By James Churchill, Conservator, Kreilick Conservation LLC

Now that spring is in the air, we are delighted to reopen the recently restored Step Fountain. Generously funded by the William B. Dietrich Foundation, the restoration project was completed by Kreilick Conservation, LLC with the help of contractors Pullman SST Inc. and PondWorks towards the end of 2020. The fountain houses an unusual yet beautiful pairing of Indiana limestone and Pennsylvania bluestone with a Wissahickon schist and concrete foundation.

The Step Fountain was designed by the architect, Robert Rodes McGoodwin, a graduate and instructor architect of our very own University of Pennsylvania. A trustee of the School of Fine Arts, he designed Houston Hall, the University Hospital and dormitories, and the Horace Howard Furness Shakespeare Reading Room (now Arthur Ross Gallery) in the renowned Frank Furness library (now Fisher Fine Arts Library). Mostly known for residential design around the Arboretum’s neighborhood, he was also involved with the developer of French Village. As with the large majority of early twentieth-century American architects, he was heavily influenced by French neoclassicism, studying under Paul Cret, before travelling to Europe to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the American Academy in Rome.

Commissioned by Lydia Morris after her brother John’s death in 1915, architectural drawings indicate the design was complete by March 1916. The fountain is an eclectic choice for the picturesque English garden which it inhabits. Symmetrical, the fountain faces north-north-east and is on axis with the now-demolished family mansion, Compton. Alongside the Temple of Mercury and the Swan Pond tholos, it stands as a later and contrasting neo-classical addition that draws on European baroque architecture displaying signature curved scrolls, pilasters and balusters. The fountain supplies water through three lion heads.

Fig. 1 Façade architectural drawing of Step Fountain, Morris Arboretum, March 1916.

The restoration included replacement of the limestone cheek walls inside of the pedestrian steps and the bluestone water steps, heavily eroded after years of use. After several attempts to mitigate decades of pollution, wandering lawnmowers and general wear and tear, architectural conservators worked to conserve existing fabric, and reinstall an up-to-date plumbing system that can hopefully last for another hundred years to come. When the water was turned back on, multiple members climbed the hill in response to the dramatic sound that the water produced as it lapped against the wave-shaped crests of the new bluestone. The newly planted flower beds and serpentine path refresh the fountain’s landscape and offer another tranquil path to explore in English Park. 


By Dr. Hortense H. Hebrides, Folklore Press, 1972

It is thought that fairies first left Tir na nog, the land of external youth about 65 million years ago to help heal the earth from the devastating effects of the asteroid impact that plunged the world into darkness and chaos. It is believed that the origin of the four fairy clans: air, water, fire and tree fairies can be traced to this time. Several early accounts by German settlers to this region mention Holzeibel or wood wives as being commonplace in the Delaware Valley at that time. Another account describes a fairy wishing well or pool near modern day Conshohocken, a name derived from the Lenape word Chottschinschu'hak'ing (big bowl ground place). Wood wives are water fairies well known for their affinity for pools and wells and their ability to grant wishes to lucky visitors. Wood wives also prefer sacred groves of old trees, where they often resided with moss or wood folk—tree fairies that weave clothes from moss and prefer to live in small huts made from sticks, bark and other forest gifts. 

One interesting account by the Welsh settler Anarawd Cadwalader describes an encounter with a band of Tylwyth Teg while lost in the forest near present day Gwynedd. He describes happening upon a clearing in which a dozen little people danced around a large black stone. They invited him to dance and later reached under the stone and pulled out strange gold coins. This account conforms with Welsh stories of fairy treasure stones common among the fire clans who lived along the River Taff.

Just as happened elsewhere in the world, when Europeans colonized this region in the 17th century, most feared these tiny magical creatures and worked to drive them away by destroying their houses and circles. Though it is likely that many fairies returned to Tir na nog during Amanna dorcha (the dark times), as this period was called, others retreated to the forests, rivers and the night, using magic and trickery to keep humans from discovering them. To this day, much of what we call coincidence and luck is really just fairy magic and trickery at play. 

