Bartram’s Garden

I first learned of the Quaker Botanist John Bartram while reading Zara Anishanslin’s book Portrait of a Woman in Silk (2016) for a graduate level material culture class I was taking during the spring 2021 semester at Villanova University. Around the same time, I was applying for a summer internship through The Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest. One of the potential internships offered was with Bartram’s Garden, the historic botanical garden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Fast forward, and I have now worked at the garden since June as an intern in the John Bowman Bartram Special Collections Library. What follows are some of the details I believe are worth sharing about Bartram’s Garden, from large swaths of open meadow space, to the small details of a flower petal, all encapsulated in an urban green space in southwest Philadelphia.

The history of this space is complicated, encompassing three generations of Bartrams, and just barely surviving the expansive urbanization of the late-nineteenth century. In 1728, John Bartram (1699-1777) purchased 102 acres of land from Swedish settlers on the western bank of the Schuylkill River in the area known today as Kingsessing. During the 1730s, John Bartram began sending tree and shrub seeds across the Atlantic to his London correspondent and fellow botanist, Peter Collinson (1694-1768), where they were then widely planted in prominent mid-eighteenth-century English gardens. Bartram continued to send seeds to Collinson, as well as collect various flora for his own garden into the late 1760s and early 1770s, and later passed his life’s work onto one of his sons after retiring in the spring of 1771.

Although the botanic garden was inherited solely by John Bartram Jr. (1743-1812), another son, William Bartram (1739-1823), helped with the garden, often creating romantic drawings of the plants his father sent overseas. Due to the absence of surviving business records, ledgers, or daybooks, not much is known about the relationship between the brothers, nor how they ran the day-to-day activities of the garden. Given his academic background, it is likely that William stuck to the written side of the partnership, while John went on annual collecting trips. Maintaining the garden at the same level as their father proved to be difficult for the brothers not only because of the Revolution in 1776, but also because they did not share the same European connections that John Bartram had enjoyed during the mid-eighteenth century.

Eventually, Ann Bartram Carr (1779-1858) inherited the garden from John Bartram Jr. in the spring of 1809 and ran it with her husband, Robert Carr. Ann Bartram Carr already served as the head of the female household since 1794, and she learned all she needed to know about the business, as well as drawing, from her uncle William. This generation too had difficulties running the garden largely due to financial troubles brought on by the War of 1812 and multiple bankruptcies throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. By 1850, the railroad industrialist Andrew M. Eastwick bought the garden at auction in order to preserve it as a historic site. Following the death of Eastwick in 1879, the garden faced constant threats from the expanding urban area. The garden barely survived thanks to the efforts of Thomas Meehan, an English-trained gardener who led the campaign to preserve the historic site in the late-nineteenth century. The city of Philadelphia took possession of Bartram’s Garden in spring 1891, and by 1893, the descendants of John Bartram created the John Bartram Association, which has helped restore and transform the garden into what it looks like today.

Bartram House from the Lower Garden

When you arrive at Bartram’s Garden, the green spaces are overwhelming. If it were not for the sprawling cityscape visible from the parking loop, you would not know you were in southwest Philly. Instead, the fresh scent of the meadow prevails, which is located north of the garden and full of milkweed in the summer. A walk up to the Welcome Center brings into sight historic buildings, including the Barn, Coach House, and Bartram House. Most of these buildings are currently used as active workspaces, such as the loft of the Coach House, which is where I spent most of my time working in the library. The Bartram House, built by John Bartram over the span of 40 years shortly after his purchase of the land in 1728, stands as the historic building in the garden. Due to the pandemic, it is largely devoid of life and it has been closed to visitors since March of 2020. However quaint and beautiful these buildings may be, they are not what make this historic site so special – it's the 50 acres of interpretive garden space and meadows.

Interpreting historical sites is difficult work, but there is another layer of complexity added when the exhibits are living. For example, the Ann Bartram Carr Garden that arches around the back of the Bartram House was only restored in 2015/2016. Ann Bartram Carr first established her rose garden in the early-nineteenth century, and restoring the garden took a lot of time, physical labor, and historic interpretation. This garden contains various rose bushes that flower multi-colored petals throughout the spring and summer. Pollen covered bees fill the air, flitting back and forth from flower to flower. There is even a flourishing mophead hydrangea along the arched path that blooms vibrant pink and violet flowers in June and July. You cannot spend too long in the rose garden, however, as the sweet scent of the flowers can actually be overwhelming. The arched pathway subtly moves you along, pointing you east toward the south end of the house.

