Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

At noon on Saturday, November 24, 1827, fifty-three prominent Philadelphians gathered at the old Franklin Institute, then located on Seventh Street, in response to a newspaper advertisement calling for the formation of an organization devoted to the “highly instructive and interesting science” of horticulture.

Since that inaugural meeting – nearly one hundred and seventy-five years ago – the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) has carried out this original mission, continually revising it, and renewing and reinventing itself, to meet the exigencies of the times. Throughout its history, the society has promoted the appreciation of plants, the acquisition of scientific knowledge about them, the dissemination of horticultural information to the public, and the involvement of the public in enjoying gardening and beautifying the city.

PHS, as it is known to members worldwide, has made it its business to preserve and protect William Penn’s vision of the “greene countrie towne” by enlisting civic leaders, the public, amateur and profession­al gardeners and, most recently, businesses and philanthropic groups in activities that further the scientific and aesthetic appreciation of plants and how they enhance lives and communities.

It’s hardly surprising that such an organization had its roots in Philadel­phia. While frequently hailed as the “Cradle of Liberty,” the city can also lay claim to the title “Cradle of American Horticulture.” Early Dutch, Swedish, and a scattering of English settlers had farmed the Delaware Valley for several genera­tions prior to Penn’s colonization in 1681, exploiting its dense forests, fertile Piedmont soil, mild climate, and depend­able rainfall which had sustained the Native Americans before them. It was the settlement of Quaker farmers and entrepreneurs, persuaded by William Penn to participate in his “Holy Experi­ment,” that marked the beginning of the remarkable surge of interest in plants and gardening that was to make the Philadelphia area a fertile ground for the formation of a society dedicated exclusively to horticulture.

By the turn of the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment was driving learning in the Western world. Benjamin Franklin, his assistant James Logan, and naturalist John Bartram and his son William, were prominent among the many individuals of the day who embraced the scientific method, which spurred their search for knowledge about all sorts of things in the natural world. The Bartrams possessed an especially insatiable curiosity and passion for Learning about the unknown plants on this continent (see “Like Father, Like Son: The Extraordinary Bartrams” by L. Wilbur Zimmerman, Summer 1995). They and their peers in America, including Thomas Jefferson, and their correspondents in Europe, among them Peter Collinson, exchanged seeds and plants, shared botanical information, explored for new plants, and experimented with cultivation practices.

This ferment created an environment enabling the emergence of the oldest organization in the United States devoted to the scientific study of plants, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture. The roster of charter members reads like a veritable “Who’s Who”; among the most readily recognized individuals were Benjamin Rush, Edward Shippen, Robert Morris, and James Wilson. George Washington and John Bartram’s cousin, Humphrey Marshall, were elected honorary members.

Members of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, mostly farmers, focused primarily on the commercial aspects of horticulture, because they were looking to Great Britain as a market for their crops. They encountered a crisis when King George III ordered an embargo on domestic wheat because he feared it would carry the Hessian fruit fly. In 1785, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture was able to prove that fruit fly eggs never occurred in threshed wheat.

The prominent citizens that met in November 1827 were the intellectual and cultural heirs of those charter members of the early agricultural society. Because their interests included the ornamental and public aspects of horticulture, they envisioned a society of the sort common in Great Britain. Many were well acquainted, having met at Bernhard M’Mahon’s seed store at Second and Chestnut Streets, where seeds from Lewis and Clark’s expedition were available for study and cultivation.

Philadelphia was expanding its green vistas by acquiring five acres in Fair­mount along the Schuylkill River to establish a water works and gardens (see “The Fairmount Water Works: ‘One of the very prettiest spots the eye can look upon’” by William D. Owen, Spring 1994). More acres had recently been added to the site and the horticultural potential of this tract – which would eventually become Fairmount Park, the largest urban park in the country – was generating interest in all things horticultural.

At a second meeting, in December, members passed bylaws and fixed dues at five dollars, and life membership for fifty dollars. Males “of good moral character” who paid one hundred dollars earned honorary life memberships. At its third meeting, PHS elected its first slate of officers. Membership included many prominent people of the day, including Horace Binney, Mathew Carey, David Landreth Jr., William Davidson, Samuel Hazard, David S. Brown, George Pepper, Nicholas Biddle, Moses Brown, M.C. Cope, Thomas Astley, Thomas Hibbert, and Joshua Longstreth. It was not until 1835 that women were invited to attend meetings; records suggest that members believed that their presence would discourage the gentle­men’s tendency to use “strong language.”

