In an unassuming pocket of West Philadelphia is a bucolic garden that has proven to be instrumental in the history of horticulture and herbology.
Bartram’s Garden was home to John Bartram, a Quaker who dedicated his life to collecting, propagating and preserving seeds from all over the United States. Whether his journey was taken by boat, horseback or on foot, his travels enabled him to gather a cornucopia of seeds which can all be found growing in his small plot in the heart of Philadelphia.
Like the physic garden and its botanists in Chelsea, London, Bartram collected seeds and plant specimens and established a trans-Atlantic hub of plant exploration, exchanging his findings with similar establishments across the globe. His endeavors were recognised by King George III and he was appointed Royal Botanist in 1765. In America, his garden was a source of inquiry and pleasure for enlightened members of society, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, both of whom had their own mature gardens and seed collections.
Alongside the softly scented garden, made up of regimented beds, winding pathways and original greenhouses, Bartram’s Garden is also home to his stone house, built in 1728. The house looms in the background, with its recognisable brick façade melting into the vision of a rural idyll. Built over a period of 40 years, the house incorporates elements of classical Italian villas, with carved ionic columns and the addition of Baroque window surrounds and traditional American Georgian proportions. For those visiting, the house is as important as the garden in terms of understanding America’s domestic history. It’s humble ambience is also a welcome reminder of a simpler time.
Through Bartram’s network of seed catalogues, traders and spirit of inquiry, Bartram’s legacy survived him, with some of those original specimens still flowering and fruiting today. A 1760 greenhouse, warmed by a Franklin stove, is still in-situ today and continues to nurture budding specimens throughout the colder months. The dusty streets of Philadelphia feel a million miles away from the nurturing haven of Bartram’s Garden and yet it is behind these brick walls that the heart of America’s love-affair of horticulture continues to flourish and adapt. With the current climate, many people are taking comfort in the simple pleasure of planting seeds, watching them grow and willing them on to their next stage in life. The spirit of John Bartram lives with us today; you may even find yourself planting some seeds that are the direct result of his voyages of discovery all those years ago.