Hydrangea macrophylla (Mophead Hydrangea)
Digitalis purpurea (Foxglove)

When walking east of the house in the summer, you pass an array of plants, one of the first being the budding Franklinia tree, a once rare tree that was brought to the garden by William Bartram in 1777 after one of his many trips to the Altamaha River in Georgia. It flowers bright white flowers at the end of July, and it is likely that most Franklinia growing today can be traced back to the seed that William collected in the late-eighteenth century. In front of the house is another garden, this one holding various lilies and other colorful bushes. You then descend down the stone stairs as the trees and shrubs immerse you in the shadows of the lower garden. Overhanging branches occasionally tap you on the shoulder as you descend the hill, almost begging you to slow down from the ebb and flow of daily city life. Three interconnected paved pathways lined with too many flora to name reach down to the bank of the Schuylkill River, which you can occasionally view through the leaves of the trees. While walking along the paths in the summer, you can spot massive willow oak trees, carnivorous fly traps, a circular pond filled with wildlife, flowering purple hostas, and in early June striking pink and white foxgloves. It is also likely you will run into Mandy or Katie, the friendly gardeners who help maintain the site and keep the garden so vibrant throughout the year.

Cider Mill with Tourists
Passiflora incarnata (Passionflower)

If you are feeling really adventurous, you can go even further down the embankment to the path that brings you to the old cider press along the river. This cider press, which often gets mistaken by locals for strange alien symbols, was likely hand carved into the bedrock by John Bartram himself during the eighteenth century, and used to mash and press apples so that the juice could be barreled and later processed into cider. If you visit the garden in July, directly across from the cider press is the steep hill of the embankment, which will be covered in vines that flower stunning violet and yellow passion flowers. As you move along the path past wild raspberry bushes and up onto the boardwalk, you find amazing views of the Schuylkill River. If you are brave enough to walk through some tidal city trash, and if the tide is low enough, you can even climb down onto the stony shore and take in the cityscape of Center City and the tree line along the river, something that did not exist less than fifty years ago.

Center City from the Schuylkill River

As you move up the boardwalk back toward the garden, make sure to stop at the historic rock face etchings. These carvings mark past remarkably high-water levels and include water line dates from as early as 1784. Once you leave the boardwalk area, you can head further north through a wooded trail toward the boat house and meadow, or west back toward the Bartram House. Although a steep ascent, heading west can be well worth the effort to see some lizard’s tail and tall budding bushes on your left, a recently planted Bald cypress that sits in the middle of the paved path, and a thick London plane tree shedding its bark on your right (which is the largest tree in the garden). If you choose to turn right and head north from the London Plane, you will find the Ginkgo biloba tree. Impressively tall and famously beautiful in the fall, this Ginkgo tree was supposedly given to Bartram’s Garden in 1785 by William Hamilton, which he first planted at The Woodlands just a few miles north of the garden. A few yards past the Gingko tree brings you back to the courtyard, and the cluster of buildings where you first embarked on your journey to the garden.

This was only a brief exploration of Bartram’s Garden, with a particular focus on the main historic botanic garden. It is hard to capture the beauty of this place in the summer, and I still have not even mentioned the Eastwick Hill and Sankofa Community Farm to the south, and I only briefly discussed the rolling meadow and boat house (which runs kayaking tours during the summer) to the north. There are occasional historic tours that run throughout the summer, given by either the curator Joel Fry or the Director of Public Programs Aseel Rasheed. However, you do not always need a tour to enjoy this space; a simple stroll through the garden in the summer can prove to be rejuvenating itself. This green bubble nestled along the Schuylkill in the middle of southwest Philadelphia is an often-missed destination on people’s trips to one of America’s oldest cities. Yet, if you wish to learn more about the site as a botanist, a historian, a garden enthusiast, or if you are someone who just needs a break from daily city life, it is worth your while to come visit Bartram’s Garden.

Visiting Bartram’s Garden

Website: Bartram’s Garden

Address: 5400 Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA.

The grounds at Bartram’s Garden are free and open to the public 365 days a year, from dawn until dusk.

You can get to the garden by trolley, car, or bike. It is accessible by the #36 trolley, parking is free, and bike racks are available on the grounds.

Welcome Center Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9AM-4PM.

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Kyle Scripko

Kyle is a recent graduate of Villanova University (’21 M.A. History). He worked as an intern for Bartram’s Garden for the months of June and July 2021 through The Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest. Some of his research interests include environmental history, twentieth-century Germany, animal history, urban history, material culture, and disability history. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kylescripko