Appointed King George III’s “Royal Botanist for North America” and called by Linnaeus “the greatest natural botanist in the world,” John Bartram was in the forefront of the 18th century plant craze. Today, Bartram’s home and garden is an oasis in a not-so-nice part of Philadelphia. However, when John Bartram started his house in 1729 it was out in the country, across the river from Philadelphia. By the time he completed the house in 1770, he and his family had turned it (and Philadelphia) into one of the top sites of the early eighteenth century plant craze. The house (which you can tour several times a day Thursday-Sunday – there is a fee for the tours, walking around the gardens is free) is a hodgepodge of styles – built out of stone quarried on site (some carved by Bartram himself).
The inside is still true to its colonial heritage, with its giant kitchen hearth, built-in cabinetry and hooks to hold up the mosquito netting.
Bartram made numerous collecting expeditions all over the east coast, collecting plants and bringing them back to his garden before shipping them out to Europeans who were fascinated by these “exotic” North American species. He and his family are credited with introducing over 200 species of American plants to the world, including: magnolias, mountain laurels, azaleas, rhododendrons, sugar maples, black gums, viburnums, and sumacs. Horticulturally minded founding fathers, such as Jefferson and Washington were friends and visited the estate. The family continued the horticulture business until 1850. The plants grown in the garden today are those listed in Bartram’s catalogues, and remnants of the original gardens themselves (the oldest surviving botanical garden in North America) can still be seen on the grounds (and are highlighted on the garden tours, also offered Thursday-Sunday).
A 1760 greenhouse, once warmed by a Franklin stove, housed tender species during John Bartram’s lifetime and still stands today. The Garden’s signature plant is the Franklinia tree (named for Bartram’s friend… guess who…). It was discovered by John and son William during their travels in southern Georgia in 1765. Although popular in cultivation, the tree is now extinct in the wild. All existing Franklinia are descended from those grown by the Bartrams. In the gardens, you can also see the oldest Ginko tree in North America. It was one of three original ginkgo trees sent to the U.S. from London in 1785 by William Hamilton (more on him in an upcoming post). Bartram’s son, William, followed in his father’s footsteps, traveling down to Florida and publishing his observations in “Travels,” a new style travelogue that was an influence on many of the British romantics (including Wordsworth and Coleridge) and American Transcendentalists (such as Emerson and Thoreau). He was also a brilliant botanical illustrator: this watercolor of the Franklinia is housed in the American Philosophical Society (which his father co-founded with Ben Franklin) –which makes his illustration of the alligator rather perplexing (and makes you wonder if he actually saw one in person, as he claimed). The gardens have lots of 21st century touches as well, including a riverside trail that will eventually connect to Center City’s Schuylkill River Trail, a boat house (where canoe and kayaks are available to rent, seasonally) and a large community garden and orchard.
Field Trips: Bartram’s Garden offers lots of field trip opportunities for all ages, covering both historical and environmental topics. Our group attended a great middle-school program about rivers that utilized a topographical map model to illustrate runoff in a watershed, followed by water quality testing by the river. The also offer home-school classes.
The garden offers lots of fun programs throughout the year for both families and adults – lectures, hands-on classes, art making, nature walks, etc.. They also have plant sales several times a year.