Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Vanished Gardens

Vanished Gardens: Finding Nature in Philadelphia

  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Vanished Gardens
    Book Description:

    New to living and gardening in Philadelphia, Sharon White begins a journey through the landscape of the city, past and present, in Vanished Gardens. In prose now as precise and considered as the paths in a parterre, now as flowing and lyrical as an Olmsted vista, White explores Philadelphia's gardens as a part of the city's ecosystem and animates the lives of individual gardeners and naturalists working in the area around her home. In one section of the book, White tours the gardens of colonial botanist John Bartram; his wife, Ann; and their son, writer and naturalist William. Other chapters focus on Deborah Logan, who kept a record of her life on a large farm in the late eighteenth century, and Mary Gibson Henry, twentieth-century botanist, plant collector, and namesake of the lily Hymenocallis henryae. Throughout White weaves passages from diaries, letters, and memoirs from significant Philadephia gardeners into her own striking prose, transforming each place she examines into a palimpsest of the underlying earth and the human landscapes layered over it. White gives a surprising portrait of the resilience and richness of the natural world in Philadelphia and of the ways that gardening can connect nature to urban space. She shows that although gardens may vanish forever, the meaning and solace inherent in the act of gardening are always waiting to be discovered anew.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3973-3
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[x])

    • 1. Grapefruit
      (pp. 3-4)

      MY FIRST GARDEN WAS TROPICAL. I planted it in my great aunt’s backyard in Florida with dust and rocks and dry thick leaves as big as my hand. Light filtered through grapefruit trees. Banana trees rustled in the warm wind. I played there for hours alone with my dolls. One morning I made a water garden in a small dusty pool bordered with stones. I pretended there were seahorses swimming in the pool. As I played I could smell the sweet sharp fragrance of grapefruit ripe in their rough bright skins. My aunt thought I was unhappy. I was such...

    • 2. Boxwood
      (pp. 5-6)

      ONCE THERE WAS A GARDEN HERE where I write, an intricate labyrinth bordered in clipped boxwood, the Labyrinthine Garden. Our house sits on the edge of the vanished labyrinth, part of a pleasure garden open for only a few years in the early nineteenth century. From sometime in the 1820s to 1833 there was a pavilion and a narrow pagoda called the Temple of Confucius, 110 feet high. The pagoda was a tower with a succession of curved spring-green roofs, bells on the tip of each tier. A grassy lawn circled the base of the pagoda. The labyrinth was sunk...

    • 3. Daffodil
      (pp. 7-12)

      I’M PLANTING DAFFODILS AT DUSK at the edge of the Labyrinthine Garden. Around me people move through the chilled air at five, one leaf or two brushes their shoulders as the yellow leaves float to the pavement. The pruning of light and leaf and heat and flower, of nail, of teeth, of hair, that old repetition of the season closing itself down, begins again. One month and then winter will set itself up to freeze the river, perhaps, and coat the trees’ limbs with ice and fill the deck with snow if we’re lucky. But each bulb is a cliché...

    • 4. Hornbeam
      (pp. 13-23)

      WHEN I RUN ONCE OR TWICE around the baseball fields at the end of our street I’m on the edge of one kind of landscape and another, my feet poised at the very edge of the coastal plain as I run. My walk home brings me up the hill, a line of rock that extends from here south to Alabama. I’m on the intersecting line, too, of one history and another. We live on the edge of William Penn’s Springettsbury, a large tract of land he reserved for his family at the original northern border of the city. I’m running...

    • 5. Lemons
      (pp. 24-30)

      ONCE THERE WAS A LARGE GREENHOUSE near us on Lemon Hill, the high flat bluff overlooking the river, where Henry Pratt grew all sorts of exotic citrus trees not far from Thomas Penn’s greenhouse. This morning I walked up the stone steps past the dry fountain through the woods and past the cream-colored house to the fields. I can’t name the old trees surrounding the house, but others I know—a two-story rhododendron, a ginkgo as tall as any tree I’ve seen on this coast, and beeches with broad trunks and smooth gray skin and rippled roots.

      I picked up...

    • 6. Wild Grasses
      (pp. 31-33)

      I’M TAKING STOCK of my surroundings on this warm fall afternoon—a wild thicket grown up at the end of the street, a slope that once led to the river and hill where William Penn had his vineyard with bitter grapes. The deck garden is swept clean by rain, a persistent Carolina chickadee comes again and again to the empty feeder. Monarchs float their way south, a dazzling dragonfly with spotted wings buzzes over my head in the community garden. Children in their red and blue uniforms cascade onto the sidewalk, Father Georges laughs about something, the smell of roasting...

