Writing Stories Into the Garden, Part 3

March 9, 2021

This is the final post in a series of discussions between historian Miranda Mote, a fifth year PhD candidate at Penn in the Weitzman School of Design, and archaeobotanist Chantel White of the Penn Museum. Here, Miranda and Chantel discuss the challenges of identifying what Francis D. Pastorius’ (d. 1719) Germantown garden would have looked like, and contained, in his lifetime.

For other posts in this series, edited by Mia D’Avanza, see Part 1 and Part 2.


Miranda Mote: We spent hours going through the plant lists that Pastorius has left us, one of which was what he called his “Seed Report.” This is a list of about 220 plants that he described with common names, some of which were German and some of which were written in English. Then there was a second list, which was from his medicinal notebook which lists about 150 plants, written in German, some of which were the same as the other list, but they were plants that he cultivated in his garden or neighbors in Germantown cultivated in their gardens.

Interpreting both lists was a translation project because that second list was primarily in German, and because, what I did not know before embarking on this project is that his common names were names associated with plants before scientific taxonomy gave them a name that we can all agree on for a specific species of plant. Because of this, interpreting these lists was a very difficult project. We realized some of the common names he was using were very specific. There was one particular plant that was specific to a region in Germany and that was what he associated with that plant and, in some cases, because of a vague use of common names we weren't really able to identify the species of the plant, but only the genus. And that was where I really labored, in trying to figure out that material of his gardens. Did you have any questions about that plant list?

Chantel White: Yes, let's take it back to your very first independent study that I helped you with. There were some unusual plants, let's say, that wouldn't have been widely cultivated in Germantown, but Pastorius had both knowledge and access to these plants because of his connections. Do you want to talk about some of those bulbs and other ornamentals that wouldn’t necessarily fit in with the idea of a practical garden?

MM: Pastorius’ interest in ornamental plants was one of my most significant findings, and I 'm so glad I spent time combing through these lists. I also realized that Pastorius wasn't the only gardener in Germantown. He had neighbors that were also gardening and they were sharing plants. Many of his neighbors were in fact not German, but Dutch, and Pastorius kept in touch with booksellers and individuals in Amsterdam. There was reference in one of his poems that a neighbor had given him some tulips and he said, “Well, I don't really like tulips but I'm going to plant them anyway because that's the neighborly thing to do.” Over time he began to write poems about his tulips and his daffodils. Here is one example from his poems.

“In this Tulip-Bed of mine, Which thou now doest look upon,

There stand only Ninety nine Chosen Flowers”

Pink and white tulip with a bee on one petal.

Tulip. Photo by Chantel White.

He also wrote about his daffodils with affection. When I started reading some ethnobotany about daffodils, I noticed that most garden historians had concluded that ornamental bulbs like daffodils and other ornamentals weren’t valued in gardens until after Pastorius died. There were several very wealthy plantations that had gardens in Pennsylvania, but they didn't really write about their garden in the same way. What I realized is that Pastorius left us a record of a community of gardeners that cultivated tulips, several varieties of daffodils, and also a plant called Polianthes tuberosa, which was later cultivated and sold by the Bartram family here in Philadelphia. This ornamental has no medicinal value whatsoever, it is just really, really pretty and smells lovely. Pastorius also cultivated roses, for their scent and their beauty. It was a big surprise to me that there was a culture of gardening to grow food and medicine, but also for the sheer pleasure of these plants. 

Another plant that really stands out to me is ficus. He wrote some letters to his neighbor Christopher Witt about Mr. Witt’s fig tree. To grow a fig tree in Germantown at this time was particularly challenging. We can grow them now because the urban heat island effect keeps the temperature in the winter warm enough that they can produce fruit. But at that time, it would have had to have been protected in the winter and planted in a very strategic location, so that it would survive.

It is also significant that Pastorius wrote volumes about his bees. When you look closely at his notes about beekeeping, which I thought was unusual and it was, he is not the only person in Germantown who kept bees. And when I say keeping bees, I mean at least four to five hives per garden, for the pleasure of it and for the honey and the wax. He intentionally planted species of plants for his bees because he had done his homework as to what kinds of plants his bees prefered. Bees were an important part of his garden.

CW: What are you planning next? Are you thinking about either publishing or getting the word out about Francis Pastorius? It's funny, when we talk about William Hamilton or John and William Bartram, those are botanical names that are somewhat familiar around Philadelphia, but a lot of people haven't heard of Francis Pastorius even though he's a completely fascinating person. Do you have any plans for promoting his work or talking more about his gardens to a public audience?

MM: I've been thinking about two things. The first is, I do want to publish a book that would be a bit different than my dissertation but would tell the story of Pastorius’ garden and take some of the details like the plant lists and poems about plants and publish them for the general public, as well as garden historians and scholars. I want to emphasize why the garden was so important to his life and the founding of Germantown but also the lives of his neighbors in Germantown and Pennsylvania. I also want to account for the culture of beekeeping in Pennsylvania, because we don't really know a lot about how people in Pennsylvania kept bees before 1730. His notes tell us a lot about how important it was but also how he did it and what those apiaries might have looked like. I will be working on a book manuscript for the next couple of years. I want to publish a book not just for garden historians, but for people who are generally interested in garden history in the Philadelphia region.