A major turning point in our understanding of 18th century fairy history in this region was the discovery in 1966 of the Turas Táibléad. This famous discovery by young Tonya Miller on the banks of Wissahickon Creek is undoubtably familiar to all. What may be less known is the story this stone tablet tells. During Amanna dorcha, a large band of wood folk and several wood wives hiding in the Pocono mountains decided to build reed rafts to float down the Delaware River and eventually out to sea in hopes of returning to Tir na nog. 

As luck would have it, a great storm rose up as they reached the mouth of Schuylkill River blowing them up river to the Wissahickon Creek carrying the exhausted refugees to the shore just below you. For many years, the fairies thrived here undiscovered, but as the city grew, the village fell into decline.  Fairies need trees and clean water to live, and ample supplies of sticks, cones and bark to build their tiny houses. Worried by the decline of this fairy community, young volunteers are rebuilding their houses, planting trees, cleaning up the creek and happily, within a short time, the fairies have returned to this fairy village. 

You can help by visiting the Gnome Depot at Morris Arboretum and helping build houses out of the materials provided. Please do not take any branches, leaves or moss from living trees. Trees are sacred to the fairies and harming them will drive the fairies away.  Tapadh leat agus Siúl i síocháin (Thank you and walk in peace).



by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) by Lynn Weaver, The McLean Contributionship Endowed Education Intern

Now is the time for the so-called “spring ephemerals”: wildflowers that bloom only briefly in early spring, going dormant when the deciduous forests leaf out and diminish their access to sunlight.

Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) is one of the showiest of these spring-flowering ephemerals. With so little time to produce seeds, M. virginica has evolved two interesting adaptations to improve the efficiency of the process: 1) A pH change causes the pink buds to become blue flowers, blue being more attractive to the long-tongued bees that pollinate them. 2) After a flower is pollinated, the petals fall off, so that pollinators can specifically visit only flowers that still need pollination. When left undisturbed by man, reproduction is quite successful. Mertensia honors Franz Carl Mertens (1764-1831), a German theology and language major, who studied botany in his spare time and took scientific expeditions throughout Europe with German botanist Albrecht Roth, who created the genus name Mertensia to honor his friend. Virginica literally means of/from Virginia. “Virginia” in botanical names does not just mean the State of Virginia as we know it today; Virginia originally referred to a large swathe of territory in the New World. Mertensia virginica is native to many eastern and midwestern states, including Pennsylvania.

The common name bluebells is somewhat of a misnomer. Look carefully and you will see that the flowers are shaped like trumpets rather than like bells; however, the alliteration in the word bluebells makes it a much catchier name than “bluetrumpets” would have been! Thomas Jefferson grew these as yet unnamed flowers at Monticello, describing them in his 1766 garden diary using triple alliteration—“funnel-formed flower.”

In 1929, Elizabeth Britton, a founding member of the now-defunct Wildflower Preservation Society of America, considered VA bluebells “one of the most beautiful members of the Borage Family.” She called for the protection of Mertensia virginica because plants from the wild were being sold commercially. Today, nursery-grown seeds, root stock, or potted plants are available for sale, but VA bluebells are at some conservation risk due to habitat loss. These perennials enjoy moist, shady woodland areas where they can naturalize, spreading both by underground rhizomes and by self-sowing.

Photo by Daderot (CC0 1.0)

Common names can be very misleading, e.g.Virginia bluebells are quite different from Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica), which also bloom in the spring. The VA bluebells at the Morris Arboretum grow by Out on a Limb, a tree canopy walk that is 50 feet above the ground—a fun and informative adventure for both adults and children. Come to the Morris Arboretum soon to enjoy all of the flowering trees, shrubs, spring ephemerals, and garden features.

Katherine has her Certificate in Botany from the New York Botanical Garden and is a botanical tour guide and free-lance writer. You can contact her with comments or requests for photos at


Article and photos (except where noted) by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

2003-062 Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’ in bloom. Photo courtesy of Lucy Dinsmore.

Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’ is a delightful early spring-blooming shrub in the rose family; come see it at the Morris Arboretum, and, since it is widely available at nurseries, you can consider it for your own garden. Spiraea comes from the Greek word speira meaning spiral or twisted: the flexible stems of spirea can be twisted into garlands and wreaths. The specific epithet thunbergii honors Carl Peter Thunberg (1743–1828), the Swedish physician who introduced this species to Europe and who named over 250 plant and animal species. He was one of Linnaeus’s so-called “apostles:” 17 men who travelled the world to send him natural specimens (and he is certainly one of the lucky ones, since seven did not return home alive). The first leg of his adventure was a successful three-year collecting stint in the Dutch Cape Colony in southern Africa, where he also learned to speak Dutch, essential knowledge for entry into his next stop, Japan. Offput by the zeal of European missionaries in the 1600s, Japan was closed to most foreigners, allowing only two Dutch East India Trade ships to enter the port of Nagasaki each year; Thunberg was able to pass as Dutch when he arrived as ship’s surgeon on one such boat in 1775. The travel, even of the Dutch, was restricted to a small island in the harbor. Thunberg got away with a few explorations around Nagasaki, and he was able to collect some plants as he accompanied the Dutch ambassador who visited the Shogun in Tokyo, but his main source of plant material was Japanese interpreters; some of these were physicians anxious to learn about Western medicine, including mercury treatment for syphilis. This naturalist is honored with a plant genus name, Thunbergia, and many specific epithets e.g. Allium thunbergii, Berberis thunbergii, Geranium thunbergii, and Pinus thunbergiana.

Thunbergia grandiflora in FL 

Thunbergia alata in FL

Thunbergia erecta in FL


2006-067*A Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’ (Mellow Yellow Thunberg spirea)  

‘Ogon’ means gold in Japanese, and the willow-like foliage of the cultivar ‘Ogon’ is known for being golden instead of the usual green, especially when grown in full sun. Discovered in a Tokyo plant market by Barry Yinger, a Pennsylvania plantsman who made over 60 plant-hunting trips to Japan, it was introduced into the USA in 1993, and is now more popular than the green-leaved parent species whose common name is baby’s breath spirea. The trade name for “Ogon’ is MELLOW YELLOW Thunberg spirea. It is difficult to track down the origins of cultivar names, but a possible guess is that this one might have been inspired by the popular song “Mellow Yellow,” written and recorded by Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan in the 1960s.

How do you pronounce Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’? Spiraea is pronounced spy-REE-ah; the common name, spirea, drops that silent “a,” making the pronunciation more straightforward. As far as thunbergii, the general convention is that a proper name be pronounced the way that the honoree pronounces or pronounced his/her own name; thus, Toon-BERG- ee- eye would seem to be the most authentic choice, although you will hear reputable sources pronouncing it as Thun-BERG-ee-eye and even Thun- BERJ-ee-eye. And finally, how is ‘Ogon’ pronounced? Since 1/1/1959, new cultivar names are given not in botanical Latin, but in the vernacular. ‘Ogon’ rhymes with shogun to my ear, but to hear the authentic pronunciation you need a Japanese speaker.黄金

Come see this shrub and many other species of Spiraea blooming at the Morris Arboretum this April, including three species native to the US: S. betulifolia ‘Tor’ from western NA, S. latifolia from eastern NA, and S. virginiana from southeastern US. A particularly historic specimen remains from the time of the Morris estate: Spiraea x vanhouttei, which you may know as good old-fashioned bridalwreath. If you are interested in seeing another plant named for C. P. Thunberg, there are three Pinus thunbergiana at the Morris Arboretum. Find exact locations of any of these plants at Collection Connection.

1986-079*G Pinus thunbergiana—new spring growth (candles), male and female cones

Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’. You won’t find this barberry at the Morris Arboretum: B. thunbergii is a Class 1 invasive species in Pennsylvania, although some cultivars produce less seed than the species.