    • 7. Tulip Tree
      (pp. 34-40)

      IF YOU WANTED TO, you could walk from our house northwest along the Schuylkill to the Wissahickon, a tributary of the wide, tidal river. It’s one of the green arms of Fairmount Park, the extensive park nineteenth-century travelers called “Philadelphia’s Garden.” Lemon Hill was the first part of the park, bought to preserve the purity of the river water. Our trees are part of the park, too, the spiritual descendants of the original woods.

      The park has old roads, crumbling asphalt, low branches where birds, sparrows perhaps, make their nests. The sparrows sit in the branches as you pass down...

    • 8. Catalpa
      (pp. 41-44)

      MY FEET COULD BE BARE padding along the trodden path that winds under sycamores one hundred years old. I’m walking along the slope of Springettsbury where the land levels off toward the river. As I walk the dirt path I concentrate on the color of the mud, how cold it would feel on my feet, and what it would be like to lie there, my cheek pressed against the cold dirt, the city distracted by itself all around me.

      The starlings like it here, too. I startle a small bird who shimmers in iridescent feathers in the early light. I’m...

    • 9. Water Lilies
      (pp. 45-48)

      I MET TWO MEN FISHING in the shallow watery ghost of the waterworks garden this morning. They were dressed in green fishermen’s clothes and had their licenses pinned to their shirts in plastic envelopes. It was sunny, and the wind was mild and from the north. They flicked their lines into the place where the water is midnight blue on a drawing I have of a plan for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway designed by Jacques Greber in 1919.

      The Parkway was an ordered shining vision of paradise from the glittering blue pool in Logan Circle to the serpentine paths in...

    • 10. Peony
      (pp. 49-52)

      ON SATURDAY WE OFTEN WALK to the hardware store to buy paint or potting soil or nails. We pass the dark stone walls of Eastern State Penitentiary constructed from 1823 to 1836 on land that was part of the north border of Thomas Penn’s estate. Later there was a farm here that sold cold drinks and strawberries down the road from the waterworks.

      Closed since the early 1970s, the prison is a museum now with crumbling halls, the wires of the electric chair unraveling. The design was revolutionary for prisons. Each prisoner had his own room and his own exercise...

    • 11. Bamboo
      (pp. 53-58)

      MY SON LOVES THE JAPANESE TEA HOUSE reconstructed in one of the rooms of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, perched on the top of Fair Mount where a reservoir once shimmered in the heat. The tea house is delicately and strangely made and a perfect size for him. He longs to touch the bamboo fence, the slim yellow pieces held fast by black twine, or the sliding paper windows, or the little bowl with water dripping slowly from a piece of bamboo, or the woven rush mats, or the piece of rough wood that supports part of the roof, or...

    • 12. Thistle
      (pp. 59-62)

      NEAR US ON THE SOIL that was farmland stretching north and west from Springettsbury, the city is dissolving into chunks of mortar and brick dust. Sometimes a whole row of narrow brick houses or brownstones has vanished. Trees seed themselves in the rotting wood and brick gone back to its elements, aspens or ailanthus leaning up past the second story and then the third, right up through the roof on its way to dust. On our street thistles and pigweed grow four feet high in the cracks of sidewalks breaking up in chunks of ragged stone. Sometimes I think there’s...

    • 13. Snapdragon
      (pp. 63-66)

      PETER KALM VISITED JOHN BARTRAM in the fall of 1748 when Kalm was staying near Philadelphia. On the way from Philadelphia to Bartram’s farm on the Schuylkill he passed a flower “in astonishing quantities upon all uncultivated fields, glades, hills and the like.” He said the English called it “life everlasting, for its flowers, which consist chiefly of dry, shining silvery leaves . . . The English ladies are accustomed to gather great quantities of this life everlasting and to pick them with the stalks. For they put them into pots, with or without water, amongst other fine flowers which...

    • 14. Holly Tree
      (pp. 67-72)

      A FEW DAYS AGO the fountains on Logan Square, one of Penn’s original parks in his design for the city, were spouting ice. The naked gods and goddesses and their giant green turtles and crabs spewed a shower of glittering cold into the air. The water around the fountain was frozen too, leaves caught in solid shine. I rapped it with my fist and the surface felt stiff.

      “I wonder if you could walk on this?” I asked.

      “I’ll try,” Scott said, and he placed his left foot on the slippery shallow water, going through the ice quickly like nothing...

