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The flora of Somerville

By Louise A. Vinal
A city of 70,000 inhabitants, bounded on two sides by still larger cities, offers an unpromising field of research to the most enthusiastic botanist. But the interests of this society are largely in the days that are gone, and for this half-hour we will try and picture the vegetation of Somerville from the arrival of the first colonists to the time when the encroachments of the rapidly-growing city drove from its limits all but the most common of its native plants.

The first mention of the vegetation of that particular part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony which since 1842 has been known as Somerville was made by the surveying party that left Salem shortly after the arrival of Endicott and his colonists. They traveled through an ‘uncouth wilderness’ until they reached Mishawum, now Charlestown, and they reported that ‘they found it was a neck of land generally full of stately timber, as was the main.’ And Thomas Graves, who came over as engineer of the Charlestown colony the next year, wrote home that ‘It is very beautiful in open lands mixed with goodly woods, and again open plaines, in some places five hundred acres, some places more, some lesse, not much troublesome for to cleere for the plough to goe in, no place barren but on the tops of the hills.’ He also says: ‘The grass and weeds grow up to, a man's face in the lowlands.’ And the Rev. Mr. Higginson, writing of the settlements on Charles river, speaks of the ‘abundance of grass that groweth everywhere, both very thick, very long, and very high in divers places.’

From these simple statements, it is not difficult to imagine the aspect of our city at that time. On the north, broad marshes extended along the Mystic river, from the Medford line to Charlestown Neck, the marsh grasses green and beautiful in their pristine freshness. On the south, Miller's river, or Willis creek, as it was first called, a broad inlet from the sea, reached beyond Union square, probably as far as where the bleachery now stands; and from there to Charlestown Neck was another [5] extent of salt marsh. And again on the west was a narrower strip of land that felt the influence of salt water where Alewife brook divides Somerville from Cambridge and Arlington. Numerous brooks flowed through valleys between the many hills, watering ‘large meadows, without any tree or shrub to hinder the scythe.’

The hills of Somerville are drumlins, and were doubtless covered with the hardwood trees that thrive best on such dry, glacial soil—oak, chestnut, maple, beech, and birch. The little valleys and the swamps, the tracts of sand and clay offered conditions favorable to the growth of many different kinds of trees, of which pine, according to, Higginson, ‘was the most plentiful of all wood and the most useful to the colonists.’ Altogether, these formed a primeval forest whose extent and variety and solemn grandeur excited the wonder and the admiration of the newly-arrived Englishmen. But the needs of the colonists made great inroads upon these mighty forests. The building of houses, and ships, and wharves, the constant demand for firewood, and the sending great quantities of timber back to England in the ships that brought out supplies to the colonists, coopers and cleavers of timber being sent out by the company in London to prepare it for shipping, soon made an appreciable difference in the character of the main, and from various items recorded in the first decade after the settling of Charlestown, we must infer that the proportion of cleared and grass land was great in Somerville.

In the list of the inhabitants of Charlestown in 1633 appears the name of Nicholas Stowers, herdsman, whose duties were ‘to drive the herd forth to their food in the main every morning, and bring them into town every evening.’ If the main had been an ‘uncouth wilderness,’ like the country farther back, or even an unbroken forest, the poor cows and goats would have suffered as much from the lack of proper food as did their owners in the first hard year after their arrival. But we have abundant testimony in the early records that the ‘cattle did thrive marvelously well.’

Still more conclusive is the fact that in 1637 a large tract of [6] land lying between the Winter Hill road, now Broadway, and Cambridge was divided into ‘rights of pasturage,’ and after this the main was called the common.

But the destruction of the forest was so great that it was early necessary to take steps to prevent the needless waste of trees, and in 1636 it was voted in town meeting that a ‘fine of 5 shillings be imposed for every tree felled and not cut up.’ But several years later, when one Willoughby was building a ship, the town, to encourage the enterprise, gave him liberty to take timber from the common, without being obliged to cut up the tops of the trees.

