Contributor: Cian Duffy
Location: Philadelphia, USA
Description: Located on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, John Bartram’s garden is the oldest botanical garden in America. It was founded in 1728 when Bartram purchased the land in what was then Kingsessing Township, an area originally inhabited by the Lenape people and settled by the Swede Hans Månsson in the mid seventeenth century. Bartram built the stone house which still stands today and laid out the original garden which was later expanded and maintained by his sons William, who made an early sketch of the property, and John junior. The Bartrams helped to shape the estates and gardens of the Romantic period by introducing many American plant species to Britain, and William’s widely-read account of his botanical expeditions in connection with the garden, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulgees, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws (1791), is known to have influenced François-René de Chateaubriand, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. Bartram’s Garden exemplifies not only the increasing prominence of botany as a branch of natural philosophy during the eighteenth century but also the rise of plant collecting as an index of cultural and economic capital.
John Bartram came from a Quaker family and was interested in botany from an early age. He was largely self taught, but was mentored, in the 1730s, by his fellow Quaker, the botanist James Logan, who taught him Latin, the language of international botanical research. Logan, mayor of Philadelphia and future governor of Pennsylvania, also introduced Bartram to the system of binomial nomenclature for classifying plants and animals developed by the Swede Carl Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae (1735). Bartram later corresponded directly with Linnaeus, who thought highly of him, and sent him plants for his own garden at Uppsala.
Bartram travelled in search of plants across much of the eastern seaboard of America, from Lake Ontario in the north to Florida in the south. In 1751, he published Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions, Animals, and other Matters Worthy of Notice, made by Mr. John Bartram in his Travels from Pennsylvania to Onondaga, Oswego, and the Lake Ontario, in Canada; and his journal of an exploration of the St. Johns’ River in Florida, in 1765-66, was included by William Stork in the third edition of his Description of East-Florida (1769). Bartram’s journeys were motivated not only by botanical curiosity but also by the growing demand in Europe for new plants from America. In the early 1730s, Bartram began to correspond with the London-based merchant and botanist Peter Collinson. A Quaker and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Collinson had a substantial collection of plants which he augmented with specimens sent by Bartram in exchange for botanical books. But this private correspondence quickly developed into a more regular and expansive import arrangement, whereby Collinson part-financed Bartram’s activities and journeys, receiving in return annual shipments of plants and seeds which he distributed to leading botanists around Europe and to wealthy landowners in Britain. These included Robert James Petre, who redesigned the gardens at Worksop Manor in Nottinghamshire; Phillip Miller, head of Chelsea Physic Garden in London; the German botanist Johann Dillenius, who published a number of significant treatises about plants, including a study of the flora of Eltham; and the German emigré Joachim Conrad Loddiges, founder of the celebrated plant nursery in Hackney, which grew to have clientele around the world, from Australia to Russia. To make these deliveries possible, Bartram had also to develop new methods for storing and packing his seeds and plants to ensure that they survived the Atlantic crossing.
Of the many specimens collected by the Bartrams for their own garden, the best known today is Franklinia alatamaha, or the Franklin tree, which was named in honour of John Bartram’s friend Benjamin Franklin, with whom he co-founded the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia in 1743, along with James Alexander, and others. First recorded by Bartram in Georgia in October 1765, the species is believed to have become extinct in the wild by 1803: all known specimens alive today, including the two at Wakehurst Royal Botanical Gardens, are descended from seeds propagated at Bartram’s Garden.
John Bartram’s contribution to botany and landscape gardening won him international recognition during his lifetime. In 1765, George III of Great Britain and Ireland, acting on recommendations by Collinson and Franklin, made him King’s Botanist for North America, and four years later he was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Science; Collinson had been a member since 1747. It was another Quaker, the London-based doctor and botanist John Fothergill, who sponsored William Bartram’s botanical explorations of Georgia and Florida in the 1770s. John Livingstone Lowes was the first to note that Coleridge based his description of ‘the sacred river’ in ‘Kubla Khan’ (composed 1797) on Bartram’s account of Salt Springs in his Travels. (1) Lowe was also the first to recognise that the lament of Ruth’s husband for the wilds of Georgia, with their ‘flowers that […] set the hills on fire’ and ‘green Savannahs’, in William Wordsworth’s ‘Ruth’, first published in Lyrical Ballads (1802), also drew on Bartram, whom Wordsworth read in Germany in 1799. (2) Chateaubriand’s account of the American wilderness in his novella Atala, ou Les Amours de deux sauvages dans le désert [Atala, or The Loves of two Indian savages in the desert] (1801) is also known to have drawn on Bartram’s Travels.
In 1891, Bartram’s garden was made a public park of the City of Philadelphia. Today, it is protected as a National Historic Landmark.
Date: Founded in 1728
Creators: John Bartram (1669-1777), William Bartram (1739-1823), John Bartram Jr (1743-1812)
Media: ‘Franklinia alatamaha, by William Bartram’
Media rights: The Natural History Museum, London (public domain)
Object type: Botanical Garden
Link: Bartram’s Garden Website
- See John Livingstone Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1927), pp. 368-70.
- Lowes, Xanadu, p. 455n.28. For a recent account of William Bartram as nature writer, see Cassandra Falke, ‘The Sublime in American Romanticism’, in Cian Duffy (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Romantic Sublime (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2023), pp. 178-92.