    • 15. Elm
      (pp. 73-77)

      THE TIPS OF DAFFODILS and the spidery leaves of crocus and snowdrops are poking up in the bed on the side of the house.

      This is a good season for pruning. I know because Locke Woodfin, an arborist, told me this on Thursday. Today is Tuesday. There are seasons in the city. I know people who don’t believe this. I went to an exhibit of photographs at the museum a couple of weeks ago, and the photographer, a man who has lived for years in Philadelphia, said he didn’t see the changing seasons until he lived in France. Or was...

    • 16. Skunk Cabbage
      (pp. 78-82)

      I WAS THINKING ABOUT A FOX YESTERDAY as we drove home. We had been to a place where whistling swans spend a few weeks on their way to the Arctic. They fatten up for the journey north after their weeks flying as far as Pennsylvania from the south. We wandered along a trail in the woods through scotch pine and beech and along a wooden path through a swamp, dry now after weeks of drought. The tips of skunk cabbage were poking up in the moss, their thick veined skins arched like a large thumb.

      The swans were flying in...


    • 17. Pennyroyal
      (pp. 85-92)

      ANN BARTRAM, THE WIFE OF JOHN BARTRAM, the King’s botanist, and the mother of William Bartram, famous for his book of travels to the wilds of Georgia and Florida, had a garden southwest of our house, five miles down the Schuylkill. She lived on the river at the bend called Kingsessing in the second half of the eighteenth century. Her kitchen garden was ordered and fruitful, growing not far from the door of her house. This time of year she would be harvesting spinach and peas, the first leaves of lettuce, and parsley.

      I have a hard time imagining her...

    • 18. Marsh Grass
      (pp. 93-99)

      I’M SHOVELING UP COAL DUST, pieces of horsehair plaster, spiky sections of brittle lath, and puckered wallpaper in a house not far from Bartram’s garden. We’re in the flats across the river. On old maps the area is designated as marsh, part of the vast soggy plain that once bordered the mouth of the Schuylkill. John Bartram drained some of this marsh for his fields. Rich sloping land along the river. The neighborhood borders Sunoco’s round oil tanks on the shore. From Bartram’s garden you can see across the river to the edge of this grid of streets, row after...

    • 19. Oranges
      (pp. 100-108)

      WHEN WILLIAM BARTRAM RETURNED from his years of travel in the wild parts of Florida and Georgia all the way to the banks of the Mississippi he rode his horse home.

      He was alone and traveled north in the winter on the sandy hard beaches of the Carolinas, a solitary man on a horse trotting across the yellow sands on the edge of the Atlantic. He had been in the vast wild garden of Florida for several years. He came home quietly, first stopping to visit his uncle in North Carolina, and then traveling north over “roads deep under snow...

    • 20. Wild Rice
      (pp. 109-111)

      FOUR OR FIVE GREAT BLUE HERONS live in the shallows of Darby Creek in the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, another wild garden in Philadelphia. The tide is out so the water is low and brown. We’re surrounded by the grays and browns of late winter—things are still held within themselves here in the marsh. It’s cold and the wind puts a blush on my son’s cheeks and makes my husband huddle under his hat.

      We’re not far from Bartram’s Garden here. Darby Creek and its freshwater tidal marsh is the last bit of the vast marsh...

    • 21. Bloodroot
      (pp. 112-115)

      I’VE BEEN WALKING IN THE VALLEY of the Wissahickon, down the steep paths to where the stream meanders through its course, pooling at the site of old mill ponds and then rushing and splitting over the rocks that tumbled down a long time ago. It’s the thick of spring, and I’m amazed that I recognize the faces of flowers from many years ago when I wandered the woods near our house in Vermont, up the steep sides of the mountain, down the cool valleys of the little brooks, through the grassy meadows to a cliff where I used to sit...

    • 22. Shadblow
      (pp. 116-117)

      WE’RE HEADING UPRIVER on the green silky water of a ghost river. We don’t know it as we chug northwest in our motored barge, but near the shore in the shallow water of the Schuylkill there’s a body floating. I’m thinking about all the boats that were here when the Bartrams lived on their farm. All the commerce and activity that churned up the shallow waters. Now it’s as if we’re on a wilderness trip, slowly making our way past the broken spires of mountains and the clogged hearts of rivers and bays. But we’re traveling instead through the years...

    • 23. The Lady Petre Pear Tree
      (pp. 118-119)

      THERE’S A WIDE GRAVELED WALK edged in ivy. It’s 1890 or so. The pear tree is half dead and very large against the white sky—luminous on the postcard. The edge of the seed house faces the garden. Other spiky branches spread their limbs in the air. You can’t see the house John Bartram built in the photograph. It’s hidden.