Founding members envisioned the society’s mission to promote “a highly instructive and interesting science for the purpose of improving the growth of vegetables, plants, trees, fruits and flowers, and introduc­ing into our country new varieties and species.” They saw the garden as an extension of the home, which is itself “the bulwark of our political and social structure and source of good government and civic virtue. Anything that enriches the home also enriches the social and political fabric.”

From the very beginning it was customary for members to bring to meetings samples of particularly interesting plants or unusual fruits and flowers they had grown. On November 3, 1828, just one year after the society’s founding, “upwards of forty specimens of beautiful plants and flowers, fifteen varieties of pears and apples, American grape wine and some fine cauliflower and broccoli” were displayed.

The following June interesting specimens grown by members were exhibited to the public for the first time at Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street. Conducted during the first two days of June 1831, the event – considered the first significant public flower show held in the United States – was such a success that it became an annual exposition. An article in the American Farmer of June 10, 1831, chroni­cled the “splendid exhibition,” noting that there had been no rain for about six weeks and that the temperature on the second day reached “98 degrees in the shade.” Th.e show was held in spring 1832, and then moved the following year to September to take advantage of the fruit available in late summer. Only much later would techniques for forcing blooms make it possible for shows of spring and summer flowers to be held in early March.

At first quite informal, the exhibitions became increasingly regulated, and committees of society members were charged with examining and recording the items on display. By 1830, the PHS was offering small cash prizes and lithographs for winning entries. In June, Daniel Kochersberger won three dollars “for the largest and finest strawberries exhibited to the Society that season,” in addition to receiving seventy-five cents, the market price of two quarts of strawberries. Organizers also allowed the sale of the exhibited items at the conclusion of each show.

The most popular flower of the day was the camellia, followed by the rose and the dahlia. Exhibitors showed a selection of amaryllis, fuchsias, and geraniums in the flowering potted plant category; roses, carnations, and daisies in the cut flower division; and azaleas, rhododendrons, and hydrangeas in the shrub and vine display. Fruits, both native and imported, were well repre­sented in the earliest exhibits. They included Seckel pears, Chesterfield and Winter Sweet apples, gage plums (“in every color that plums could be expected to assume – green, red, yellow, and blue”), and cantaloupes (then called nutmeg melons). Most of the vegetables would be familiar to today’s visitor. Conspicuously absent in this category, though, were tomatoes, or “love apples,” which were regarded with suspicion and eaten rarely. Committee records indicate keen interest in tropical and semi­tropical flowering plants, several of which were introduced at early exhibi­tions. In 1829, the poinsettia was exhibited for first time. The plant was named for Joel Robert Poinsett (1779-1851), appointed the first United States ambassador to Mexico by President Andrew Jackson, who had introduced it in this country in 1825.

The society’s interest in furthering horticultural knowledge was apparent in these early meetings and shows. Members tested new technology, tasted and commented on wine, and exchanged seeds and grafts from other regions in the country and from abroad. They were encouraged to propagate new plants and report results. There was much corre­spondence with European horticultural groups. In 1836, the society introduced sugar beet seed into the United States, and distributed it to members. In response to constant problems of pest insects, which ravaged fruit crops, the society solicited subscriptions to a fund to provide a prize for “the person who shall discover a remedy to protect fruit trees against destructive insects.”

Wartime ca used a period of decline for the society, and during the periods leading up to and including the Civil War, membership, always problematical, waned as interest faded under lackluster leadership, “member indifference, and want of strict adherence to the By-Laws.” In 1861, its few active members appointed a committee to research the history of the organization and charged it to draft recommendations to revitalize it. The report traced the society’s rapid rise and “progress of usefulness and success,” and noted that twenty years of detailed minutes existed, which con­tained enormous amounts of new horticultural information.

The committee believed the emphasis on exhibits and the associated financial aspect was undermining the society’s main mission. In addition to modifying these activities, it recommended publish­ing an annual report containing horticultural information to benefit members interested in “gardening matters”; installing the library in a more accessible public room with an adjacent reading room; holding “conver­sational meetings where horticultural and kindred subjects could be discussed and much valuable information elicited”; offering premiums to encourage “horticultural progress,” such as experimenting with cultural methods; encouraging “produc­tion of original com­munications on horticul­tural subjects”; and appointing committees and defraying their expenses to “make a thorough investigation into the maladies and diseases of vegetation” and their remedies.

