By Samantha Bucciarelli
This is an Easy level hike at 1.91 miles and an elevation gain of only 112ft. The terrain here is mostly even and trails are wider than most other places in the park, making this a suitable location for small, socially distant group hikes.
This section of the Wissahickon is accessible via SEPTA Bus routes 27, 97, & L.
Begin this loop at the Andorra Upper lot and enter the trails near the Park Map heading towards the Great Beech. The Great Beech is a very sizable European Beech, Fagus sylvatica, planted sometime around the civil war. For a long time, it has held the title of 3rd largest tree in Philadelphia! While this beech is not a native species, it is home to many native critters including insects, fungi, small mammals, and birds. Have a closer look next time you visit, but please do not climb the beech, it has been in declining health for several years.
Make a left to head towards the Wissahickon Environmental Center. Make sure you say hello and stop to pet Tommy the Treehouse cat. This super friendly old guy lives at the Environmental Center and is well taken care of there. The grounds of the EC have some interesting trees, including a rare Kentucky Coffee Tree, Gymnocladus dioicus, Red Buckeye, Black Cherry, and Sweetbay Magnolia, each providing flowers for pollinators. The open space here makes the Treehouse a great spot to have a picnic and watch for birds. Around the other side of the Treehouse are several Norway Spruce trees, Picea abies, a native species to Northern Europe. Norway Spruce trees are a very commonly cultivated tree in this area and they are considered “naturalized” from zone 6 south, but can become invasive farther North, driving out native Black and Red spruce trees. Nearby is a small stand of mature Japanese Falsecypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa. These falsecypress are not native but are commonly planted in pots on city streets and made into bonsai trees. We do have a native falsecypress, C. thyoides, the Atlantic White Cedar, which commonly appears in bogs and swamps in the NJ Pinelands. Atlantic White Cedars were a common tree in Philadelphia wetland areas through the beginning of the last century, though habitat changes have made them mostly obsolete in Philadelphia There are currently only 2 iNaturalist observations of the Atlantic White Cedar in Philadelphia.
Continue to the right, taking the high trail parallel to Forbidden Drive. This section of trail is a terrestrial forest of mostly Beech, Tulip Poplar, and Maple trees. Many trees have fallen near the path in recent years creating more habitat for insects, arachnids, small mammals, fungi, and slime molds. This is a great section of trail to practice identifying edible mushrooms and plants, though foraging is NOT permitted in the Wissahickon. As the trail sharply twists and turns to the right, you may find yourself drawn to an enormous Black Oak tree, Quercus velutina. It stands in the middle of many fallen branches and trees and is marked as being over 300 years old in 1979. I suspect a tree this age will have many mycorrhizal partners, making it an intriguing spot to look for native fungi.
The trail continues through dense shrubbery towards Andorra Meadow. These understory shrubs consist of invasive species like Winged Euonymus, Jetbead, and Wineberries but also native species like White Baneberry, Actaea pachypoda, Black Cohosh, Actaea racemosa, and theBlue Ridge Blueberry, Vaccinium pallidum. Shrubs like these, native and invasive, provide shelter for many animals who seek to get away from busy roads and trails and provide food in the form of berries and flowers for many pollinators, insects, birds, and mammals. The trail comes to a fork near a large stunning Cucumber Magnolia tree. Cucumber Magnolias, Magnolia acuminata, typically grow very large like the one here at the meadow’s edge. They do not produce showy flowers like most magnolias, or their cousins the Tulip Poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera. Instead the flowers stay small and mostly green, but still provide an important source of food for our native insects. Take a right and follow the trail through a grove of European Beech trees. The trail comes to the edge of Andorra Meadow right under a large Horse Chestnut tree.
Enter the Meadow.
Meadows like this one are extremely important to the overall health of a forest. They provide spaces for birds to nest, spaces for sun loving ground plants and seasonal wildflowers to flourish, and for small mammals to hide from predators, among other benefits to the forest. In Andorra meadow alone, there have been 248 species logged on iNaturalist including 32 species of birds, 124 species of plants, and 60 species of insects and arachnids. The plants found in this meadow provide shelter and food to the animals living here. Among these important plants are Staghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina, which provides an important source of food for birds, Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, which is the sole food source for monarch caterpillars, Danaus plexippus, and the Grey Birch, Betula populifolia, whose leaves provide an important food source for many insects in the order Lepidoptera, which includes moths and butterflies. Other trees found in the meadow include Apple, Black Walnut, Tulip Poplar, Sweet Gum, and Black Tupelo. The meadow is an excellent place to observe wildflowers, birds, insects, arachnids, and small mammals if you are lucky enough to see them.
After completing the loop around the meadow, take a left to walk through another stand of European beech trees. Many of these trees are dead, but still partially standing, making excellent homes for birds and insects at the meadows edge. This is also a great place to look for fungi and slime molds. The forest soon becomes dominated in the understory by Japanese maples, Acer palmatum. These fast growing understory trees are reportedly naturalized in the Northeastern United states but can be considered invasive in some areas. The trail follows Northwestern Avenue and eventually comes back to Andorra Upper Lot, concluding this loop. Feel encouraged to walk back down to the EC to discuss the findings of the day and the wonderful time you had at one of the picnic tables or take a short walk down to Cedar’s House Cafe on Forbidden Drive for a great cup of coffee and a nutritious lunch.
A Brief History: Andorra Meadow, as it is known today, was once a part of a large plant nursery. Andorra Nursery was founded in 1886 by William Warner Harper beginning as 120 acres leased from the Houston Estate. Henry H. Houston, proprietor of the estate, was in charge of the Philadelphia, Germantown and Chestnut Hill Railroad (now Chestnut Hill West, Regional Rail) and a trustee of UPenn. The nursery was once the largest in the Eastern US, occupying over 1,000 acres in Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties at it’s prime. Many of the trees and shrubs in the nursery originally came from the plantations of Richard Wistar, who is thought to have planted the Great Beech in anticipation of his nearby estate, which was never built due to his passing in 1862. The building that now houses Cedar’s House Cafe once operated as the Office of Andorra Nurseries before moving to the site of the “Old Andorra Inn” at the corner of Ridge and Butler Pikes to avoid the Philly Wage tax in 1942. The nursery closed in 1961 and much of the land was sold off to developers. Remaining land was donated to the Fairmount Park Commission and is now part of the Wissahickon Valley Park.
Today, Andorra Meadow and the surrounding parkland is in the very capable of Friends of the Wissahickon, the non-profit organization that cares for the Wissahickon Valley Park. Andorra Meadow and much of the Wissahickon are undergoing constant restoration and preservation projects including trash clean ups, watershed protection projects, invasive species removal, and adaptive reuse of buildings.
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