      I’m trying to think about the grace of the pear tree, the history of the garden, the countless letters sent back and forth on ships between John Bartram and his friend Peter Collinson. And Ann Bartram’s last years in the...

    • 24. Zinnia
      (pp. 120-124)

      SHOOTS THE COLOR OF FRESH RHUBARB STALKS are thrusting up from the cut branches of our two rose bushes. I pulled off the Christmas greens from the soil this morning. Poked around the cinnamon fern. Fiddleheads are crouched at the base of the fruiting frond, a brown branch with tight brown leaves that weathered the winter. I dug this fern and another, a royal fern, from the woods near my mother’s house in Vermont. Their cool green wildness survived the heat this summer in a low pot. In the fall I transplanted them to the small garden bed that divides...

    • 25. Snowdrops
      (pp. 125-131)

      JANUARY 15, 1802, was “clear and as warm as May day no ice to be seen in the river etc bees out till evening flying about sparrow hawk & Blew bird. crocus verna. Narsissus. snowdrops Tuleps. Above ground. Hamamelis. In full bloom. Wind S. W.”

      I know the weather for twenty years, a list of familiar birds, the opening petals of winter aconite, the swelling of peach buds, the misty sky, the mild sun, the shiny moon, sultry days and the fields drying up or wet Julys where the hay rotted. I know that some summer nights were so dark...

    • 26. Columbine
      (pp. 132-137)

      I’VE PLANTED A TINY GREEN COLUMBINE in the garden on the side of the house. It’s perfectly shaped, and the bloom is lime colored with long bright yellow stamens. I bought it at a garden in the bend of the river across from where the shad spawn. The garden is in Gladwyne but Philadelphia is right across the river. It’s a garden made over many years by Mary Gibson Henry, a woman inspired by William Bartram to collect native plants starting in the early part of the twentieth century. She carried the plants back from the swampy areas of the...

    • 27. Morning Glory
      (pp. 138-139)

      I MUST MAKE A CONFESSION. I now have a focal point, or at least the garden does. I realized this not long ago as I stood in the center of the patio and looked at the bamboo. It’s feathery and lovely, bending its long canes this way and that in the dry May wind we’ve been having now for several weeks. Transplanted, exotic and content in its two pots.

      “Is it a drought yet?” I asked my husband this morning.

      “Not officially,” he said.

      William Bartram’s garden suffered in this same kind of heat almost two hundred years ago. The...

    • 28. Mint
      (pp. 140-145)

      A MAP OF PHILADELPHIA published in 1796 shows Springettsbury and nearby Bush Hill, a house built on land purchased from William Penn. Our community garden—The Spring Gardens—sits at the top of the slope above Bush Hill beyond a grove of evergreens that grows in an ordered grid north of the house. It’s a cultivated block in the place where the little stream flowed through down to woodland and formal garden below. Now the stream has disappeared, fed underground in one of the sewer pipes, but I see it sometimes on the baseball field, bubbling up in the indentations...

    • 29. Sunflower
      (pp. 146-150)

      I’M DIPPING THE RED PLASTIC BUCKET into a large blue container of water. As I pull the bucket up filled to the brim with clear lukewarm water I slosh a bit on my hands. Did Ann Bartram have a well where she drew her water those early years on her farm? I can’t remember. Or did the Bartrams draw water from the river? I know there was a well later. John Bartram mentions it in his will.

      Goldfinches hang from a cluster of purple sunflowers near me, and when I carry the bucket down the path to my plot in...

    • 30. Poinsettia
      (pp. 151-154)

      DURING A HOT JULY IN 1830 a committee of gardeners from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society tromped from garden to garden in the “vicinity” of Philadelphia. In their report published the following February they note that it was too hot to see everything. They left out the vegetable gardens “where Leguminous plants of every kind are so copiously and so successfully cultivated.” I think it was a paradise of sorts here then, even in the sweltering heat of July.

      Mr. Breck had a garden on the Schuylkill across the river from Lemon Hill on the west bank. His greenhouse was full...

    • 31. Rose
      (pp. 155-155)

      I WANT TO BE CHARMED BY THE CITY BUT I’M NOT. Not by the woman with the perky little dog who greets me on her travels, not by the man sleeping in the park as I run several times past, his encampment a brown sheet, a brown paper bag, a shopping cart with a symbolic fan that’s real, propped on its side, a few possessions near his head, boots, a shirt—by the third time around the baseball fields he’s stretching, one arm held up to the sun. Not by the cluster of birds in the dead fruit tree, starlings...

