gardens, there are walking tours available, free kayaking events on the Schuylkill River, and volunteer opportunities on the farm.

Here, you’ll also find one of the oldest and largest Ginkgo biloba trees in the Americas, dating from the late 1700s, as well as a rare-ish Franklinia, tons of garlic mustard, and Celandine poppy/wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum).*

*Interestingly, according to one source, celandine poppy “is threatened by the invasion of Alliaria petiolate (Garlic Mustard)”, a subject touching on allelopathy (in this case, plants using chemical properties to inhibit other plants/competitors) I’ll be exploring soon.


John Heinz Wildlife Refuge


Where? 8601 Lindbergh Boulevard

How do I get there? By car – if you don’t have your own, take an Uber (bit expensive) or rent a car for the day from Hertz and maybe try fitting in the other recommendations here (Bartram’s or Morris Arboretum)

Cost? Free!


A thicket of milkweed, lanky grasses, butterfly bushes, and Melilotus officinalis

A thicket of milkweed, lanky grasses, butterfly bushes, and Melilotus officinalis

The 1,000-acre reserve is a bit surreal being so close to an international airport. Stop in at the Visitor Center to learn about the site’s sordid past, being a site of immense biodiversity and riparian importance turned into an industrial cesspool and now slowly being restored to its original ecological grandeur. There are seasonal plant hikes offered as well as numerous birding tours (the refuge is famous for its eagles’ nests), many of which are free to the public.

You can also volunteer here – for a couple of months, I helped weed out invasive poplars and garlic mustard and occasionally sitting the Visitor Center’s reception desk to answer questions about the refuge.


Morris Arboretum


Where? 100 E Northwestern Avenue

How do I get there? By car or by train then Uber (this one’s complicated – if you’re willing to half-bike it, send me a message)

Cost? $17 for Adults, $9 Youth/Students


A monstrous, Kraken-like Katsura in Morris Aboretum

A monstrous, Kraken-like Katsura in Morris Aboretum

Trees, wonderful trees. I’m more a fan of low-lying plants, but this arboretum contains some impressive tree species. I was, in the very true form of the word, awed by the Katsura and Blue Atlas Cedar trees on the property. And for someone who very much does not like roses…what a rose/herb garden Morris has.

And an amazing miniature railroad to boot!


Sculpture Bicycle, Fairmount Park Bike, & Mural Maps


Where? Independence Visitor Center, 6th and Market streets (1 N Independence W; GPS: 599 Market Street)

How do I get there? From the airport – Take the Airport line to Jefferson Station and walk or take the “L” subway to 5th and Market

Cost? Freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee (except for Shofuso House)


I’m a huge advocate of bicycling. And Philadelphia is a huge fan of potholes and a-hole drivers. And soon, the Visitor Center will no longer offer WheelFun bicycle rentals. That being said, there’s still Indigo, hugely popular with locals and fairly well strategically placed throughout the city. While I’m not a fan of Indigo’s unwieldy bicycles, I’d much rather able, active, and adventurous folks to get around the city this way. With a little street assertiveness and keen awareness, visitors can get around quick and sightsee at the same time, able to hop off and check out anything at their own leisure – including Philadelphia’s unique collection of sculptures and murals.

At the Visitor Center, we not only provide both, but also promote our bicycle sculpture maps and, a recent addition, Museums Without Walls, a free program offered by Association for Public Art. Signs posted at various sculptures have a number that can be dialed, which connects you to a recording by an expert/professional explaining the art piece in front of you. The APA’s Museum Without Walls webpage includes an interactive map, or you can visit the Independence Visitor Center to grab a free city map as well as a Mural Mile Walking Tour Map, which lists some major murals in downtown Philly (out of over 2,000 murals in total!).

Lastly, although WheelFun bicycle rentals are ruthlessly being killed off by bus tours (don’t get me wrong – great way to see the city as well!) and backwards-thinking nonprogressives, I’ll still hold on to dear life our self-guided bicycle maps, which feature Fairmount Park, a beautiful greenway that includes the Japanese Shofuso House and Horticulture Center, our Schuylkill River Trail maps, and the a-bit-outdated 2014 Center City Bike maps.


Honorable Mention: Sister Cities Park


Where? 210 N 18th Street

How do I get there? Walking, public transportation, PHLASH (when in operation, seasonally), hop-on-hop-off buses

Cost? Free!


Tiarella, or foamflower, thriving in downtown Philly at Sister Cities Park

Tiarella, or foamflower, thriving in downtown Philly at Sister Cities Park

Across the street from an amazing cathedral and Philadelphia’s most famous interactive science museum, Sister Cities Park is a satellite location of Independence Visitor Center. While you can buy discount tickets here for some of the places I’ve mentioned in this post, you can also experience a bit of one of north Philadelphia’s green spaces, Wissahickon Park.

If you have a car, skip the small stuff and drive up to experience the real thing. If you’re passing through downtown Philly, be sure to stop with your kids (or just if you’re a plant fanatic like myself) to enjoy the part Visitor Center-part kiddie pool-part Café-part ecologically friendly park, styled after the Wissahickon with a mini, meandering waterfall and native plants like Tiarella, blueberry and cranberry bushes, and wild columbine.

While the ground plants serve in a stormwater management system, the building itself in which our Visitor Center/café is installed also serves as a “green roof”, a roof of sedums, sage, and switchgrass absorbing rainwater and “minimizing heat-island effect”.

And whether I’m stationed at Sister Cities or our 6th-street Visitor Center location, come in and say hello, buy some discounted Flower Show tickets, and ask me for more recommendations – I can do more than bore the bullocks off of you with plant-related information, I promise.

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.