John Bartram, America’s Founding Plant Nerd

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“How many gentle flowers grow in an English country garden?
I’ll tell you now of some that I know and those I’ll miss I hope you’ll pardon…”

These are opening words to the delightful tune “English Country Garden” which praises the variety of flora and fauna in an English garden. But did you know that the classic English garden has its roots in America? Without American plants the English garden as we know it today would never have existed.

It’s true!

Let’s set the clock back to 1733 where we see Mr. John Bartram of Pennsylvania sending two boxes of seeds to his London friend, Mr. Peter Collinson. (Mr. Collinson supports his personal gardening and plant collecting addiction by selling cloth.) Over the next 40 years Mr. Bartram will send hundreds of these seed boxes to Mr. Collinson. These are the seeds which will transform English gardens.

Howard Pyle's illustration of John Bartram shows the famed botanist in a marsh holding a plant which he's studying with the aid of a magnifying glass. Ca. 1879 Taken from the February 1880 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine. No contemporary painting of John Bartram exists.

Howard Pyle’s 1879 illustration of John Bartram. 
No contemporary painting of John Bartram exists.

John Bartram (1699-1777) lived on a farm outside of Philadelphia and every fall he would go plant collecting. His wanderings eventually took him from Lake Ontario to Florida in search of new plant species for himself and Mr Collinson. Each winter dozens of seed boxes made the trip across the Atlantic to London where Mr. Collinson and his English gardening friends eagerly awaited their arrival.

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“…the Botanick fire set me in such A flame as is not to be quenched untill death or I explore most of the South western vegitative treasures in No. America.” John Bartram, 1761.

For the first time English gardeners had a huge choice of plants which would provide year-round beauty in their gardens. With Winter blooming shrubs, blazing Fall foliage and a successive parade of blooms in the Spring and Summer, many an English gardener’s dreams were beginning to come true.  By the end of the 1800’s England had become a nation of gardeners.

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Mr. Bartram’s trees and flowers laid the foundations for the English garden and by the time of his death his American plants were available across Britain. The English gardening style was widely copied across Europe. “Le jardin anglais”, “il giardino inglese” and “der Englische garten” were all recreations of an English garden filled with American plants.

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In the late 1700’s garden touring became popular, so much so that in 1786 Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went on a tour of English gardens. Mr. Jefferson soon realized that the beautiful gardens they were seeing were more American than English. He said to recreate the look in America, “we have only to cut out the superabundant plants”. With many of our early leaders like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and others setting the example, Americans soon turned into plant collectors.

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Colonial Williamsburg garden

John Bartram’s garden is the oldest surviving botanical garden in North America. It’s near Philadelphia, PA and is located on the west bank of the Schuylkill River. It covers 46 acres which include an historic botanical garden and an 8 acre arboretum which was established in 1728. Three generations of the Bartram family have continued the garden as the premier collection of North American plant species in the world. The current collection contains a wide variety of herbaceous and woody plants. Most were listed in the Bartrams’ 1783 Catalogue of American Trees, Shrubs and Herbacious Plants and subsequent editions.

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If you’re in the area, plan to see the the American birthplace of the English garden!

For more info: Bartram’s Garden

Posted by Sylvia Hacker, Dona Ana Co. New Mexico Master Gardener

 

 

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2 Responses to “John Bartram, America’s Founding Plant Nerd”

  1. Your article describing John Bartram held my interest, and I will pursue learning more about the man and his gardens. It’s amazing that all this time I planned an “English” garden, and it is actually an American garden.
    thank you for a brilliant article.

  2. sylviah1 says:

    We’re glad you enjoyed it!