William L. Schaffer, elected president in 1867, provided firm leadership and spearheaded a period of renewed energy and commitment. Significantly, he moved to provide a real home for PHS. For forty years the society made do with a series of temporary headquarters, mostly inade­quate for proper access to the expanding library and for exhibitions. In 1867, under the direction of D. Rodney King, its tenth president, the society christened its new headquarters, Horticultural Hall, located at Broad and Lardner Streets, with a grand bazaar. In 1880, the year of King’s death, the building was put up for sheriff’s sale for default of the mortgage, and it was purchased by Schaffer, who turned it over to the society. When the structure burned in January 1881, Schaffer again came to the rescue by underwriting its rebuilding. Upon his death three years later, his heir, his unmarried sister, Elizabeth Schaffer, conveyed it to the society. Financial straits forced the organization to sell the property in 1917. Oddly enough, the society has never truly fulfilled its dream of a permanent headquarters with a garden of its own, settling instead for a series of long-term – and at times tenuous – accommodations.

Schaffer immediately emphasized the importance of growing both membership and plants. Realizing the potential of women’s contributions, he appointed a women’s committee to aggressively recruit new members. Now that there was space to hold them, he resumed monthly plant exhibits. By the close of the century, the society began hosting a series of lectures by distinguished speakers that continues to this day.

As auspicious as its beginnings might have been, Schaffer’s legacy did not endure. The last decade of the nineteenth century was marred by apathy, catastro­phe, and lack of liquidity. By 1890, the organization’s presidency had become entirely honorary. A second fire destroyed Horticultural Hall in May 1893. A year later, PHS’s bank balance stood at $26.25. And members witnessed the steady decline of the society’s fortunes.

During the transition to a new century, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society suffered its own transition problems. An executive council, in theory, was directed to administer the organization, but leadership was actually provided by the society’s secretary, who was largely guided by the discussions of members who happened to attend a monthly meeting. Membership, especially among enthusiastic amateurs, had dropped significantly, and commercial and professional interests dominated proceedings. Even though exhibitions were beautifulJy staged, the public showed Little interest, and most prizes went to professional exhibitors. World War I years found the society’s fortunes again at low ebb, but the election, in 1919, of James Boyd as society president signaled a new beginning. Determined to turn things around, he reached out to amateur gardeners through an alliance with the Flower Show Association of the Main Line. This was the beginning of the transformation to an entirely amateur organization – and a growing member­ship. Boyd and a revamped executive council presided over the installation of the library – books properly catalogued and shelved – and a convenient reading room. PHS eventually made a circulating collection available to members.

In 1923, James Boyd seated a commit­tee to identify ways to expand the society’s “usefulness to the community.” In its report of January 1923, the commit­tee urged that the “gospel of full life, health, and happiness as found among plants, must be preached in and out of season.” S. Mendelson Meehan, commit­tee chairman, believed the society’s “goal should be to create and increase interest in and love for plants and their culture in the hearts and lives of young and old, and rich and poor.” On behalf of his committee, Meehan suggested that flower shows, competitive encourage­ment, lectures by “men of enthusiasm” and “pilgrimages to attractive scenes” be conducted to further the goal.

Area garden clubs actively participated in the society’s annual exhibitions and competed for prizes. In 1921, displays of orchids by the fabulously wealthy socialites Fitz Eugene and Eleanor Widener Dixon, and financier and art collector Joseph E. Widener garnered rave notices. Department store owner John Wanamaker won gold medal for a new or rare foliage plant. Free admission to the shows, held from 1924 to 1927 at Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, helped attract Large crowds.

About this time, the society inaugurated garden tours for which members opened their gardens to members on specified days during the spring months. In an effort to further spread the love of horticulture, the society undertook a statewide initiative with the creation of an extension service in the thirties. The society moved to cooperate with other institutions, provide scholarships, sponsor scientific research and explorations, participate in compilation of data, and “offer awards of merit for valuable accomplishments.” Improved finances from growing membership enabled the society to subsidize the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Philadelphia’s Bartram’s Garden, and the School of Horticulture for Women in Ambler, Montgomery County, which eventually became the Temple University School of Horticulture. The society realized its dream of a publication through collabora­tion with the Horticultural Society of New York and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. They jointly published the magazine Horticul­ture, and every member received a subscription upon joining one of the societies. It wasn’t until 1971 that PHS would issue its own bi-monthly maga­zine, Green Scene.

