Bartram's Garden on the Schuykill

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”The botanick fire had set in me such a flame as is not to be quenched untill death”. That’s certainly a confession no true plant addict would ever fail to understand. Born in 1699 into a Quaker family in colonial Pennsylvania, John Bartram was to become one of America’s first botanists and one of its most renowned. With little formal training and largely self-taught, he spent his childhood in Philadelphia, then barely only a few decades old, immersed in books and local wildlife. He continued his passion for nature by growing plants he found interesting on a hundred acres purchased on the Schuykill River in Kingsessing, just three miles south of Philadelphia. The botanical plantings started in 1728 and eventually covered about eight acres. They are now the oldest botanical garden and arboretum in the United States with treasures such as a ginkgo and yellowwood both dating to the 1790s. Bartram’s farmhouse was built between 1728-1733 with a Palladian-style stone facade quarried on the property and carved with his own hands. A greenhouse erected in 1760, originally warmed by the stove invented by Benjamin Franklin, survives as well.

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Bartram travelled throughout the American Colonies, from Florida to Canada, exploring and collecting many marvelous new plants from these largely unknown lands. Publications of his explorations and many observations were well received and brought him considerable acclaim up and down the length of America and throughout Europe. In 1743, he co-founded the eminent Philadelphia Philosophical Society to promote the sciences and humanities with his friend Benjamin Franklin. Bartram corresponded regularly with many of the major scientists, botanists and horticulturalists of his time, including Philip Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden and Carl Linnaeus in Sweden. He would receive the latest books and other items in exchange for the eagerly awaited collections of his American specimens. Bartram was also an early proponent of the Linnaean system and Linnaeus himself hailed Bartram as the “greatest natural botanist in the world”. He would be appointed King’s Botanist for North America by George III in 1765 at the urging of his friends and admirers in London, including Benjamin Franklin residing there at the time. In 1769, he was appointed a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

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Ever the practical Quaker farmer—yet still the man of science—Bartram established a lucrative transatlantic horticultural business from his farm. Seeds and plants were shipped to the influential Lord Petre at Thornton Hall (1713-1742) and dispersed to many other eager clients. After Lord Petre’s untimely death his extensive collection was dispersed and fellow Quaker merchant and botanist Peter Collinson took over as Bartram’s agent in London. Bartram’s shipments became known as “Bartram’s Boxes” and each package generally included a hundred or more varieties of seeds, as well as dried plant specimens and perhaps other natural history curiosities. They were sold to a wide roster of clients spanning from the Dukes of Argyll, Richmond and Norfolk to influential nurserymen such as James Lee of the Vineyard Nursery in Hammersmith (also said to have introduced the first fuchsias to cultivation in the gardens of England) and John Busch of Loddiges Nursery in London. Living plants, more difficult and costly to ship across the Atlantic, were reserved directly for Collinson and a few special (read: rich) clients. The passion of the British for these novel plants was great and there are today few British landscapes that don’t still bear the mark of Bartram and his Americans. North American trees and shrubs are especially noticeable for the often brilliant dashes of autumn color they've added to European gardens.

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Bartram’s “botanick fire” was finally quenched in 1777. After the American Revolution, his two sons, John Bartram, Jr., (1743-1812) and William Bartram (1739-1823), who often accompanied his father on his travels and was to become a celebrated naturalist in his own right, continued the family business. His grand-daughter by John, Jr., Ann Bartram Carr (1779-1858), carried the flame into a third generation as well. At its height, there were ten greenhouses in operation and the printed catalogue of the Bartrams’ native American plants, published in 1785, is one of the earliest such publications. In 1850, the farm was unfortunately sold by the family due to financial difficulties. Bartram’s Garden was purchased by a wealthy locomotive manufacturer, banker and local politician, Andrew Eastwick, who had long admired and recognized its importance. Eastwick maintained the Garden and the old Bartram buildings largely unchanged on his country estate. Bartram Hall, the adjacent fashionably Gothic-revival mansion Eastwick built in 1865, is now demolished. After Eastwick’s death in 1879, a national campaign was undertaken to preserve the property from the encroaching city. Twelve years later, in 1891, forty acres were given to the City of Philadelphia as an historic park. Since 1893, Bartram’s Garden has been run and preserved by the John Bartram Association.

