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Philadelphia, founded by William Penn in 1682, is one of the most historic cities in the United States. A hotbed of political activity, Philadelphia is where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and adopted. Tours of buildings and objects that are symbols of democracy such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell draw millions of visitors every year. When I lived there many years ago, I never tired of exploring the city’s many historic sites, museums and neighborhoods.

On a recent trip, I was lucky enough to discover some hidden gardens. Guided by Susan Edens, a cultural landscape architect employed by the park, we began in the Old City, inside a 55-acre area called Independence National Historic Park. Susan showed me reinventions of what once was there, as well as newer, commemorative plantings.

Every visitor to the city is shadowed by William Penn. His statue stands on top of City Hall and he keeps a close eye on the downtown core. Penn, a Quaker from England, envisioned the community as a great, green country town and named all the orderly streets running east and west after trees ­– Poplar, Pine, Chestnut, and Walnut are but a few. At one time there was a gentleman’s agreement not to build any structure higher than City Hall, but that agreement was broken in the 1980s and a handful of skyscrapers now tower over the founding father.

Patriot Harbor Docked
Patriot Harbor Docked

From Independence Square, we went to Franklin Court where there was a steel beam outline of a house belonging to Benjamin Franklin, another of the city’s founding fathers. Nearby, in the Benjamin Rush Garden we tip-toed past the formal, 18th century boxwood hedges and tidy flower beds. At the 18th Century Garden, planted in the 1960s, we took in the formal colonial layout with its neat plots, flowering plants and walking paths. The scent was heavenly in the Rose Garden, donated to the park by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1971, where antique roses and 95 other varieties bloomed. The Magnolia Tribute Garden was our final stop for the night. “George Washington liked magnolias. This garden was planted in 1959 with 13 hybrids that symbolize the 13 colonies, ”Susan explained.

Needing a little pick-me-up after all our green adventures, we headed to the Independence Beer Garden. Across from the Liberty Bell, this 20,000-sq.-ft. outdoor drinking and eating space offered a wide variety of craft beer such as Yards, 21st Amendment and Fat Head. It was lovely to rest our feet, lean back in the Adirondack chairs, and gaze up into the ivy-covered pergolas.


Talula’s Garden was our pick for dinner. Tucked next to Washington Square, it had a beautiful patio and sprawling interior. “Owner Aimee Olexy has a passion for farm-fresh ingredients, locally sourced,” our waiter explained. We dug into pickled green tomatoes, butternut risotto, seared tuna, and topped it all off with a sample board of vintage cheeses. Delicious.

The next day took me to the Schuylkill River. Once very polluted, I was told the now clean river is often forgotten by locals. Boarding a Patriot Harbor Lines tour boat at Walnut Street dock, we glided by old railway bridges, ducks and cormorants, fisher folk and Philly’s striking skyline. Quiet and calm, it was an oasis of nature in the centre of a bustling city.

We docked at Bartram’s Garden and were met by tour guide Aseel Rasheed. Less than 15 minutes from the city centre and in the heart of a marginalized neighborhood, this garden is where botany first took root in America. “Planted in 1728, this is the oldest botanic garden in the United States and it is a Registered National Landmark. John Bartram had a passion for plants as a scientific hobby,” Aseel explained. The Bartram family is credited with identifying and introducing into cultivation more than 200 native plants including the rare and beautiful Franklinia alatamaha, named for family friend Ben Franklin. Aseel noted the garden was pesticide free, encouraging wide biodiversity. Wandering the leafy paths, she pointed out the oldest gingko tree in North America, planted in 1785, and a cider mill carved into rock by the river’s edge. Taking a moment to be by myself, I was washed over with calmness, triggered by such well loved, natural beauty.

Driving to the Germantown section of Philadelphia, we came to Wyck House and Gardens, a National Historic Landmark. “The house was built in the 1700s on 50 acres,” Jennifer Carlson, executive director of the site, explained. “Nine generations of the same family have lived here, but now we only have 2.5 acres.” Taking us through the house, Jennifer pointed to many of the family’s prized possessions, including a rare shell collection and a display of medical implements.

Outside, the Wyck Rose Garden was filled with volunteers cleaning out weeds. “Planted in 1824, this is the oldest rose garden in America still growing in its original plan, with 50 varieties of old roses,” horticulturalist Kerry Ann McLean explained, adding, “Some were thought to be extinct until they were discovered at Wyck House. ”She also showed us a vegetable garden that supplies produce for a weekly farmers’ market.


Feeling a bit parched, we headed back downtown to City Tavern’s patio to enjoy a raspberry shrub ­­– fruit juice, vinegar and a splash of alcohol.  Back in the day when water was unfit to drink, Philadelphians used to flock to this very tavern for a shrub or beer. Today, the menu also features an ale made with George Washington’s original recipe. Served by a waitress in period costume I felt like I had stepped back in time.

M Restaurant, inside the historic Morris House Hotel, was my choice for dinner. There was a wedding going on, otherwise I would have sat at the lovely outdoor garden café. It is believed that Thomas Jefferson spent time at the Morris House with Robert Morris, another signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. My seared salmon with creamy garlic leeks was wonderful, but the favorite part of my meal was a refreshing, zingy, blueberry gin sorbet.

What a delight to explore so many hidden, historic gardens. But shush! Don’t tell too many people. Let’s keep these blossoming gems to ourselves!

 

OTHER GREAT PLACES TO SEE

  • Philadelphia Museum of Art – 3rd largest art museum in the country, made famous in the movie Rocky when Rocky Balboa ascended the steps symbolizing victory of the underdog.  philamuseum.org
  • Penn Museum – Nearly one million objects, including a 12-ton Egyptian sphinx. penn.museum
  • Rodin Museum – Largest Rodin collection outside of Paris. The Thinker and The Gates of Hell, plus beautiful formal gardens. rodinmuseum.org
  • The Barnes Foundation – Amazing collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings by Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Modigliani and more. barnesfoundation.org
  • Spruce Street Harbor Park­ – Waterfront park offers local beer and snacks served from converted shipping containers. Hammock garden, arcade games, lily pad water gardens. Fun! Delawareriverwaterfront.com
  • Reading Terminal Market – Produce, meat, fish, cheese and sweets and great lunch options. Amish merchants take great pride in their farm-fresh products. readingterminalmarket.org
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Maureen LittleJohn
Maureen Littlejohn is Culture Magazin's executive editor. She is a Canadian award-winning journalist who has practiced her craft around the world including in the United States, Africa and Vietnam. Currently based in Toronto, she has a keen eye for detail and has a deep appreciation for the “East Meets West” approach of Culture Magazin. Travel is her passion and she is happy to be able to share her adventures on a regular basis with the magazine's readers.