Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Sarah Chesney


Beginning in the eighteenth century with the botanical enthusiasts who explored the world around them as part of a larger interest in natural history, botany became an integral part of the Philadelphia region’s national and international reputation. It brought scholars and enthusiasts from across the globe to study and explore Philadelphia’s collections and gardens, influenced the development of medicine and medical institutions, and cemented the intellectual reputation of Philadelphia as a place of scientific discovery. As individual efforts gave way to institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, organizations such as the Academy of Natural Sciences funded and publicized botanical expeditions and events, furthering Philadelphia’s botanical renown.

[caption id="attachment_28046" align="alignright" width="300"]Scan of a postcard that shows, in black and white, the home of John Bartram. The home is a large, three story structure surrounded by ample grounds and many trees. America’s first botanist, John Bartram was a Quaker farmer with only a primary education. Bartram traveled the widely unknown terrain of the American colonies in an attempt to document the native species of the land. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Philadelphia region’s history as a botanical paradise and center of discovery began in the eighteenth century with the work of individual collectors and enthusiasts such as John Bartram (1699–1777), who used his home at Bartram’s Garden to cultivate and sell native plants to an international group of botanists and collectors, including Peter Collinson (1694–1768), Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), and Carl Linnaeus (1707–78). Linnaeus even named a variety of moss after Bartram in recognition of his botanical efforts. Bartram introduced as many as two hundred North American plant species into Europe, including the magnolia, mountain laurel, azalea, and rhododendron, and by the nineteenth century the botanic collection at Bartram’s Garden was the most extensive and varied collection of North American plants in the world.

Another eighteenth-century botanist operating in Philadelphia was Bartram’s neighbor, William Hamilton (1745–1813), who turned his country estate on the west bank of the Schuylkill River, The Woodlands, into a botanical paradise with a collection of native and exotic plants said to number ten thousand. The Woodlands and Bartram’s Garden drew plant enthusiasts of all kinds to Philadelphia, from medical students studying botany and materia medica at the University of Pennsylvania to such international luminaries as André Michaux (1746–1802), Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), and Peter Kalm (1716–79).

Hamilton, John Bartram’s son William (1739–1823), and other area botanists ensured that later generations of botanists would continue to make their mark in the science by establishing Philadelphia as a training ground: Hamilton employed several gardeners who went on to international careers, such as nurseryman John Lyon (1765–1814) and botanist Frederick Pursh (1774–1820). Benjamin Smith Barton (1766–1815), professor of botany and materia medica at the University of Pennsylvania, sent his student and protégé Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859) to both The Woodlands and Bartram’s Garden for training.

Philadelphia continued to dominate the botanical scene in the nineteenth century. When, as president, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) sought to expand the sciences on a national level, he sent Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) to study with Barton, Hamilton, and William Bartram before he headed west to explore the recently acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase. As there was yet no national botanic garden or arboretum, both Jefferson and John Adams (1735–1826) saw Bartram’s Garden as the appropriate substitute.

Botanical practice underwent a number of changes in the nineteenth century, both in Philadelphia and farther afield. As the century wore on, reliance on individual botanists gave way to various new institutions focused around the promotion and propagation of scientific discovery. The American Philosophical Society begun by Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) had long been a promoter of enterprising individuals working to advance understanding of science, medicine, and literature, as had other, more narrowly focused Philadelphia institutions. The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, the oldest agricultural society in the United States, had been sponsoring scientific farming experiments and developments since 1785 and included among its early members Benjamin Franklin, George Washington (1732–99), and George Logan (1753–1821), a politician and gentleman farmer whom Thomas Jefferson considered the best farmer in Pennsylvania. However, it was not until 1812, when the Academy of Natural Sciences was founded, that Philadelphia—and the entire Western Hemisphere—had an institution specifically and explicitly devoted to the study of the “natural sciences.”

[caption id="attachment_28045" align="alignright" width="241"]Copy of a print of inked nature pressings. Nine inked pressings of leaves of various types and sizes take up the page An amateur naturalist and friend of Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Breintnall used a copy press to create accurate prints of plant life. A member of the city’s elite, Breintnall worked closely with John Bartram to catalogue botanical life in North America. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Academy of Natural Sciences promoted botanists and other scientists through the publication and dissemination of their work. It provided an alternative for young researchers who had plenty of ambition but lacked a wealthy elite patron or an independent income that would allow them to pursue botany as more than a hobby. The academy, which sponsored public lectures on botany for women beginning in 1814, popularized the discipline and made it accessible. It also funded increasingly ambitious collecting expeditions to the Arctic, Central America, Africa, and Asia. Other institutions soon followed, including the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, founded in 1827, which brought together botanical and horticultural enthusiasts; the Wagner Free Institute of Science, formally established in 1855, with the goal of bringing free science education to the wider public; and the Philadelphia Botanical Club (1891), which counted among its members several prominent naturalists such as Thomas Meehan (1826–1901) and John Harshberger (1869–1929). Institutional support of botanical and other scientific activities in Philadelphia contributed to the founding of the first college of pharmacy in North America in 1821, the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, which drew broadly on Philadelphia’s reputation as a center for botanical and medical science.

