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Associated Press
Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia contains one of the rare Franklinia trees, seen in the foreground.

Oldest botanical garden a treasure trove of rarities

– He was America’s first botanist, and his garden is still one of the best.

John Bartram was called “the greatest natural botanist in the world” by no less than Carl Linnaeus, who in the 18th century devised our system for classifying plants.

Bartram’s garden is a convenient stop during a visit to Philadelphia, just minutes from the Liberty Bell.

When he bought this tract along the Schuylkill River in 1728, it was rural land skirting the colonial city. Bartram’s botanizing took him throughout what is now the eastern United States, and this land was where he grew the many plants and seeds he collected in his travels.

His son, William, was a knowledgeable companion for those travels. The notes and sketches that William made during a four-year journey throughout the South, beginning in 1773, were eventually published as “Travels,” a book that would be published in several foreign editions as well.

America’s first catalog plant nursery

Among the Bartrams’ most exciting discoveries, in 1765, was the Franklinia tree (Franklinia alatamaha), which they found growing along the Alatamaha River in Georgia and named after their friend, Ben Franklin. William later revisited the beautiful trees and collected seeds, which were planted in Philadelphia.

For reasons unknown, this tree was never again seen in the wild after 1803, so the seeds William collected are the source of all known Franklinia trees in existence today.

(Franklinia, hardy to USDA zones 5-8, is a small to medium-size tree with white, fragrant, camellia-like blossoms that open in mid-summer, and leaves that turn coppery red in fall. Good soil drainage is a must.)

The Schuylkill River site also became a commercial plant nursery. Among the 220 species the Bartrams offered in 1783 were tulip poplar trees and poison ivy vines. (Admit it, poison ivy is a handsome plant much of the year.)

Under the leadership of another son, John, Jr., Bartram’s granddaughter, Ann, and her husband, Robert Carr, the nursery flourished. By the 1830s, 4,000 species of plants were being raised there, and there was greenhouse space for 10,000 potted plants.

Bartram’s nursery supplied plants for such gardens as Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon. It was the first American nursery to publish a catalog. Compare that catalog – now on display at Bartram’s Garden and consisting of nothing more than a list of plants – with the splashy photographs and hyperbole of catalogs today.

Colonial tofu, perhaps

Native American plants were the mainstay of the gardens and nursery, but exotics also were grown. Soybeans, for example, from seeds sent by Benjamin Franklin. Ben was thoughtful enough to include a recipe for tofu, as well.

Another plant from China, a gingko tree, was planted in 1785 and survives today. It may be the oldest gingko tree in North America.

Like many old gardens, Bartram’s fell into disrepair for a while. Industrial sprawl creeping along the Schuylkill threatened the site when family members lost interest in the nursery in the middle of the 19th century.

To the rescue came Philadelphia industrialist Andrew Southwick, who bought the property, proclaiming, “I don’t want a solitary branch cut ... so that not a bush of this beloved old garden shall be disturbed.”

Unfortunately, with Southwick’s death, the property was again sold, this time resulting in the loss of many plants.

Salvation returned in 1891 when the property was bought by the city of Philadelphia.

Restoration efforts were spurred by the discovery, in 1950, of a sketch made by William or John of their 8-acre botanical garden.

In addition to many of the plants grown by the Bartrams, the present Historic Bartram’s Gardens also includes an education center housed in the stone barn built by John Bartram in 1775, as well as a wildflower meadow and the furnished Bartram home. More recently, a community garden and orchard were added to the site.

The Bartrams would have approved.

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