Fairmount Park Land Use and Ecology – Phila, PA

Fairmount Park totals over 2,000 acres and collectively is one of the largest urban green spaces in country. The park is intersected by the Schuylkill  River, effectively creating the two main sections aptly named East Park and West Park.

I explore Fairmount Park all year round and tend to do most of my hiking in West Park in the Belmont Plateau trail system. I also enjoy the Boxer’s trail in East Park and exploring the grounds around the park’s many historic houses.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Fairmount Park is the sheer diversity of land uses over time, which has an immense impact on today’s plant communities occurring in the landscape. All of the land in the park was once part of 18th [and early 19th] century country homes lining the river such as Lemon Hill, Woodford Mansion, Mt. Pleasant and Strawberry Mansion. Most of the houses remained as private residences until the city began acquiring these estates to form the park in the mid-19th century. Owners of these country estates enjoyed colonial, and later Victorian-style gardens, and their frameworks can still be seen to this day. The best time to realize this is late winter through spring, when the ground is bare and most importantly introduced spring ephemerals can be witnessed. Nearly all homes would have had some type of woodland garden path between the house and the river, and it is at this time when the snow drops [Galanthus], daffodils, and winter aconite appear. These emergings are exciting because they tell us generally where these pedestrian paths would have occurred.

A few weeks later in the spring, the native spring ephemerals begin to emerge, and the park is highly abundant with mayapples and trillium with some glimpses of Erythronium americanum aka trout lily, Claytonia virginica, and Dicentra canadensis aka squirrel corn. Other nearby parks such as the Wissahickon to the northwest have considerably more diversity, due in part by more variations in topology and therefore communities, but also due to those land uses I mentioned earlier. When the city acquired these estates, they were repurposed as municipal buildings for the parks department, horse rangers, and other city branches. These types of uses would have caused greater disturbances on the land, and were also subject to many non-natives and invasive plant species which became prominent in the park in the 20th century such as  Japanese knotweed, mile-a-minute, multiflora rose, devil’s walking stick and others. When walking through the park today, it is easy to see where these disturbances may have been based on the abundance of non-native species. In turn, the best place to see healthy plant communities in the park are in the least disturbed sites away from long established paths.

My 20 minutes is up! Much of this post has been a collective ramble of things I’ve learned just by spending time in the park. Still no sign of Virginia Bluebells this spring, but plenty of skunk cabbage along the mesic areas. I try to take a few pictures every time I’m out, and I think I’ve captured all the plants mentioned in this post. Enjoy!

See my full album here

P.S. Mind featured photo of poison ivy as a constant reminder. Certainly not my favorite native plant!

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