The later nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw even more expansion in botanical activities in Philadelphia and beyond as interest in new areas of study including conservation, evolutionary biology, and ecology grew along with a devotion to a more general public audience. In 1907 Pierre S. DuPont (1870–1954) established Longwood Gardens in Chester County as a botanical conservation and horticultural sanctuary outside the city, which grew into an extensive landscape devoted to public education in horticulture and ecological conservation. Other institutions furthered interest in botanical activities by capitalizing on the public’s interest in horticultural displays revived by the 1876 Centennial Exhibition and the construction of Horticultural Hall. A century later, the modern Horticultural Center in Fairmount Park replaced Horticultural Hall and brought visitors to the display and demonstration gardens all year round. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society built on this interest with its annual Philadelphia Flower Show (first established in 1829), which drew an estimated 250,000 visitors annually by the early twenty-first century, and its locally targeted efforts coordinated through the Philly Green program (established in 1974).

In the later twentieth century, institutional support for botanical activities expanded through consolidation as Philadelphia-area universities formed partnerships with other local institutions including the Morris Arboretum (University of Pennsylvania) and the Academy of Natural Sciences (Drexel University) to further ecological, horticultural, and biological research across multiple platforms. Botanical activities, consolidated under the larger umbrella of biology and life science departments and medical research programs, continued to expand our understanding of the natural world.

The story of botany in the Philadelphia region is a story of individuals and institutions that, from the eighteenth century forward, established Philadelphia as a city of botanical discovery and abundance as well as a destination for botanical enthusiasts from around the world.

Sarah Chesney is a historical archaeologist who earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from the College of William and Mary in 2014. She has worked on several landscape archaeology projects in Philadelphia exploring the intersection of archaeology, landscape, and early modern science. Her publications include “The Root of the Matter: Searching for William Hamilton’s Greenhouse at The Woodlands Estate, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” in Historical Archaeology of the Delaware Valley, 1600–1850, edited by Richard F. Veit and David G. Orr (University of Tennessee Press, 2014).

Bartram’s Garden

Located on the west bank of the Schuylkill River, Bartram’s Garden, considered the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America, has served as a monument to the storied history of Philadelphia’s botanical endeavors and to the genius of John Bartram (1699–1777) and his descendants. Established as a family farm and garden by John Bartram in the early eighteenth century, the garden has functioned as a commercial and public botanic garden, a private retreat, a native plant repository, and a botanical education center of national and international importance.

[caption id="attachment_27223" align="alignright" width="229"]John Bartram's House at Bartram's Garden John Bartram entertained some of the most prominent figures in American history at his home, built in 1731. Bartram welcomed George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom purchased plants from Bartram's botanical garden. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Originally part of a thousand-acre tract of land in Kingsessing Township first settled by the Swedish in the mid-seventeenth century, Bartram’s Garden began in 1728 when John Bartram purchased a 102-acre tract for his family farm. Bartram was a self-taught naturalist who sought out the company of other like-minded individuals, both at home and abroad. Bartram’s friendships with Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) and James Logan (1674–1751) led to his introduction to London and Royal Society Fellow Peter Collinson (1694–1768), with whom he began a correspondence in 1731. Bartram and Collinson soon began to exchange plants along with botanical notes on experiments and other discoveries. By 1750, Bartram was sending regular shipments of North American seeds to a wide variety of European collectors, including Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) and Carl Linnaeus (1707–78), and advertising his seeds for sale in London periodicals. Bartram expanded his garden to keep up with his growing plant trade business and performed experiments on the lychnis dioica that corroborated Logan’s experiments on Indian corn. As Bartram’s fame grew, so did his garden. He traveled farther and farther afield to collect new plants and seeds, and he recreated their environments at home by constructing ponds and swamps for aquatic plants, areas of forest and grassland, as well as sections for nursery seeds and greenhouses for more tropical specimens. By the turn of the century, Bartram’s Garden boasted the most varied collection of North American plants in the world.

