August 19, 2010

Bartram's Gardens: Historic Botanical Garden and Arboretum

Today, a few friends and myself visited Bartram's Gardens in West Philadelphia. The gardens were started in the 1700s by John Bartram and his son, William Bartram.

They were well known botanists during their lives and traveled all over the country to collect samples for their collection. They learned to care for and propagate many unique New World plants. Many New World plants and seeds were sold to the wealthy in Britain.    
During the 18th century, traveling was difficult. John and William rode on horseback and traveled by small boats as far away from Pennsylvania as Florida and the Mississippi River to gather specimen.  They were widely acknowledged as being adventurers, according to a personal account, they claimed to have beaten an alligator to death with a club, to save on bullets.

The Continental Congress took a day trip to the Bartram's home to see the gardens in 1784. George Washington visited the gardens in 1787 and thought the wild, hodgepodge of plants was distasteful. 

During a trip to Georgia, they discovered a tree with brilliant blossoms. They named it Franklinia after John's best friend, Benjamin Frankin. By 1803, wild Franklinia trees became extinct. All current Franklinia trees are descended from the one that the Bartrams collected. 

It is very cool to see the variety of plants that are native to the U.S. Our group was more interested in the "Kitchen Garden" as we all love to cook 1700s style. Many plants that we think of as weeds were eaten as vegetables or used as herbs. Purslane, dandelion and sorrel were common in cooking.

One of the neatest things to see was a period cider press carved out of stone, right along the Schuylkill River. The juice dripped out of a small hole into a large stone carved basin. The amount of cider made must have been astronomical!   

The gardens run right along the river and even include a modern day picnic area complete with a baseball field. We had a lovely picnic together talking about colonial recipes and the gardens.

It was a very picturesque area you would never know that you were in the city. Visiting the gardens is free, tours of the buildings are a few dollars. Our tour guide was very nice, he even let us taste a fig off one of the trees. They taste a lot different than the dehydrated kind! It was nice of them to give us a tour, they only offer them on the weekends. It is amazing that the gardens are still being kept up after hundreds of years. Bartram's is the oldest botanical garden in North America. You can find more information at Bartram's Garden.


  1. "George Washington visited the gardens in 1787 and thought the wild, hodgepodge of plants was distasteful."
    Haha, yes, the man who designed Mt Vernon! I've been to Mt Vernon, which seems unbelievable now.

    I'd love to visit botanical gardens like that.

    I know you can make salad of dandelion leaves, and make some sort of syrup out of its blossoms, but I've never made either.

  2. Hana, Are you referring to the dinning room there? :D When I first saw it I though the color was crazy, but it has started to grow on me.

    Scroll to the bottom.

  3. Well, sort of, but I was mostly referring to his gardens, which are certainly a very different kind of gardens, all lined up! And kind of boring. :D

  4. Washington (and Jefferson) bought plants from Bertram (after making war all day, Washington would write to Mount Vernon as to what plants he wanted planted, thus a short respite from war). Most probably there are letters Washington wrote to Bertram. Bertram's garden is where he collected his plants, also making protected environments for some that required such: it was not an ornamental, display garden (Le Notre). This garden was built to slope down to the river.


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