Many people have visited inns or homes where George Washington once visited. But last weekend I walked underneath an arbor where Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson argued during the framing of the Constitution.

I visited Bartram’s Garden, a park owned by the city of Philadelphia but run for over a century by the nonprofit John Bartram Association. It’s called the oldest botanical garden in the country, and that’s true, but its true history is more interesting. It started off as a business and evolved into a nonprofit.

John Bartram was a farmer who began to operate his enterprise in 1728. When he began farming, his farm was three miles south of Philadelphia. It’s now in southwest Philadelphia, fairly close to the University of the Sciences but in a neighborhood that’s low income and declining.

Bartram was fascinated by plants and spent much of his time in the woods gathering plants he had never seen before and growing them. But, as this 1975 American Heritage article by Hal Borland shows, Bartram discovered his vocation by a chance encounter with Peter Collinson, a London merchant who was always trying to come up with new products from North America to sell. He had long been interested in finding people who would send him plants and seeds he could sell.

Collinson, according to Borland, “had not anticipated Bartram’s energy and skill.” The Pennsylvanian sent box after box of seeds, and while part of Bartram’s land always remained a working dairy farm, most of his property was devoted to raising interesting plants. He found a steady market among English customers. This was an age where landscape architects wanted something wilder and more romantic than the proper classical gardens of earlier generations. American plants proved highly lucrative.

Bartram went on several expeditions, including one in 1738 that went deep into the woods of southwest Virginia. He diligently recorded many observations about plants, but was too squeamish to dissect or hurt animals in the field. He also inspired his son, William Bartram, to be a naturalist. In 1773 the younger Bartram went on a several-year long expedition to what is now Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. His memoir of this trip, Travels Through North and South Carolina, and Georgia, which included many drawings and paintings of the unusual animals and plants he saw, is regarded as a classic American travel book, which the Library of America published in an authoritative volume.

After John Bartram died in 1778, his sons William and John Bartram Jr. took over the family business. From what I was told by the tour guide, Bartram’s Garden was not open to the public, but eminent people could visit. So Benjamin Franklin took some of the Framers of the Constitution on a trip to the garden in 1787. The bower, which Franklin and Jefferson sat under, survives and you can walk under it today.

The family seed business died in the early nineteenth century, when an embargo imposed on trade with Britain eliminated the enterprise’s overseas markets. When John Bartram’s granddaughter, Ann Bartram Carr, took over the family business, she ultimately turned it into a tourist attraction, where Philadelphians could go to the garden on weekends, look at flowers and eat ice cream.

In 1850 Ann Bartram Carr sold the garden to William Eastwick, who built a 35-room mansion that subsequently burned down. After Eastwick’s death in 1879, the land languished until Philadelphians started a fundraising effort to buy the property. This occurred in 1891, and in 1893 the present set up took place, where the city owns the garden but a nonprofit manages it.

What can you see? I was told that the garden is constantly expanding. John Bartram’s home is open for tours, which I enjoyed. You can walk in the garden, which has all sorts of plants. Most of them were not there in Bartram’s time, but a ginkgo that William Bartram planted in the 1780s survives.

The garden has made an effort to reach out to the community, including opening a boathouse on the Schuylkill River. Part of the garden has also been turned into a meadow, and if you look at it from certain angles you would think they are in the country.

They’ve also come up with a smart way to make money. They let beekeepers come into the garden and let the bees fertilize the plants. They then harvest the honey and sell it, making for a unique keepsake. (And if I visited the garden two weeks later, I could have come during Philadelphia Honeyfest, where beekeepers show up at the garden and discuss what they do.)

Bartram’s Garden is an important piece of American history that you ought to see.


Photo credit: Universal Pops (David) via / CC BY-NC-SA