From the very beginning, William Penn envisioned the city of Philadelphia as a “greene Country Towne.” He instructed the First Purchasers to construct their homes so that there would be ground all around them, including space for gardens, orchards, and fields. He named the streets in honor of the native trees (Walnut, Chestnut, Locust, Pine) that were integral to the natural beauty and economy of his settlement. As the forest was cleared for the future city, mature trees were left undisturbed in the large public squares that he included in the first planned city in the world.
There were other places where forest trees were also left standing, and in time these came to be venerated as Penn’s Trees. History books often mention a black walnut tree, which stood in front of Independence Hall until it was blown down in 1818.
As Penn’s Trees became less common, they began to be seen as important symbols for Philadelphia. Today many private and museum collections include picture frames, snuffboxes, or other small objects made of veneers of important trees in the history of our city. The Treaty Elm of Shackamaxum, the location in Kensington where William Penn signed a treaty with the Delaware Indians, made its way into many relics. So did that Independence Hall black walnut, as well as tiny slivers of a log that was used as a pier for the first bridge in Philadelphia.
If you’re looking for some of the nearby impressively ancient trees, don’t bother looking in Center City. The grade of that area was changed extensively when the public sewer system was installed, and no big trees survived. Instead, head out to Pennypack or Fairmount Parks. Other big trees are at arboreta like Morris or Awbury, and even more are scattered here and there throughout the rest of the city. The best reference for where to look for these trees is the website of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association.
We are extremely lucky to live in such a green city. In fact, Philadelphia was just voted one of the best cities in the world for public parks by the travel service Frommer’s. More than three hundred years after the fact, we can still give a hand to Penn and later citizens like Benjamin Franklin, who recognized the importance of green space and made sure to preserve it -and expand it- throughout the many permutations of the history of Philadelphia.