Bartram’s Garden – An American Treasure

My friend John, a self-proclaimed antiquarian and
bibliophile, has a vast collection of antique books. He recently showed me his first
edition copy of Bartram’s Travels and asked me if I’d been to see the 45-acre
National Historic Landmark, Bartam’s Garden. Embarrassed, I had to say no. But I vowed to get there, and this August I
did. What a treasure Bartram’s Garden is
and how fortunate we are that the Bartrams blazed many so many horticultural trails for
My friend’s first edition copy of Bartram’s Travels
The desk where Bartram’s books were penned
As we toured the garden and homestead, we learned from our guide that as America’s first botanist, John Bartram utilized his
passion for nature combined with his inventive spirit to help horticulture
along. He introduced a number of plants
to us including Fothergilla, Aesculus parviflora (Bottlebrush Buckeye) and Hydrangea quercifolia (Oak Leaf Hydrangea) to name a few. 
Aesculus parviflora and Hydrangea quercifolia introduced by Bartram
With his discoveries growing and the demand for his plants building, he needed to find ways to store and share his
plants and seeds and ship them overseas.To support his growing business, Bartram created the first greenhouse
and devised wooden crates known as ‘Bartram’s Boxes’ that enabled him to send
his precious cargo overseas with a good success rate, despite the hazards of
sea voyage at that time. Bartram’s
trans-Atlantic plant business survived three generations and set the stage for the mail-order businesses that we take for granted today. We often think of European styles influencing our landscape designs, but Bartram’s treasures influenced European
gardens and landscapes through new forms and colors.  
The site of the original greenhouse
Bartram’s Garden is home to some amazing specimen trees including the Franklina alatamaha, named after Bartram’s friend Benjamin Franklin and discovered in 1765. All current Franklinia are descended from those grown by the Bartrams. 
The Franklinia flower

The Franklinia tree

The Ginkgo biloba tree on the property dates back to 1785 and is believed to be the oldest in the United States, while the Cladrastis kentukea (Yellowwood) dates back to 1796.  
The nations’ oldest Ginkgo biloba tree
The Cladrastis kentukea
We enjoyed seeing the two sides of the house, one simple and one more ornate. The ornate side, which faced the river, was meant to impress guests as they arrived. The less ornate side was dressed up with a front door by Bartam’s daughter at a later date when she took ownership of the house. She wanted the ‘front’ of the house to face the road, not the river. She installed a more formal garden to impress arriving guests. The facades were so completely different, as were the gardens that flanked them, that I had a hard time imagining that both facades belonged to the same house.   
The more ornate facade
The less formal facade
The more formal gardens for entertaining
In addition to the house, there were lovely out-buildings including an impressive stone barn. Many of the buildings and walls were adorned with flowers cast in stone. Bartram’s passion for plants was clear.
The old barn
The botanically inspired relief on an old stone wall
Of course my favorite part was wandering through the gardens and admiring their elegant simplicity.  
Wisteria and rudbeckia made a wonderful combination
The water garden
The meadow garden
As we got ready to depart on our harbor cruise back to the hustle and bustle of the city, we took in the skyline.  All Bartram would have seen in his day were two towers – those of Christ Church and Independence Hall.  The skyline sure has changed, as has the nursery business.  
The current skyline is quite different than what Bartram saw
I’m thankful for Bartram’s trend setting ways and plant explorations and for the many plant offerings we have access to today, which beautify our gardens and calm our souls. Bartram’s Garden claims that their history isn’t mounted in a display case. It’s found in living collections that continue to grow, bloom, and reproduce. I couldn’t agree more. Please add Bartram’s Garden to your ‘must-see’ list. You won’t be disappointed. 

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