When George Washington visited the Bartram family’s prestigious garden near Philadelphia in 1787, he found it to be “not laid off with much taste.”
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To naturalists like the Bartrams, however, the flora took precedence over the layout. Their 102-acre spread sloping down to the Schuylkill River was a grand incubator of native plants and the first botanical garden in the United States. Here, John Bartram and his sons William and John Jr. planted specimens they gathered from a large swath of the New World to be sold in the Old World. They are credited with creating the country’s first plant catalog in 1783, a 22-by-17-inch sheet of paper with almost 220 “trees, shrubs, and herbacious plants.” To round out this horticultural enterprise, the Bartrams also ran a nursery. The Bartrams sent seeds to Thomas Jefferson for planting at Monticello and in 1784, the Continental Congress adjourned specifically to visit Bartram’s garden.
Today their green emporium is a 45-acre park that encompasses the Bartram family home, several outbuildings, a cider press, and trails that wind through woods and meadows and along the river. The large gingko on the home’s north side was probably a sapling when John was alive; a few yards away stands a yellowwood tree that William himself could have planted in 1790 after French botanist Andre Michaux gave it as a gift.
Beginning in the 18 century, the Bartram name became synonymous with botany in part because of John Sr.’s passion for the plant life around him and in part—perhaps—because he was a frustrated doctor.
“His own accounts of his life say he wanted to study medicine,” says Joel T. Fry, curator at Bartram’s Garden. “But there were no medical schools here.” Instead, John taught himself about plants through reading and first-hand observation.
John was also a Quaker, a denomination that produced many naturalists at the time, Fry explains. “The Quakers saw God in themselves and in nature,” he continued. “They encouraged children to study plants and medicine. An awful lot of the new plants found here had properties that could provide cures.”
Those plants were not cheap. Most clients were wealthy Europeans keen to reforest their estates with American trees and shrubs, horticultural status symbols in the 18th and 19th centuries. In January or February—the cusp of planting season—the 3-by 2 ½-foot “Bartram boxes” arrived full of live plants and seeds packed in sand or moss; a few of the specimens came in paper, but that was a rare commodity.
“You could get 5 or 12 magnolia seeds and 25 to 50 pine cones,” Fry said. Other American beauties included orchids, mountain laurels, and rhododendrons (azaleas). The latter shrubs are now common in England. Descendants of several that arrived in 1748 flourish on the grounds of Painshill Park in Surrey.
To get their stock, John Sr. and William went far, from Florida to the Ohio River. They usually went by horseback, but occasionally they’d use canoes or sloops. On a Georgia riverbank in 1765, they discovered the Franklinia tree, which they named after John Sr.’s friend Benjamin Franklin. The tree was never seen in the wild after 1803, and exists today only because the Bartrams propagated and distributed it.
William himself spent almost four years traveling throughout the South, describing both in words and artwork what he saw. The journals he kept became Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, a classic of American nature literature that stands alongside works by Thoreau, Audubon and Muir.