Botanic Gardens, Landscape History

Bartram’s Garden: The Oldest Surviving Botanic Garden in the US

December 27, 2013

IMG_3839_2 “It is no little deed to make a garden,“that greatest refreshment to the spirits of man.” But to make a garden in the wilderness; to make the wilderness a tributary to it; and it tributary to the great centers of learning and thought on another continent: that is a great deed.”  Elizabeth O. Abbott, March 1904

It has not been my intent to focus on botanic gardens.  Yet on a trip to attend a conference outside of Philadelphia I could not help but notice how close Bartram’s Garden is to the airport. Established in 1728, the garden is considered to be the oldest botanic garden in the United States and its founder, John Bartram, the greatest natural botanist in the world (as described by colleague Swedish botanist Karl Linnaeus). I had the pleasure of visiting Linnaeus’ garden in Uppsala last May and was curious to visit its American counterpart.

Located along the west bank of the Schuylkill River, Bartram’s Garden is remarkable for many reasons not the least of which is that it exists at all.   Established almost three hundred years ago the garden borders a dense urban neighborhood and is surrounded by industrial uses.  Challenging to locate, its is a rare example of an 18th century landscape that has been preserved in a most incongruous setting.

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Originally more than 100 acres in size today its 45 acres contain  Bartram’s home, coach house and stable, remnants of his nursery with original plantings and pathways, meadows that afford sweeping views of the Philadelphia skyline and a trail system connecting the river and wetlands.

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John Bartram (1699 – 1777) was self-taught, a Quaker-farmer who from an early age was blessed with a profound curiosity and reverence for the natural world. From his Philadelphia base he set the goal of the“compleat Discovery of the Native Growth in America” establishing a lucrative business centered on the transatlantic transfer of plants and natural specimens. At the center of a horticultural network that included local as well as international colleagues he befriended the political elite of the day including Benjamin Franklin who published Bartram’s articles in his newspapers and almanacs and with whom in 1743 he founded the American Philosophical Society.

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One of his most famous discoveries, the Franklinia alatamaha tree, is named in Franklin’s honor. Bartram is credited with saving the tree from extinction (it was never seen in the wild after 1803).  Today all Franklinias are descended from those grown in the nursery.  To read “America’s First ‘Rare’ Plant: The Franklin Tree” visit: http://www.terrain.org/articles/18/rowland.htm.

In recognition of his expertise in 1765 Bartram was appointed Royal Botanist by King George III and in 1769 he was elected a member of the Royal Academy in Stockholm.

Only a single illustration exists from the eighteenth century of the Bartram house and garden, entitled “A Draught of John Bartram’s House and Garden as it appears from the River.  Attributed to William Bartram and dated 1758 it is both a plan and perspective drawing that provides a fair representation of the garden (although not true to scale).

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In the illustration the grounds are divided into two major areas an upper terrace adjacent to the house with a lower area sloping down towards the river.  Upper and lower kitchen gardens are depicted as are common and new flower gardens. Large specimen trees flank the walkway and a pond (seen below) fed by “Springhead convaid underground to the spring or milk house” is in the center of the lower garden.

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The garden supplied plants for Monticello and Mount Vernon.  It is also credited with inspiring delegates of the Continental Congress to work together to resolve political differences.  On July 14, 1787 a group of delegates, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison visited the gardens, where John’s sons, William and John Jr. continued the business founded by their father.  Here, according to  Andrea Wulff in Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation,“the delegates could see how the manifold flora of each state thrived together, their branches intertwined in a flourishing horticultural union.”  Bartram had been the first to collect trees and shrubs from all thirteen states and if they could thrive together so too could the new country.  Two days later a successful vote was taken and as Wulf notes,“it can only be speculation that a three-hour walk on a cool summer morning among America’s most glorious trees and shrubs influenced these men. But what we do know is that the three men who changed sides and made the Great Compromise possible that day had all been there and marveled at what they saw.” The image below, from the early twentieth century depicts a visit by George Washington to the garden.

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In this digital age in which information is shared spontaneously it is difficult to imagine a universe where plants and seeds were valuable currency, exotic treasures that were coveted by collectors throughout the world.  The Bartrams propagated more than 4,000 native and exotic plants and shipped plants regularly to Europe where wealthy clients anxiously awaited the arrival of “Bartram’s boxes” 3-by 2 ½-foot containers filled with live plants and seeds packed in sand or moss.

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Enthusiastic explorers, John Sr. and William traveled from Florida to the Ohio River, often on horseback. William journeyed throughout the South for nearly four years writing and illustrating Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida.  Deemed a classic volume of American nature writing the book depicts the relatively pristine environment of eight states and provided inspiration for other great American naturalists including Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.  William’s talents as a naturalist were enhanced by his artistic abilities as depicted below in his illustration of the Franklinia (courtesy of the American Philosophical Society).

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In 1976 the Bartram Trail Conference was established to locate and record the route of William’s travels and “encourage the study, preservation and interpretation of the William Bartram heritage.”  You can learn more about their work and William’s legacy at:  www.bartramtrail.org.

