Category Archives: Botany

Ivy Hill Cemetery and “the worst mess I have encountered”

One of Witmer Stone’s collecting grounds for violets was the Ivy Hill Cemetery in the Cedarbrook section of Philadelphia.


His correspondence with Middlebury College president and violet expert Ezra Brainerd led to Brainerd coming to Philadelphia in 1905 to visit Stone’s violet haunts, including Ivy Hill. Violet taxonomy is still exasperating for modern botanists: described forms are often difficult to differentiate, and some forms freely hybridize. Stone and Brainerd were of the impression that Ivy Hill abounded with hybrids. After his visit, Brainerd told Stone that the cemetery was “full of mysteries”; when it came to attempts at identification, the violets there were a “hopeless confusion” and “by all odds the worst mess that I have encountered.”

I encountered Ivy Hill Cemetery on a beautiful June day. Ron, the grounds superintendent, was a great help, and he directed me to most of the items in this post. A beautiful old red-roofed receiving vault, now used for general storage, used to be the repository for newly arrived bodies; when the ground was too frozen for immediate interment, the bodies sometimes stayed in the vault all winter. (The progression from shovels to backhoes has been largely responsible for the elimination of that problem.)


The cemetery is the final resting place of local notables including boxer Joe Frazier, singer Harold Melvin of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes/“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” fame, and, on a much bluer note, “The Boy in the Box,” a young boy found murdered and left in a box in a woodlot in 1957. The murder has never been solved, and the boy’s identity remains unknown:


Ivy Hill has its share of ornithological features, both current and historical. Philadelphia naturalist Philip Laurent notified Stone in November 1892 that an acquaintance had recently collected a Saw-whet Owl in the cemetery. Clearly, the immediate neighborhood had a much more rural character then.

An obelisk beside one of the most amazing old oaks in a cemetery full of remarkable trees bears the name of John Bardsley, an Englishman residing in Germantown.


In 1869, Philadelphia politicians decided to introduce English Sparrows in an effort to eliminate Elm Spanworm Moth caterpillars that were attacking city trees. Bardsley was sent to England and returned with 1,000 of the birds, which soon proved to be more of a nuisance than the insects they were imported to control. Bardsley was honored with the sobriquet “Sparrow Jack” for his efforts, but was forever blamed for the presence of the House Sparrow (as it’s now usually called) in Philadelphia.


Ivy Hill Cemetery is currently home to some native and less controversial feathered Philadelphians. This young Chipping Sparrow just off the nest was keeping up a constant clamor for food:


Danger lurks in the cemetery for baby birds and other critters. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks was on the prowl; I spotted one of them perched atop a snag, clutching a snake in its talons.


It had two well-grown youngsters to feed on a nest in a Norway Spruce:


Here’s another photo of one of the young Red-tails:


Whenever the hawks flew, they were hounded mercilessly by a pair of Eastern Kingbirds, who doubtless had a nest or young nearby.

Last but not least: how about all those vexing violet species Witmer Stone used to collect? Alas and alack, I had my eye out for violets, but found not a one. Ron and I came up with two possible reasons for that: a) violets may have been more likely 100 years ago because the grounds were probably not as intensively tended and manicured as they are now, and b) the cemetery was only partially full at that time, with the unused areas left wild and wooly − maybe Stone’s violets were in those parts of the grounds. So these days, Ivy Hill is a little light on botanical mysteries, and the time is past when a violet hunter can look forward to a hopeless confusion and the worst Viola mess he might ever encounter. But it’s still a lovely, tranquil, green oasis in an urban area, with some magnificent old trees and lots of interesting breeding birds.

A Week in the New Jersey Pine Barrens

It’s been 114 years this week (June 17−22, 1901) since Witmer Stone, his Academy of Natural Sciences colleague James Rehn, and fellow Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) member Herbert “Curly” Coggins took a six-day, 75-mile jaunt through the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Stone was in the early stages of his intensive botanical research in the Pine Barrens, having suddenly resolved, during a botanical outing there the year before, to write a flora of the region. Ten years later, he would publish his monumental The Plants of Southern New Jersey (PSNJ).

The men set out in a horse-drawn wagon laden with field supplies on June 17 from the newly-constructed “Catoxen” cabin near Medford (more on Catoxen in a later post). Here’s a photo of Catoxen c. early 1900s, with Stone on right with frying pan:


They camped along the Batsto River their first night out, and had an unwanted adventure when their horse bolted and they had to chase it down in the dark. After those exertions, they fell asleep to the calls of Whip-poor-wills. The next day, they journeyed to the “town” of Speedwell (population 4), and used that as a home base for forays for the rest of the trip. (Speedwell is long gone; it wasn’t far from today’s Carranza Memorial.) In PSNJ, Stone wrote of the Pine Barrens, “Wagon roads lead across the white sand to the sea at frequent intervals,” and the roads and the scenery the party experienced were undoubtedly similar to this view along a two-track in the Barrens today:


They explored a couple of different sections of “the Plains,” those parts of the Barrens where the vegetation only grows to a few feet. Coggins later wrote, “We wade into the scrub oaks scarcely able to believe that it is over the top of a dwarf forest that we are gazing for miles.” During the trip, they collected 400–500 sheets of plants, as well as insects, reptiles, mice, and other critters, for the Academy’s collections. They also found a new location for the rare Curly-grass Fern:

Photo 25 - Curly Grass Fern

Although they found little variety in the typically limited Pine Barrens avifauna, they did discover a House Wren nest in an old hat, and were amused by the name “Chimney Bats” used for Chimney Swifts by the locals around Speedwell.

Just when they thought they couldn’t suffer through any larger hordes of mosquitoes than they already had, they did: on the last night of their trip, they unwisely took accommodations in the hay barn of a Jones’ Mill farmer, which was infested with them. It was a long haul back to Medford the next day for the hot, tired, and thirsty travelers; according to Coggins, Ulysses couldn’t have been more relieved to return home to Ithaca after his odyssey than the three naturalists were to see Catoxen cabin come into view at the end of theirs.

Stone also recorded that “a number of photographs” were taken on the trip, and would be used in later Academy lectures. They would be fascinating to see; however, I don’t know the fate of the photographs, other than this one, which appeared in a later DVOC publication over the caption “Unwashed and Uncombed.” From left to right, Rehn, Stone, and Coggins (you can see why they called him “Curly”) look happy to be exploring the natural history riches of the still-amazing New Jersey Pine Barrens.

U&U  2FU

Cape May Star and Wave article on Otway Brown

I had an article published in today’s Cape May Star and Wave about Otway Brown – noted Cape May naturalist, as well as Stone’s partner for the Christmas Bird Count and the Cape May Flower Show. A row of Eastern Red Cedars, planted in Brown’s memory in 1948, are still growing along Madison Avenue in Cape May. Many kudos to CMS&W for having the interest in the town’s history to publish the article. Click to open image (click a second time to open full size):

CMSW Brown 4-8-15 crp

Stone Trees

Many trees familiar to Stone are still with us, and provide a living link to his world. We can start with this huge oak (I saw it in winter, so didn’t have much to go on as to species) next to Stock Grange, where Stone spent many youthful summers (on all photos, you can click to enlarge):

Stock Grange

Not far from Stock Grange, in the Doe Run Presbyterian Cemetery, a huge White Oak stands near the graves of many of Stone’s Stock Grange ancestors, including his naturalist great-aunt Mary Steele:


Here’s a massive old oak in Wister Woods, where Stone and the Brown brothers spent much of their time while roaming the wide-open spaces around their Germantown homes:

Wister Oak II

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Stone Trees