One of the most important decisions made at this time was to cooperate with the Florists’ Club and others in 1925 to establish a Philadelphia Flower Show at the Philadelphia Commercial Museum. Because few amateur members of the society were able to grow flowers under glass for a spring show, most of the displays were mounted by professional exhibitors.

By the mid-twentieth century, the society was poised to move into its most productive and influential era-finally, the decades of struggle, turmoil, renewal, and experience were about to pay off. Throughout the society’s history, it had been strong leadership that propelled it into renewal and expansion. This was especially true in the years after World War II when it was fortunate to have two especially strong and competent adminis­trations to guide its growth. Aware that an organization is only as strong as its membership, C. Frederick Stout, elected president in 1929, built membership to four thousand by 1941. After suffering from the typical ebb of the war years, he and the organization’s secretary, John Caspar Wister (1887-1982), promulgated the idea that membership should provide the bulk of the society’s operating funds and began to ask members for voluntary contributions. By 1950, membership had reached Stout’s goal of five thousand, enabling the society to reduce member­ship fees to five dollars, the original amount paid by members more than a century earlier!

First appointed secretary by John Boyd, Wister proved to be the perfect partner for Stout. A professional horticulturist, landscape architect, and founder of several plant societies, Wister conducted the society’s horticultural programs. His enormous success suggested the advis­ability of having a professional horticulturist as part of society leader­ship. Declining the presidency when Stout died, Wister went on to become a renowned plant hybridizer and director of the Tyler Arboretum in Media, begun in the early nineteenth century as the private collection of brothers Jacob and Minshall Painter, and the Scott Arbore­tum, established in 1929 on the campus of Swarthmore College as a living memorial to Arthur Hoyt Scott, Class of 1895.

For all its growth and influence, the Pennsyl­vania Horticultural Society had failed to fulfill its long-held goal to establish its own garden. Since 1843, various collaborations with city officials in the development of Fair­mount Park held out the hope of acquiring a suitable location, but by 1923 the leadership began to look elsewhere. Thirty years later, in 1953, the installation of an azalea garden seemed an appropriate way to celebrate the PHS’s one hundred and twenty-fifth anniver­sary. Not long after its completion, however, the society presented the garden to the city since it was not the type that members had envisioned. An eighteenth-century garden plot adjacent to PHS headquarters at 325 Walnut Street, owned by the National Park Service, was more appropriate and proved, ultimately, to be the best solution at the time.

The society’s strength had been largely due to the dedication and talent of its volunteers. One member, Ernesta D. Ballard, had been enormously active in PHS; for a decade she had been a lecturer, served on the Flower Show Horticultural Committee and won prizes at the shows. A professional horticultur­ist, she had owned a greenhouse business and written two books. Her administrative and horticultural experi­ence made her an ideal candidate for the office of executive secretary – a position that resulted from merging the posts of director and secretary – which she assumed in 1963. Ballard ultimately became the first paid president when the position was created ten years later.

Paramount on the long list of her accomplishments was wresting control of the spring Flower Show from the professional and commercial manage­ment, which had retained the lion’s share of the receipts. By seizing the opportunity to manage the show elsewhere while construction of the Civic Center interrupt­ed the Flower Show Inc. schedule, Ballard effectively established PHS as the manager of all subsequent shows after 1966. This assured that the show was for amateur gardeners – individuals or clubs – and that PHS would reap the financial rewards. Her programs assured PHS that it would possess the funding needed to embark on the increasingly ambitious program of civic horticul­ture that was to become its hallmark as the millennium neared.

It all began in 1974. Ballard had begun a new kind of outreach for the society, a community vegetable garden pro­gram. The idea was to “green” the city by encouraging neighbor­hood groups to grow vegetables. Eventually several pilot programs for urban greening through encouraging residents to plant gardens and trees, window­-boxes were inaugurated. By 1980, a “Green Countrie Townes” initiative was adopted to enhance entire neigh­borhoods such as West Hagert, in West Philadelphia, and Point Breeze. By 1993, there were eight public programs, including Norris Square, the first Latino barrio.

