Bartram: A Revolutionary Before His Time

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Franklin tree, the Bartrams’ most famous discovery, in front of Bartram House. All Franklin trees today are believed to be descended from those grown by the Bartrams.
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John Bartram’s eighteenth-century house framed by the Common Flower Garden.
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The Philadelphia skyline over Bartram’s wildflower meadow.
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U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp honoring John and William Bartram. The stamp was issued May 18, 1999 in a ceremony at Historic Bartram’s Garden.

Historic Bartram’s Garden celebrates the legacy of an eighteenth-century botanist.

More than 250 years ago, a common daisy growing wild in a field beside Philadelphia’s Schuykill River stopped a young Quaker farmer in his tracks. He paused from plowing to observe the daisy’s perfection and simplicity, so inspired that he devoted the rest of his life to the study of nature.

Transformed from simple farmer to botanist, John Bartram would collect New World native plants during countless horseback journeys throughout the American colonies. His botanical garden would attract such esteemed visitors as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. He would propagate plants for the gardens of Mount Vernon and Monticello. King George II would appoint him “Royal Botanist” for North America.

It seems little short of a miracle that John Bartram’s farm survives to this day–virtually unchanged among the congested urban housing and decaying manufacturing sites that line the banks of the Schuykill today. Yet Historic Bartram’s Garden thrives as an historical museum and public garden. Thousands of history and gardening enthusiasts, scholars, and children alike find inspiration each year in the forty-four acres of culinary and medicinal herbs, native plants and trees, wetlands and meadows, all restored on the Bartram legacy.

After Bartram’s death in 1777, his son, William Bartram (1739-1823), continued his father’s legacy as a collector, author, and illustrator. John Bartram Jr., third in the line of Bartrams, ran a flourishing commercial nursery on the site until 1850. His collection swelled to more than 4,000 species, 200 of which he advertised when he printed America’s first horticultural catalog in 1783.

Philadelphia industrialist Andrew Eastwick’s fond childhood memories of Bartram’s farm saved it from falling victim to industrial sprawl. Eastwick purchased the farm in 1850, vowing, “I don’t want a solitary branch cut. Not a bush of this beloved old garden shall be disturbed. My dearest hope is that the garden shall be preserved forever.” Eastwick’s gardener, elected to Phila- delphia’s city council forty years later, convinced the city to purchase Bartrams farm for a park in 1891. Two years later, Bartram descendents formed the John Bartram Association, which preserves and develops Historic

Bartram’s Garden along with the city’s parks commission.

The gardens within

A tour of the garden is best begun at the 1728 John Bartram House, which employs interpreters in pre-Revolutionary costumes. You can join a tour of the gardens or map your own tour with the help of brochures and books available in the gift shop. Long, shaded paths connect garden terraces that slope gently from the house to the banks of the Schuykill. You can follow winding trails along the river to the wetlands and meadows, exploring the well-labeled native plant collections.

Abundant documentation guides the restoration efforts at the garden. Bartram correspondence, garden drawings, and horticultural catalogs described the plantings of the Upper Kitchen Garden, now restored to its appearance in John Bartram’s time. Eighteenth-century gardeners didn’t plant regimented rows or even group plants by use, so vegetables and culinary, medicinal, and decorative herbs fill these beds in a colorful, motley profusion.

The Upper Kitchen Garden at Bartram’s includes comfrey, feverfew, onion, sweet violet, salad burnet, clary sage, tansy, thyme, common vervain, Greek oregano, scarlet runner beans, American ipecac, lavender, lovage, and more. Many of the specimens have been raised from heirloom seed for authenticity.

Medicinal plants enthralled John Bartram. He wrote, “. . . it is very common with our people, when a root or herb hath been given with good success several times in a particular disease, and the patient recovered soon after the taking of the medicine, to applaud that medicine exceedingly.”

In the original Common Flower Garden, Bartram propagated plants that he exchanged with botanical collectors worldwide. His New Flower Garden nurtured seeds, roots, and cuttings collected on trips or received from correspondents.

Nearby a massive yellowwood (Cladrastis lutea), one of the oldest trees in the garden, covers itself with cascades of white blossoms every other spring. The male ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) at Bartram’s is believed to be the only survivor among the first three ginkgos brought to the United States from China in the eighteenth century.

The native plant exhibit in the Lower Garden features more than a thousand herbaceous and 500 woody plants, all native species listed in the first and subsequent editions of Bartrams’ plant catalogs. Look for such native beauties as Carolina allspice, Virginia sweetspire, and Witherod viburnum amid the blanket of ferns and wildflowers.

Bartram’s growing philosophy

In many ways, John Bartram was ahead of his time. He planted according to natural growing conditions instead of formal designs or taxonomic groupings popular in his day. For example, he constructed a fish pond for his water plant collection. In 1998, Bartram’s Garden restored this pond with American water lily, pitcher plant, blue flag iris, common cattail, turkey beard, false hellebore, and Canada lily, each growing in distinct soil and water zones. A waterproof liner preserves the archaeological remains underneath the pond for future research.

For sheer botanical drama, consider the brush with extinction of the Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha), named for Bartram’s great friend, Benjamin Franklin. In 1765, William Bartram collected seeds from this tree, which he found in Georgia. No other Franklin trees have been seen in the wild since 1803. Every Franklin tree growing in the world today is believed to have descended from those propagated and distributed by the Bartrams. The John Bartram Association invites visitors to record the location of any Franklinias growing today.

One Bartram philosophy proved somewhat less than visionary, although it was probably sensible in times when malaria was common in America.

He considered wetlands “putrid, swampy soil, useless either for the plough or for the scythe” and drained them for farmland.

John Bartram was aware that introduced plants could be a problem. He wrote, “. . . most troublesome [plants] in our pastures and fields in Pennsylvania; most of which were brought from Europe. . .have escaped out of our gardens and taken possession of our fields and meadow, very much to our detriment.” Many of these “troublesome” species flourish in today’s Bartram Meadow: dandelion, dock, toadflax, mullein, scotch thistle, dog fennel, ox-eye daisy. Reclaimed from a barren, abandoned cement factory that languished beside Bartram’s Garden until the 1980s, the Bartram Meadow faces Philadelphia’s contemporary skyline. The view jolts visitors from pre-Revolutionary America into the present.

Surprising connections with the natural world can unfold during a stroll through Bartram’s Historic Garden–perhaps while one is gazing high into Franklinia’s creamy blossoms or listening to tidal waters flowing into wetlands. Or admiring a curious and nearly forgotten native shrub, or the sight of familiar culinary herbs at home in the pre-Revolutionary Kitchen Garden. Or maybe in the same perfect and common daisy that wooed John Bartram from plowing his field so long ago.

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