    • 32. Gingko
      (pp. 156-158)

      I AM HOEING. Leaning into the pull and tug of the flat, sharp hoe against the dry soil. Dry, I discover, only an inch or two on the top. The depths are cool even in this heat. Yesterday I was looking for Ann Bartram again. I went to Bartram’s Garden and read for a couple of hours in the attic above her dairy where the archives are now kept. It was cool and quiet there. I shared the room with three students who were working on the archeological dig around the main house. They were fiddling on computers this morning,...


    • 33. Auricula
      (pp. 161-168)

      MY FATHER IS BURIED IN A PASTURE. Across the road from the pasture is the cold stone crypt where they used to keep the bodies in the winter until the ground thawed enough for burial in the spring. His pasture is at the top of a hill that looks out over the rolling pastures below and wood lots and the little streams flowing into the Brownsville Brook. The mountain he loved, Ascutney, is a blue triangle against the milky sky. Stone walls line the perimeter of the graveyard. Farmers built them in moonlight, too busy to clear the fields during...

    • 34. Violets
      (pp. 169-171)

      JUST DOWN THE STREET from us on the way to the river is an optimistic field. Someone has planted slips of forsythia in a row along two edges and four or five tiny white pine trees in a grid in the center of the rectangular lot.

      I’ve watched this patch of land since we moved here, vowing that I’d find out who the owner was and ask if I could plant a garden there. I want an orchard and a walk of pleached hornbeam and a square of tulips bordered by boxwood trees. But someone has beaten me to it....

    • 35. Catkins
      (pp. 172-177)

      I’M READING DEBORAH LOGAN’S DIARIES. She was about twenty years younger than William Bartram and lived on the farm at Stenton, James Logan’s place, from the time of her marriage in 1781 to her death in 1839.

      Thomas Jefferson called James Logan’s grandson George, Deborah’s husband, the best farmer in Pennsylvania, both in theory and practice. I went into his stone barn a while ago. It was very large and cool on a hot day. It looked like a fortress with narrow slits in the sides. The farm, once five hundred acres, is now a park of about three.


    • 36. Honeysuckle
      (pp. 178-182)

      IN JULY, MY GARDEN IN THE CITY is a modest collection of pleasant, common flowers, their petals open to the thick humid air that hangs like cotton above their heads. All the petals and tendrils, the curling tips of vines, unfurl in a delicate gesture all over the garden.

      I like the mysterious way leaves sometimes turn into twining arms and the way the passion flower moves in a dance on the wall toward the invisible fishing line suspended from the lattice.

      “Plants,” Peter Bernhardt writes in The Rose’s Kiss, “tend to require a rhythmic, repetitive cycle over a period...

    • 37. Franklinia
      (pp. 183-191)

      IN 1870 WILLIAM ROBINSON published a book called The Wild Garden. His idea of wild was not wilderness but a kind of ordered use of wild edges. He liked to fill meadows with spring flowers and harvest the useful hay later. He planted the edges of woods with drifts of lupines and lilies, the margins of roads with ferns. On old stumps and large trees he coaxed clematis and honeysuckle. I like one wild garden in particular where lilies bloom on the wet margins of a stream and huge magnolia blossoms fall on a winding grassy path, up the river...

    • 38. Carnations
      (pp. 192-193)

      MY SON WAS CONFIRMED in the Catholic church yesterday. I arranged the flowers on the altar with Ronnie. It’s a fiction, after all, that time is moving slowly here in Philadelphia. I’ve been through whole leaps of time since we crossed the threshold into this house built on the rocks that once were the foundation of another garden. Graham is taller than I am.

      My tiny columbine is edged out by heuchera and mint. The bamboo died this winter, a harsh one for Philadelphia. I have a lush bed of daylilies and three new lilies: Lilium henryi, Asiatic citronella, and...

    • 39. Strawberry
      (pp. 194-196)

      I CAN PUT MY FINGER ON THE PLACE where the Labyrinthine Garden stood on a copy of a map from 1833 that sits on my desk. The engraver has written “Pagoda” and circled the word. The pagoda sits in the middle of the outline of the labyrinth on the spot where I now live. Across the street from the garden to the north there are no cross streets, but south, a canal and the proposed route of a railroad line cut through the grid of streets. Pratt’s garden is noted on the river and the Fair Mount Water Works is...

  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 197-198)
  7. Sources
    (pp. 199-206)