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Philadelphia's 'Thoreau' Jellett inspires trio's heritage plant project

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 5:34 p.m.
Nicole Juday, left, Mark Sellers, center, and Claudia Levy tour the grounds around Awbury Arboretum in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Pa. on Oct. 23, 2012. AP photo
Nicole Juday holds a wild strawberry during a tour the grounds around Awbury Arboretum in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Pa. on Oct. 23, 2012. AP photo

PHILADELPHIA — When Germantown was more like country than city, it was the center of a bountiful universe for a quirky character named Edwin C. Jellett.

Not much is known beyond this: Jellett lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on Herman Street with his mother, Sarah; he was public spirited and utterly plant crazy; and he spent untold hours exploring the gardens, woods, fields and valleys of his landscape-rich neighborhood and beyond, recording all he saw with exhaustive precision.

“He's like a Germantown Thoreau,” said horticulturist Nicole Juday, who stumbled across one of Jellett's bound scrapbooks at the Germantown Historical Society and found herself fascinated by his unusual collection of postcards, newspaper clippings, poems, botanical illustrations and photos.

In the months since her discovery, Juday and two friends — Mark Sellers, board president of the Awbury Arboretum in Germantown, and board member Claudia Levy, a landscape architect — have immersed themselves in Jellett's work, which reflects Germantown's role as a onetime horticultural mecca and has surprising and potentially significant resonance in 2012.

Sellers sets it up: What if Awbury were able to identify, propagate and sell the history-rich plants of old Germantown that Jellett chronicled, in much the same way that Bartram's Garden does with the Franklinia tree and other discoveries of Philadelphia's noted 18th-century botanist, John Bartram?

“It's so cool. We could have a horticultural identity as the home of the heritage plants of Germantown,” Sellers said.

He lives with his wife in one of a cluster of homes that surround the 55-acre arboretum, which runs along both sides of Washington Lane, between Chew and Ardleigh streets.

This would be a scholarly pursuit, for sure. Levy noted Jellett's “multilayered approach to nature. It has a lot of meanings for him, not just horticulture. It gives him connectiveness to the world,” she said.

The thrust of a “heritage plants” campaign — still in the idea stage — would also be practical. “It could help make Awbury's landscape legible to visitors” and, Sellers added jokingly, “be a crass commercial venture” they could call the “Flora of Germantown.”

Public gardens everywhere, of necessity, are embracing “commercial ventures.”

Said Levy: “It's not crass. It's connecting our own gardens to the story of Germantown.”

In his writings, Jellett noted both common and botanical names for flowering, royal, king, interrupted, cinnamon and walking varieties, among others.

He loved Germantown's woods, but played no favorites. “So I have come to believe the most enjoyable wood is always the wood we are in at the time we are in it,” he wrote.

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