Tapping the History of Philly’s Trees

The Woodlands, a 54-acre historic site and cemetery in University City, is the final resting place for many prominent Philadelphians. Paul Philippe Cret, the architect, planner, and former professor in what was then called Penn’s School of Fine Arts is buried there, as are several members of the Drexel family, and renowned American painter Thomas Eakins.

But they’re not the only famous residents located at the historic West Philadelphia site.

The Woodlands also boasts a magnificent collection of trees on the state’s champion list, recognized as being the largest of their species in the Commonwealth. They include an English elm, a hedge maple, and a caucasian zelcova.

David Hewitt, a botanist and lecturer in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, and Edward S. Barnard, a photographer and author of the book, “New York City Trees,” have been leading tree corings of some of the most significant specimens on The Woodlands property—a procedure in which a small cylindrical sample is extracted from the outer bark of the tree to its center.

Hewitt explains that he is interested in the older trees because they can inform people about what young saplings might look in two, three, or nine decades’ time. His other purpose is historical in scope. “If we’re doing landscape reconstructions, you can actually get good biological data for what the culture was, what was actually there.”

Jessica Baumert, executive director of The Woodlands, says that tree corings can also help The Woodlands better care for some of the site’s significant tree specimens into the future. “A lot of horticultural firsts happened here, so [we’re] reincorporating that back into the site and trying to figure out, long-term, what trees are the most significant so that we can better care for them and take precautions to make sure they stay healthy.”

Text by Heather A. Davis
Photos by Steve Minicola