John Bartram: Quaker, farmer, plant hunter

  • Franklinia. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman—

  • Callicarpa Americana, a native shrub noted for the spectacular violet berries, but the flowers are insignificant. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

Published: 9/11/2020 3:57:32 PM
Modified: 9/11/2020 3:57:17 PM

There are many stories about plant hunters who traveled the world looking for new plants. Ernest “Chinese” Wilson discovered the Lilium regale in China in 1910. Scot David Douglas discovered what is now called the Douglas fir at Hudson’s Bay in North America in 1825. However, there was a plant hunter who lived his life in the American colonies during the 18th century and sent American native plants across the ocean to England. 

Quaker John Bartram ((March 23, 1699 – Sept. 22, 1777), began as a farmer near Philadelphia, but a farmer fascinated by botany and the vast array of plants that he could not name. He was literate, but had very little schooling. Of course, he had food crops on his farm, but he had a separate plot where he grew special plants that interested him. Those plants and Bartram came to be of interest to others.

John Logan, secretary to William Penn, took an interest in Bartram, and encouraged him in his interests, and the way it might be profitable. Logan knew Peter Collinson, also a Quaker and nurseryman in England. England had very few handsome native trees. There were only four native evergreens, Scots pine, holly, box and yew. The number of colorful flowers was limited as well.

Logan told Collinson about Bartram, who was already sending some seeds to England. An agreement was made between Bartram and Collinson. In 1734, the first delivery of plants arrived in London. Successfully sending plants across the ocean was very difficult. There was no guarantee that plants and seeds could be kept warm enough or dry enough on the ships, or safe from mice and rats. Others besides Bartram shipped plants, but they did not give thought to the stresses on the plants or the care that was necessary and were not very successful.

Bartram designed special wooden cases to hold and protect seeds and cuttings. When Collinson opened the first boxes from Bartram, he was thrilled. Hundreds of seeds were neatly wrapped in paper and there were a few living plants. Collinson was very excited to find two healthy kalmia, mountain laurel, cuttings. Collinson had admired drawings of pink kalmia blossoms, but had never seen real ones. In fact, no one in England had been able to plant them because cuttings died before their ships reached London. And so began a 40-year collaboration.

I should also mention that Collinson and some of  his friends often sent seeds and bulbs back to Bartram including  hyacinths, tulips, narcissi and lilies, as well as seeds of foxglove and annual persicaria which came from China, through London. This made Bartram happy, but like Collinson, he sometimes had trouble keeping plants alive because they had come from different climates and soil. Greenhouses were one solution, or learning how to amend the soil.

Their letters covered every issue from help and information about plants, including teachings from Carl Linneaus. In 1736, Linneaus came to England to meet gardeners and botanists. He was not quite 30 but already an important man. He was also quite proud and called himself the
“prince of botanists.” When he arrived in London in late July, he immediately looked for Collinson. They met and toured gardens. They would have seen goldenrod and the tiny kalma which came from Bartram, as well as Iceland poppy, Sassafras albidum and the first rhododendrons.

Collinson and Linneaus did not speak each other's languages and had to communicate by pointing out aspects of the plants they visited. Linneaus departed for home in Sweden and the following year, in 1735, he published his book “Systema Naturae,” a new system of classifying plants based on their reproductive systems. He thought it would change the world; but it was not accepted by all. Bartram acquired and used “Systema Naturae.” Linneaus later said Bartram was the "greatest natural botanist in the world.”

After working together for a few years, in 1737, Collinson urged Bartram to go to Virginia to meet John Custis to collect seeds. Custis had eastern hemlock with small dangling cones. This tree was in great demand. He also collected seeds for maples, scarlet oaks, dogwoods and rhododendrons.

Bartram brought back seeds of the Halesia Carolina, silverbell and purple-berried callicarpa — which you can see now on the Bridge of Flowers.

Franklinia alatamaha, a plant in the tea plant family, was observed by John and son William Bartram in 1765 along the Altamaha River in southern Georgia, in Creek territory. William Bartram first brought seed back to the garden in 1777 and named the plant Franklinia in honor of his father’s close friend, Benjamin Franklin. The plant had not been found in the wild since the early 19th century, but cultivation by the Bartrams saved it from extinction. All current Franklinia are descended from those grown by the Bartrams.

Bartram made many trips to the South. There were trials over the years. His horse was stolen, he cut his foot and was confined to bed for a month, he slept on moss and viewed the Appalachian Mountains, the Delaware Water Gap and other landscapes few had seen.

But the business was prospering, as were the colonists. The colonists wanted beautiful gardens around their beautiful houses, expanding  the business.

The last heir closed Bartram’s Garden in 1850. Today, tourists can visit Bartram’s Garden in Pennsylvania once again. For more information, search bartramsgarden.org.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her website: commonweeder.com.




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