The Wyck mansion, located in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, is not just one of the oldest structures in the city, but is also home to the oldest surviving rose garden in the nation.
The first section of the dwelling dates to 1690, when Germantown was a satellite of the new city of Phialdelphia. For the next three centuries, it was occupied by the descendants of the Milan-Wistar-Haines families, German Quakers who had settled in Pennsylvania to escape persecution and to find better opportunities in William Penn’s religiously tolerant colony. As the family prospered over the years, the house grew in size and comfort. In the 1820s, architect William Strickland, designer of the neoclassical Second Bank of the United States and the Merchant’s Exchange, extensively renovated it into the spacious dwelling it is today. Yet true to its owners’ Quaker values, Wyck remained solidly plain, inside and out. Members of the Society of Friends prized quality, but scorned extravagance. For families like the Haines of Wyck, prosperity was an important spiritual test of their values, and not an excuse to be idle or indulgent.
As William Penn said: “There is but little need to spend time with foolish diversions for time flies away so swiftly by itself; and, when once gone, is never to be recalled.”
Like the house itself, the rose garden at Wyck is a superb blend of neoclassical aesthetics and Quaker utility. The garden’s layout is a simple square, bisected into quadrants by two walkways. It lacks fussy formal elements such as box hedges and elaborate plantings. In the early 19th century, roses had medicinal as well as aesthetic value, a practice hat went back to the Middle Ages. In monastic apothecary gardens, medicinal plants were grown to cure all sorts of ailments. Physicians believed that illnesses were caused by imbalances in the body’s four elements, or “humours.”
- blood (air)
- phlegm (water)
- yellow bile (fire)
- black bile (earth)
It was the physician’s job to bring balance back to these four humours, and the job of the apothecary (a predecessor to the modern-day pharmacist) to dispense the right combination of herbs and plants. Herbs cultivated for their supposed medicinal value included sage (‘fresh and green to cleanse the body of venom and pestilence’), hyssop (a hot purgative also used to heal bruises), chamomile (a sedative and poison antidote), dill (a cure for indigestion), and cumin (soothing ointment for skin and eyes). Although most of these remedies were based in superstition, some proved to be based in science, most notably foxglove, which is still used to make medication for congestive heart failure.
The Wyck rose garden, restored in the 1970s after decades of neglect, contains many varieties thought to have been lost. These include historic varieties renowned for the beauty and fragrance of their flowers, but unlike modern “hybrid tea” bushes most the roses at Wyck only bloom once a year. Among the formerly “lost roses” catalogued by rosarian Leonie Bell in 1972 are “Elegant Gallica” and the “Lafayette,” the latter supposedly named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette to commemorate his 1825 visit to Wyck.
The most “practical” rose at Wyck is Rosa Gallica Officinalis, also known as the “Apothecary’s Rose.” The Haines family almost certainty used its blooms to brew teas, as well as make remedies for stomach ailments, sore throats, rashes, and eye problems. Another rose cultivated at Wyck, Celesiana (known in the 18th century as the “Germantown Rose”), whose bright pink petals were mixed into pipe tobacco.
Today, Wyck’s master gardener Martha Keen and her staff continue to cultivate these rare local varieties, selling cuttings to the public every spring. Wyck, along with Bartram’s Garden, the Philadelphia Flower Show, and Chanticleer, all contribute to the Quaker City’s unofficial status as “America’s Garden Capital.”
Note: the author is proud to have Wyck specimens of Celesiana, Elegant Gallica, and Lafayette in his West Philadelphia garden.
“Quaker Quote Archive,”Ben Lomond Quaker Center, http://www.quakercenter.org/quaker-quote-archive/, accessed June 1, 2018.
“The Wyck Rose Garden,” http://wyck.org/home/rose-garden/, accessed June 1, 2018.
The Rose Garden at Wyck (Philadelphia: Wyck Historic House and Garden, 2018), p.3.
Mark Whitelaw, “The Apothecary’s Rose: Medicinal Values,” Rose Magazine, http://www.rosemagazine.com/articles04/medicinal/, accessed June 1, 2018.
“What to Grow in a Medieval Herb Garden,” English Heritage, May 6, 2016. http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/grow-medieval-herb-garden/, accessed June 1, 2018.