The Story of Bartram's Garden

Outside of Philadelphia, America's first botanical garden once supplied seeds to Founding Fathers and continues to inspire plant-lovers today

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." (The Gallery Collection / Corbis)

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The Bartrams propagated over 4,000 native and exotic plants. Initially only hardy or semi-hardy varieties could survive back in Philadelphia. They sheltered the tenderest ones any way they could, with leaves, walls, pits, and cold frames. Then in 1760, John built the garden’s first greenhouse; by 1830, there were ten.

The only greenhouse that that remains today is a small room in the main house that was used by John Jr.’s daughter Ann Carr. She and her husband, Robert, ran the family business from 1812 until financial constraints forced then to sell in 1850. The next owner, railroad magnate Andrew Eastwick, grew up playing on the grounds. “My dearest hope is that the garden shall be preserved forever,” he wrote about his new property.

After Eastwick died in 1879, Bartram’s garden became a neglected wilderness in what had turned into an industrial part of town. As the result of a campaign to preserve the property led by Thomas Meehan—Eastwick’s former gardener and a member of the Philadelphia City Council—the grounds were successfully added to the city’s park system in 1891. The house became a National Historic Landmark in 1963.

Today, Fry and the park’s gardeners are rethinking the paths that course through the gardens near the house so they better reflect what would have been there in the Bartrams’ heyday. Volunteers harvest seeds from plants and pack them up for sale in the gift shop. Several beehives on the grounds produce honey that's sold in the gift shop. Picnicking is encouraged. And from April through October, the Bartram homestead is open for guided tours.

“Whatsoever whether great or small ugly or hansom sweet or stinking,” John Sr. wrote around 1740, “…everything in the universe in thair own nature appears beautiful to me.”


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