I have also been thinking about one of the lessons that Pastorius has taught me. One of the reasons he wrote so much down is that he was a schoolteacher and a scholar, very concerned about education in Pennsylvania and for his own two sons. He was obviously concerned about teaching the importance of gardening, not just for raising and cultivating food and medicine, but for the pleasure of it. He has shown me that gardening was important in the  culture of early Germantown. I was thinking about how teaching was such an important priority for him, and his land was an enormous plot of land. The founders of Germantown had at least 50 acres of land each and those plots were very long and skinny and the back of his plot, which was almost entirely wooded, faces what is now Awbury Arboretum. Awbury Arboretum has lots of programs for young children, and they have a community farm and educational programs for children. I have been envisioning in my head is somehow not to necessarily reconstruct Pastorius’ garden but work with the community in Germantown, and the arboretum, to think about how we could teach the value of plants and gardening to young children that live in Germantown. I want to make a teaching garden that demonstrates how meaningful a garden can be in  people's lives. I would love to engage with the people that live in Germantown now so that they can see the value of gardening to their day to day lives. And I think that Pastorius might agree with that. I mean he was so invested in teaching and educating people.

My philosophy is this--I don’t want the scholarship I have done to reside in isolation, it needs to be part of the public dialogue because I think it is really hard to see in Germantown today how important gardening and plants were to everybody's daily lives and I think they still can bring joy and pleasure, even to a dense urban neighborhood such as Germantown.

I want to be somebody who's making a contribution to the public good, and I have always felt to my very core that gardens and green spaces will endure and nourish communities of people so that's why I am  as much interested in writing a book as I am working with people who are already fulfilling that mission in Philadelphia region.

CW: And you just wrote an article for the Penn Museum Expedition magazine for a public audience about Pastorius and about those botanical prints.

MM: This writing project was really hard because Pastorius was such an intellectual and he was writing in a 17th-century frame of mind. Translating his language and his ideas for the public audience was challenging, but it’s very important to me because part of my job is to make the history of gardens in Pennsylvania accessible to a general readership.

Mia D'Avanza: After reading your article in Expedition, I learned that the garden was not extant and if I recall correctly there was no garden plan that you were able to find.

MM: I had no drawings. He drew a few things in his notebooks, but they were more like diagrams. They were actually visual palindromes of things, except for a drawing of a pipe,  he really didn't draw, but he printed his plants. I had to take his words and translate them as much as I could to figure out what all the elements of his garden were and then based on his descriptions of the garden, I was able to draw some conclusions about proximity and adjacency, how he would have arranged beds, and conjecture how he would have put his garden together.

But there's a church, First United Methodist Church of Germantown, that is sitting atop most of where his garden would have been. I visited the church and I learned that, just in passing that a well from Pastorius’ lot survives in the basement of the church. I don't really know if it's Pastorius’ well, or if it was his son’s well, so there is a possibility that there might be some material evidence left there. We just don't know, we just don't know anything whatsoever. But there is a tiny plot of green space left in front of the church. That's a whole process in itself, we would need to investigate. And that's where people like Chantel come in.

Exterior of a stone church.

Photo of 6019 Germantown Avenue today.*

CW: I know my first question as an archaeologist would be, “What's inside the well?” People often use wells to dispose of items, especially if the well has gone out of use, and they can be full of archaeological artifacts.

MM: Yeah, so it's there and it just so happens that the sanctuary of the church, when building the foundations of that sanctuary, whether it was intentional or not, they did not destroy the well.

MD: Oh that's so neat.

MM: A good building tour that's for sure.

MD: You're surely trying to reconstruct what it was like in your mind. Do you have some sort of visualization of what this plot of land would have looked like?

MM: Yeah, I did some conjectural drawings that assume certain things about how big his garden would have been. Based on the quantity of different varieties of plants I also was able to assume that he had nursery beds where he nursed grafts for his vineyard as well as for his orchard. At one point he had 100 grafts in his nursery bed. That's a pretty big nursery bed. He also had hotbeds for salads and other kinds of vegetables for winter cultivation. I also know that he was cultivating certain vegetables, as much as he could, through the winter months.

He probably would have had a tent over a hot bed to protect it from frost, and I say tent because glass was not widely available and was terribly expensive at this time. But we also know in Germantown, the linen weaving industry was up and running and produced large quantities of linen for clothing manufacturing in Germantown and Philadelphia. He would have had access to materials to make a hotbed productive through the winter months. 

He  also wrote in certain poems or stories about different plants he planted next to each other. He was very specific. He had a sundial, benches, and he read and he slept in his garden, so I also know he had an outbuilding that had a roof on it. His apiary was a small shed with a roof on top of it and shelves for his straw skeps.We also know that his garden and orchard, everything was bordered with five foot high fences.

He fenced his land partially to mark the garden, but also to protect it from animals that were roaming around. He definitely enclosed  his orchard, with a hedge on the back and fencing. He intentionally planted turnips in his orchard because he would enclose his pigs there for a certain timeframe during the year, so they could eat the turnip greens and consequently fertilize his orchard. The design of the garden was as much an outgrowth of how he gardened and how he cultivated plants, as it was sort of an aesthetic project.

I don't think he would have fenced his entire lot. That would have been thousands of feet of fencing. But he would have definitely fenced his vineyard and orchard, enclosed them separately from his garden back of his orchard, he would have had an outbuilding for his animals, and then the woods beyond. It was definitely a structured space that you would not freely enter, except through a gate.

MD: I kind of love this idea of, you know, “a garden of the mind”.

MM: Pastorius’ garden was an intellectual, spiritual, and material project. It was as much a garden of the mind, as it was a physical labor. They were all interconnected in his life.

MD: I appreciate your time and it's fascinating for me to basically be able to eavesdrop on this conversation. Thank you both so much!

CW: Thank you, thanks for inviting me. It's been great.

MM: Thank you so much.


*Francis D. Pastorius and Enneke Klostermanns built a house (set back from the street) on this land in 1689. Their house was demolished in 1872. The house on the left was built by Pastorius’ grandson in 1748. The First United Methodist Church built their church on this site ca. 1898.