When John Bartram died in 1777, his sons, John Bartram Jr. (1743–1812) and William Bartram (1739–1823), continued the business. They expanded the grounds as well as the garden’s reputation in national and international circles through their commercial and educational activities. William Bartram’s growing renown as a botanical illustrator and plant collector attracted botanical enthusiasts from near and far who came to exchange both plants and knowledge. French botanist André Michaux (1746–1802) visited Bartram’s Garden during his North American sojourn, as did botanists from closer to home, such as Benjamin Smith Barton (1766–1815), Thomas Say (1787–1834), Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859), and Frederick Pursh (1774–1820).

Both George Washington (1732–99) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) visited and purchased plants from Bartram’s Garden for their own estates in Virginia, and near neighbor William Hamilton (1745–1813) exchanged many plants with the Bartrams, even sending William Bartram one of the three ginkgo trees he introduced to America from England in 1785. Bartram’s Garden’s reputation as a destination grew, especially among the delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. In 1784, the congress ended a session early to allow several delegates to indulge their curiosity about Bartram’s Garden and venture across the Schuylkill River for an afternoon visit with the family in their garden.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Bartram’s Garden expanded again under the third generation of Bartrams. Ann Bartram Carr (1779–1858) and her husband, Colonel Robert Carr (1778–1866), took over the business from Ann’s father, John Bartram Jr., and expanded both the commercial business and the garden itself. At its largest, Bartram’s Garden comprised twelve acres of gardens and ten greenhouses filled with over fourteen hundred native plant species and as many as one thousand varieties of more far-flung exotics. In 1844 and 1845, the Carrs added another dimension to Bartram’s Garden when they opened the grounds as a summer pleasure garden, selling ice cream and other refreshments to visitors and offering steamboat trips three days a week from the Delaware River wharves.

By midcentury, however, increasing financial difficulties forced the Carrs to sell Bartram’s Garden. Railroad magnate and industrialist Andrew Eastwick (1811–79) purchased the house and grounds in 1850. Eastwick planned to construct a villa near the original Bartram house. Recognizing the historic significance and aesthetic appeal of the site, he preserved the original house and grounds as part of his private estate and even lived in the Bartram house during construction of his villa, “Bartram Hall.”

After Eastwick’s death, Bartram’s Garden fell into neglect until Eastwick’s former gardener, Thomas Meehan (1826–1901), aided by Boston botanist and head of the Arnold Arboretum Charles S. Sargent (1841–1927), conceived a plan to purchase the acres of Bartram’s Garden for the city as part of Meehan’s campaign to create parks in Philadelphia. After a prolonged campaign by Meehan, who was a member of Philadelphia’s Common Council, and others, in 1888 the city added a portion of the original Bartram’s Garden to the city plan and marked it for preservation. Bartram’s Garden finally came under the control of the City of Philadelphia in 1891.

[caption id="attachment_27224" align="alignright" width="149"]Drawing of John Bartram John Bartram, naturalist, originally purchased the gardens as part of one thousand acres of tract land in 1728 and intended the space for personal use. However, Bartram's Garden has been open to the public since 1845. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Two years later, in 1893, descendants of John Bartram organized the John Bartram Association and reasserted their influence over the direction of the garden. With the aid of University of Pennsylvania botany professor and director of the university’s botanic garden John Muirhead Macfarlane (1855–1943), the association established a library and archives relating to the Bartram family and their botanic activities at Bartram’s Garden. In 1923, the Fairmount Park Commission assumed control of the property and worked to preserve and restore the gardens and buildings while continuing to operate the garden as a city park.

In October 1960, the secretary of the Interior designated Bartram’s Garden a National Historic Landmark in acknowledgement of the importance of the garden to John Bartram’s career as a botanist and to the history of American botany. Through restoration and interpretation of the site, The John Bartram Association continued to preserve the historical and contemporary gardens for visitors into the twenty-first century, including the original ginkgo tree (1785), a yellowwood tree sent by Michaux (1784), the Franklinia alatamaha from which all current examples descend, and the Bartram oak. Since the third decade of the eighteenth century, Bartram’s Garden served as a repository of North American plants of national and international importance, bringing together the commercial, public, and educational aspects of Philadelphia’s botanical legacy.

Sarah Chesney is a historical archaeologist who earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from the College of William and Mary in 2014. She has worked on several landscape archaeology projects in Philadelphia, exploring the intersection of archaeology, landscape, and early modern science. Her publications include “The Root of the Matter: Searching for William Hamilton’s Greenhouse at The Woodlands Estate, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” in Historical Archaeology of the Delaware Valley, 1600–1850, edited by Richard F. Veit and David G. Orr (University of Tennessee Press, 2014).

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