Curator, Bartram’s Garden
Joel Fry is an archaeologist with a B.A. and M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania. His involvement with Bartram’s Garden began in 1980 when, as a student, he participated in a research product at the Garden. He has worked there ever since, becoming curator in 1993. He continues to conduct research and lecture on botanical history and development as it relates to the Bartrams and their Garden.
John Bartram and his family occupy an important place in the history of botany and agriculture. He was a farmer and plant collector who traveled the entire east coast in search of specimens that formed the basis for an early and robust international exchange of plant materials and thus playing a pivotal role in the discovery and classification of plant species. He began life as a plain Quaker farmer who was not himself an aristocrat but as a collector dealt with aristocrats here and in Europe. He was a first-generation Quaker whose grandfather migrated here with William Penn. He grew up in Darby, inheriting a 300-acre farm there. By the time he was established at Kingsessing, the site that is now Bartram’s Garden on the banks of the Schuylkill River, he was reasonably well-to-do, owning two substantial farms. Kingsessing was as a hub of early horticultural activity including the first seed company in the U.S.
He had a reputation as a free thinker and, as it turned out, a free trader in plant specimens. His large personal garden became the site of the largest early international exchange of botanical stock. Bartram was a self-taught botanist whose skills sprang from his lifelong curiosity about plants. At the time he began collecting plants, little was known about them since there were no guidebooks yet written on North American plants A London aristocrat, Peter Townsend, was Bartram’s first contact for sending plant materials to England. His relationship with Townsend, a member of the Royal Society with one of the best gardens in England and, for that matter, in Europe, was fortuitous indeed. Gardens owned by British aristocrats became major introduction centers in Europe of plants from North America, many from Bartram’s collection.
In 1736, Bartram discovered the American Rhododendron when he explored up the Schuylkill River. Traveling by canoe, he began collecting live plants. His American Rhododendrons became the first to enter the English market. Bartam developed a correspondence with Carl Linnaeus who called Bartram the greatest natural botanist in the world. Linnaeus developed the first system for naming and classifying plants. Bartram provided many of the seeds for trees such as hickory, oak, dogwoods and tulip trees that were planted in European parks.
As Bartram attracted more subscribers to his business, he ranged farther in search of specimens, ultimately pressing as far north as Canada and as far south as Florida. Among his customers were British nobility such as the Duke of Argyle. He discovered relatively rare plants such as ginseng and Venus fly trap. Bartram had a close relationship with Benjamin Franklin, who shared his botanical interests and is credited with bringing such plants as soybeans to this country. There is evidence that Bartram cultivated soybeans. While lost on one of his expeditions, John Bartram discovered a rare shrub that blooms late in summer and is today extinct in the wild but grown domestically. It is Franklinia, named it after his friend, Benjamin Franklin.
Bartam kept a journal, became a published author and was something of an international celebrity. He died in 1777 just as the British were moving to occupy Philadelphia during the revolution. After his death, three generations of Bartrams continued the family business of exporting seeds and plants. Bartram’s son William was the best-educated of his children and eventually became a well-known collector, author and illustrator in his own right. After a failing in a Florida plantation venture, William spent the rest of his life at the Bartram farm working in the family business and writing and illustrating as an independent scholar.
In the 1850’s, ownership of Bartram’s Garden went to Philadelphia industrialist Andrew Eastwick who played a key role in preserving it. Bartram’s Garden today is about a 46-acre park in southwest Philadelphia. It is run by a small staff and a non-profit association the John Bartram Association.
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