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Today, first-time visitors to Bartram's Garden should be prepared for a real shock, and then a pleasant surprise, in this journey back through time. The approach to the preserve is thoroughly perplexing if you haven’t come here before. Urban development and commercial sprawl haven’t been especially kind to most of the neighboring areas, to say the least. The flats and marshes along this stretch of the Schuykill River have degenerated into a vast waste of industrial businesses, refineries and abandoned shipyards, crisscrossed by old railways and modern highways and strung over with power lines. Bartram’s Garden is a very lucky ecological survivor and floats like an magical island of wonders in a sea of ecological squander. It's easy to forget the urban and industrial tragedies that lie not so very far away. And perhaps easy to dream, as well, that some of the desolation might one day be restored to nature and not just recycled into yet more business “parks”. Well, OK, that’ll probably never happen. But it is easy to imagine things like that when tucked away in this historic time capsule.


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Left, wild red zinnia,
Zinnia pauciflora; Right, the balsam pear, Mormordica charantia.

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Recreation of the original vine-covered arbor where Bartram often entertained guests, including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. An American wisteria, Wisteria fructescens, appropriately scrambles over the rustic feature.

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Franklinia alatamaha was discovered by John and William Bartram growing only in a very small area near Fort Barrington along the banks of the Altamaha River in Georgia in 1765. William Bartram named it after Benjamin Franklin. It was last seem growing in the wild in 1803 and is unfortunately presumed to be extinct outside of cultivation.

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Right, an unspecified hornbeam species with its showy pendant bracts of fruit. Looks to me to be the American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, also sometimes known as blue beech, ironwood or musclewood.

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The oldest Ginkgo biloba in America grows here at Bartram’s Garden. Seeds of this Chinese plant came by way of London to William Hamilton, who owned a neighboring estate called the Woodlands. Hamilton established two trees for himself and gave this male tree to William Bartram in 1795. Unfortunately, neither the Woodlands nor its two ginkgos, nor William Hamilton presumably, have survived.

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Left, a magnificent American beech,
Fagus grandiflora, towers far overhead.

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This venerable yellowwood, Cladrastis kentukea, is one of oldest trees at Bartram’s Garden. It was grown from seed collected in Kentucky or Tennessee by the French botanist and explorer, André Michaux, which he sent to the Bartrams sometime after 1790. A rare member of the pea family with a restricted range in the wild, the yellowwood puts on a fragrant display of white wisteria-like blossoms in early summer. It’s also highly tolerant of urban conditions.

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Top left and lower right, Sarracenia leucophylla, the carnivorous crimson pitcher plant, is popular with collectors and many beautiful selections and crosses with other members of the genus are have been made. Bartram also introduced the Venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula, into popular cultivation.

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Top left, rosinweed or Silphium; Top right, scarlet rosemallow, Hibiscus coccineus; Middle left, Phlox paniculata, or garden phlox, now a widely cultivated ornamental as its common name attests; Middle right, Viburnum berries start to ripen in the sun; Bottom left, not a couple of pears… but the bottlebrush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora; Bottom right, Callicarpa americana, or the American beautyberry, will develop, clusters of brilliant violet to magenta fruit in the leaf axils in September and October.

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Halberd-leaved rosemallow, Hibiscus laevus.

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Top left, Heuchera americana, or alumroot, has been used to produce a wide range of showy-leaved plants for the garden; Middle right, pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, is beautiful but toxic to humans and livestock. Young leaves and shoots are sometimes eaten after repeated blanchings and cooked berries used in jams and pies. Go figure. Don't think I'm ready for pokeweed jam on my toast, though; Bottom right, the cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis.

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The distinctive leaves of the red mulberry, Morus rubra, can appear unlobed, mitten-shaped, and with two to three lobes all on a single tree. Unfortunately the red mulberry is threatened by hybridization with the invasive white mulberry, Morus alba, introduced from Asia.

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Above right, the all-too-common poison ivy, Taxicodendron radicans, was hopefully never a surprise found in any "Bartram's Box".

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Peltrandra virginica, or arrow arum, growing in the mud at the river’s edge. Carefully framed, the idyllic scene is deceiving if you look closely at the distant bank. Some views below are more revealing. Though, Philadelphia seen across the meadow has a charm of its own.

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Fallen columns at the feet of an Eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis. Its pale to bright magenta flowers are carried along the bare branches and light up the forest understory in late spring.

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