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.

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)

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.”

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)

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). (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2017, Rutgers University


John Bartram's House and Grounds, c. 1900

Library Company of Philadelphia

Southwest Philadelphia is home to America’s oldest surviving botanic garden, founded in the early eighteenth century by America’s first botanist, John Bartram (1699-1777). Bartram, a Quaker farmer with only a primary education, traveled the widely unknown terrain of the American colonies in an attempt to document the native species of the land. Called “the greatest natural botanist in the world” by Carolus Linnaeus, Bartram not only collected plant life but also experimented with medicinal plant uses to treat neighbors in need. Bartram’s legacy was carried on by his son, William (1739-1823), and later by his grandchildren, who tended the land for more than one hundred years until financial difficulties led the family to sell the property.

Andrew M. Eastwick (1811-79), a wealthy Philadelphian, purchased the Bartram home and grounds, seen here in this postcard from 1900. In the mid-nineteenth century, Eastwick dedicated himself to preserving the family’s long legacy. Despite national fund-raising campaigns, more financial troubles brought about the sale of the property to the City of Philadelphia in 1891.

John Bartram’s House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and is operated by the John Bartram Association in conjunction with the city. The garden hosts multiple events monthly, many focused on children’s botany education.

John Brientall's Nature Pressings

Library Company of Philadelphia

An amateur naturalist and friend of Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Breintnall (d. 1746) used a copy press to create accurate prints of plant life. A member of the city’s elite, Brientnall worked closely with John Bartram to catalogue botanical life in North America. Breintnall made the prints seen here, and many others, by placing ink on fresh specimens and then pressing those specimens between two sheets of paper with a copy press. At the time, many women created inked pressings of flowers and leaves at home, but Breintnall was credited as the first man to do so in the interest of science.

Breintnall’s collection was sent overseas to English scientists, who were curious to learn about North American plant life. Additionally, Franklin used Breintnall’s technique to protect against counterfeiting by adding unique, difficult to copy plant prints to paper currency in order to prove a bill’s legitimacy. Upon Breintnall’s death, his widow donated his catalogue to the Library Company of Philadelphia, where he had served as secretary from the library’s founding in 1731 until his death in 1746.

Morris Arboretum

Visit Philadelphia

When brother and sister John and Lydia Morris purchased the land that would become the Morris Arboretum, the soil was fruitless and the lawn was bare. However, the family quickly began to beautify their newly built summer home, Compton, and the empty acres filled with trees, flowers, and sculptures. The Morris family traveled the world extensively and continued adorning their property with new and exotic species, including the Asian Spice Bushes (Lindera salicifolia) seen in this photograph. In 1932, the property was purchased by the University of Pennsylvania and officially became known as the Morris Arboretum. In 2017, the University still uses the arboretum as a teaching and research facility. Morris Arboretum has been named the Official Arboretum of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the grounds are open to the public year-round. (Photograph by Judy Miller)

The Philadelphia Flower Show, 2017

Visit Philadelphia

Founded in 1827, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society sought to “establish a Horticultural Society in the City of Philadelphia for the promotion of this interesting and highly influential branch of Science." In 1829, PHS hosted the first Philadelphia Flower Show at the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street. The exposition was started in order to “introduce the newest plant varieties, garden and design concepts, and organic and sustainable practices.” In 1829, the exposition introduced the popular Christmastime plant, the Poinsettia, to the public for the first time.

In the twenty-first century the Flower Show attracted around 250,000 visitors annually and in 2015 was named the best event in the world by the International Festivals & Events Association. The Horticultural Society utilizes the profits from the Flower Show to fund other projects throughout the year and to meet its mission to “connect people with horticulture, and together create beautiful, healthy and sustainable communities." (Photograph by M. Fischetti)

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Related Reading

Boyd, James. A History of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, 1827–1927. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, 1929.

Ewan, Joseph, ed. A Short History of Botany in the United States. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1969.

Harshberger, John W. The Botanists of Philadelphia and Their Work. Philadelphia: T.C. Davis & Sons, 1899.

Hedrick, U.P. A History of Horticulture in America to 1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950.

Keeney, Elizabeth B. The Botanizers: American Scientists in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Parrish, Susan Scott. American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American Society and Culture, 2006.

Peck, Robert McCracken and Patricia Tyson Stroud. A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. From Seed to Flower: Philadelphia, 1681–1876: A Horticultural Point of View. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, 1976.

Wulf, Andrea. Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. 1st American ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

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