By the late eighties, PHS’s efforts were attracting the support of corporations and philanthropic organizations. The Pew Charitable Trust funded public landscapes projects, which supplemented neighborhood endeavors and high profile projects, such as planting trash­-strewn Twenty-Sixth Street, the gateway from the Philadelphia International Airport, and the landscaping of the grounds surrounding the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Full-fledged programs funded largely by the Philadelphia Flower Show and related activities have garnered national attention. They are rescuing neighborhoods by giving the residents green space and pride. They are also changing the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

The leadership of Jane Pepper, begin­ning in 1981, marked the debut of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society at the forefront of civic horticulture and onto the national stage. During Pepper’s tenure, many of the society’s goals have been realized in ways that earlier members of PHS could only have dreamed. The numbers tell a sizeable part of the story. PHS employs a staff of more than one hundred that provides technical assis­tance, education, supplies, and encouragement to more than eight hundred community groups. Member­ship, which drives the work of the society, has increased to eight thousand, provid­ing hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers for dozens of society activities throughout Philadelphia. Garden tours and lecture programs are thriving. The society’s bi­monthly magazine, Green Scene has been joined by new publications, such as PHS News. The spacious library, located in new headquarters on North Twentieth Street, houses fifteen thousand books and hundreds of periodicals.

As manager, Pepper has guided the Philadelphia Flower Show to interna­tional stature as the largest and most prestigious indoor flower show in the world. This, in turn, has provided all­-important funding that makes the horticultural outreach programs possi­ble. The move from the Civic Center to ten acres of show floor at the Pennsylva­nia Convention Center in 1996 was critical, giving Lindemann, designer of the show since 1980, an opportunity to stage extravaganzas that draw more than three hundred thousand visitors each spring. In its new venue, the Philadel­phia Flower Show attracts the support of area businesses and the hospitality industry, creating a week of festive horticultural events that has emerged as a popular tourist attraction. Preview dinners, special tours, corporate spon­sors, and grants provide even more funding. Show activities generate more than one million dollars in revenues to support Philadelphia Green programs.

As it has in the past, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is once again dedicated to renewing itself. The beginning of the new century offers new challenges and requires different emphasis. While the goals of furthering the science of horticulture and the appreciation of plants are still pursued, the outreach efforts are paramount. Building on its enormous success with the Philadelphia Green programs, the society has repositioned itself to respond to twenty-first-century horticultural concerns and community demands. Again in transition, it is focusing on motivating “people to improve the quality of life and create a sense of community through horticulture.”

Central to the new mission is the Vacant Land Initiative. This newest effort under the aegis of Philadelphia Green began with the publication of a national study on the problems and impact of vacant urban land on urban neighbor­hoods. PHS is following it with a series of studies on vacant land management for the city, which address the problem of nearly thirty-one thousand empty lots within the city limits, as well as derelict housing that will eventually become vacant lots. In collaboration with an array of state and city agencies, the Pennsylva­nia Horticultural Society has taken on the challenge of turning this problem to an advantage through the “highly instruc­tive and interesting science” of horticulture that has been its mission for one and three-quarters of a century.

 

For Further Reading

Ball, Liz. The Philadelphia Garden Book: A Gardener’s Guide for the Delaware Val­ley. Franklin, Tenn.: Cool Springs Press, 1999.

Boyd, James. A History of the Pennsylva­nia Horticultural Society, 1827-1927. Philadelphia: Pennsylva­nia Horticultural Society, 1929.

Earnest, Ernest P. John and William Bartram, Botanists and Explorers. Philadel­phia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940.

Ewan, Joseph, ed. William Bartram: Botanical and Zoological Drawings, 1756-1788. Philadelphia: American Philo­sophical Society, 1968.

Faris, John T. Old Gardens in and about Philadelphia and Those Who Made Them. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Compa­ny, 1932.

Harshberger, John W. Botanists of Philadelphia and Their Work. Philadel­phia: Privately printed, 1899.

Hedrick, Ulysses Prentiss. A History of Horticulture in America to 1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950.

Klein, Jr., William M. Gardens of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler, and Timothy A. Block. The Plants of Pennsylvania: An Illus­trated Manual. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

 

Liz Ball, of Springfield, Delaware County, is a horticultural writer, speaker, photographer, and researcher whose articles and images have appeared in numerous magazines, books, and catalogues.