Many of John Bartram Senior’s travels were funded in part by Peter Collinson, his chief correspondent in London.  Collinson served as a middleman for the exchange of seeds, plants, natural specimens and “curiosities” which were sent to, among other sites, the Chelsea Physic Garden (London), Leiden Botanic Garden in the Netherlands and Linnaeus’ Botanic Garden in Uppsala.  This network of sites (including Bartram’s Garden) is included in a serial cultural landscape World Heritage nomination put forth by Sweden to recognize the “Rise of Systematic Biology” the science based upon the observation, collection and analyzation of organisms promoted by Linnaeus. The nomination spans eight countries and contains thirteen sites that contain extant populations of collections studied by Linnaeus and his peers.

Bartram’s sons John Bartram, Jr. (1743-1812) and William Bartram (1739-1823) succeeded him, expanding the botanic garden and nursery and continuing the international exchange of plants.  According to the “Explorer’s Guide to Bartram’s Gardens” the “third generation of Bartrams in America issued the first printed plant catalogue in America.”

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The gardens remained an active nursery managed by descendants of John Bartram Junior until 1850 when financial difficulties led to its sale to a wealthy industrialist Andrew Eastwick who preserved the historic garden as part of a larger estate.  Upon his death in 1879 a campaign was launched by Thomas Meehan and Charles Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum to preserve the garden leading to its acquisition by the city of Philadelphia in 1891.   A non-profit organization, the John Bartram association was founded two years later in 1893 with a mission “to protect and enhance the landmark Bartram’s Garden and House, advance the Bartram legacy of discovery, gardening and art, and inspire audiences of all ages to care for the natural world.”

A 2013 – 2015 action plan, developed by the Association in support of its strategic plan proposes that the gardens remain “a welcoming presence in an ever-changing environment; reminding us how nature shapes the world we live in.”

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Today, the garden’s plant collection includes several extant examples dating from the Bartram family, remains of what was once the most varied collection of North American plants in the world. These include the magnificent Ginko (Ginko biloba), seen below, the oldest in North America.  According to the “Explorer’s Guide to Bartram’s Garden” the tree is the sole survivor of three sent to the United States from London by William Hamilton in 1785.

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The Bartram oak (quercus x heterophylla) is a rare hybrid of the red and willow oak which Bartram reputedly discovered on The Woodlands, an estate not far the gardens.

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The garden’s rectilinear framework, designed and laid out by John Bartram during the second quarter of the eighteenth century is intact as is a cider mill and press carved from bedrock that, most likely used by Bartram, was sited along the river to serve farms on both sides of the river.

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Other notable features in the garden include the recently restored barn, the oldest in Philadelphia (1775) which now serves as a function/educational space.

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Bartram’s House and Garden and part of his original plantation are preserved in a city park administered by the Fairmount Park Commission and maintained and interpreted by the John Bartram Association.  The site has an active educational program and in 2012 a Community Farm and Food Resource Center was created with a 1.5 acre farm, greenhouse, orchard, and community garden plots.

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A Master Plan below, by Viridian Landscape Studios, aims to preserve the garden’s historic core while allowing for enhanced visibility and new uses through the addition of circulation and parking, the siting of a regional bicycle path through the property, a new Visitor’s Center, phased building improvements, educational landscape features and tidal restoration.

For more information about the Master Plan Visit:http://media.wix.com/ugd/95d585_8e727fda3e0ca54b6eba1d95b5b63a7c.pdf

For information about Bartram’s Garden visit: www.bartramsgarden.org.

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Copyright © 2013  Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply Wayne A. Perkins December 28, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Thank you very much for your notes on Bartram’s gardens. I wish to express my thanks for your excellent series of landscape notes. We offer again our thanks for your excellent course which you gave at Beacon Hill Seminars.

    • Reply Patrice Todisco December 28, 2013 at 8:01 pm

      My pleasure. I truly enjoy the process of visiting places and writing about them within the context of landscape history and current uses. As for teaching it was a delight to share the materials and experiences garnered in the twenty plus years I worked in the public realm in Boston.

  • Reply commonweeder January 7, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    I would love to visit Bartram’s botanical garden. I see more travel in my future and this garden is high on the list because it is not too far away. I became especially interested after reading The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf about Batram, Collinson, Linneaeus and others of that period who had such an influence on the botanical world.

  • Reply Lee@A Guide to Northeastern Gardening January 11, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    I am so glad to have found your blog and will have a lot of catching up to do! Located on Long Island, I am a garden blog writer and involved in gardening professionally. I can truly appreciate the amount of time that goes into your posts for I also love to travel to various botanical gardens, research and write about them. You have covered these gardens extensively! I will be receiving notifications from now on so I can stay current and catch up on some reading!

  • Reply Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden: Helsinki | Landscape Notes June 25, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    […] Kalm traveled widely throughout North America where he befriended both Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram. Linnaeus named the native american species Kalmia (laurel) in his honor. The map above, of the […]

  • Reply Chelsea Physic Garden | Landscape Notes October 23, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    […] “The Rise of Systematic Biology.” Other sites I have visited and written about include Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia and the Linnaeus Botanical Garden and Museum in Uppsala, […]

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