And so, the primeval forest was cut away, a second growth succeeding, to fall in its turn before the woodman's axe, and the cleared land slowly increased in extent until the Revolution. During the siege of Boston, when the colonial troops were encamped for nine months on the Somerville hills, the demand for firewood was great, and the last of the forest trees disappeared. The devastation wrought in Somerville during the siege is plainly set forth in a letter by Rev. William Emerson, written in the late summer of 1775. He says: ‘Who would have thought, twelve months past, that all Cambridge and Charlestown would be covered over with American camps, and cut up into forts and intrenchments, and all the lands, fields, orchards laid common,—horses and cattle feeding in the choicest mowing land, whole fields of corn eaten down to the ground, and large parks of well-regulated locusts cut down for firewood and other public uses.’ General Green, who commanded the troops on Prospect Hill, wrote December 31, 1775: ‘We have suffered prodigiously for want of wood. Many regiments have been obliged to eat their provisions raw for want of fuel to cook them, and notwithstanding we have burnt up all the fences and cut down all the trees for a mile around the camp, our sufferings have been inconceivable.’ And the following winter, when the Hessians were prisoners of war on Winter Hill, they used for firewood the last of the walnut trees, which gave the original name of Walnut Hill to what is now College Hill.

Fruit trees and ornamental trees were also sacrificed to keep [7] the poorly-clad soldiers from freezing, and the forests never again regained possession of the thoroughly denuded country.

But the kindly forces of nature work unceasingly, and soon the swamps and waste places, the roadsides and pasture walls were gladdened by the presence of those trees that could thrive under the new conditions. And this is the growth that abounded when the farming district of Charlestown in 1842 was made into the town of Somerville.

The juniper, which grows equally well on dry hills or in deep swamps, and the white birch, which flourishes in the poorest soil, grew freely everywhere; and these, with the elm, the typical New England tree that grows wherever a rich, moist soil receives the wind-blown seeds, were the most common trees.

A tract of salt marsh still remained on Washington street, where Lincoln field now is, and from there, through Concord and Oak streets, to Prospect street and the Cambridge line, was a lonesome tract of swampy land covered with low trees and bushes. On Prospect street, which was first called Pine street, was a large grove of pine trees, the last of which were cut down only a few years ago. Polly's Swamp was the largest tract of wild land extending along the valley north of Central street, toward Walnut Hill. Here all swamp-loving trees and shrubs were found, bound together by horse briar and brambles, so as to be almost impenetrable in many places. The birches and junipers grew far up onto the north slope of Spring Hill, the whole wild and extensive enough to furnish good gunning for small game.

Along the line of the Revolutionary forts on Prospect and Central Hills to Winter Hill were many old gnarled button-pear trees. These seldom grow spontaneously in Massachusetts, and it was popularly believed that they came from the seeds of pears eaten by the soldiers when quartered on these hills.

Rand's woods, on Elm street, below the Powder House, was the only grove of any extent on high land, and this was composed principally of evergreens, pitch and white pines, and junipers, with a few maples and oaks. But the number of forest trees in the new town was really very small. Probably not a [8] walnut, chestnut, hemlock, or spruce was growing wild at that time, plentiful as they must have been here originally, and in the opinion of Frank Henderson, Thomas Young, and other old residents, there were more trees in Somerville when it celebrated its semi-centennial in 1892 than there were in 1842.

But everywhere was a profusion of those shrubs and low bushes that make so much of the beauty and variety of New England vegetation. From the spice-bush in April to the weird witch-hazel of November was a succession of fair flowers and bright berries, and our country lanes were picturesque, if our hills were barren and our pastures bare of trees. In those years bushels of blueberries and huckleberries were picked every summer in the pastures round Oak and Springfield streets, cranberries grew abundantly in the meadows where the American Tube Works now stand, and everywhere was a wealth of wild roses, which the children gathered by the basketful, to be distilled into rose-water. One old resident of East Somerville remembers that the cardinal flower grew luxuriantly on the banks of the old canal, where it passed near her home on Mystic avenue, and Henry Munroe, a native of Somerville, and for many years a teacher of botany in the Chicago, high schools, writes that in all his botanical trips, east and west, he has seldom seen a more beautiful sight than the bed of the old canal on Ten Hills Farm, when in early spring it was white as a snowdrift with the starry blossoms of the blood-root.

And here I would like to read a few verses from a song written by Mrs. Nancy T. Munroe, whose house on Walnut street was the first one built on the west slope of Prospect Hill. Walnut street was one of the original rangeways laid out in 1680. It was very steep and narrow, and this song was written in 1851 or '52, when the county commissioners ordered that it should be widened and the grade made easier, thus changing the country hillside lane into a town road. No description I could write would give so graphic a picture of the wildness and beauty of our narrow roads at that time:—

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