On a beautiful sunny day, I went searching for William Bartram.
Like most of my stories, this one began with a nugget of thought, and then research took over until I ended up at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia. Being a nature photographer, I wanted to check out the home of a family full of nature-lovers and discovered this amazing, historic garden. Perhaps I would also pick up a tip or two in my futile quest for a green thumb.
William Bartram was born in 1739, and his family lived in Kingsessing, a part of Philadelphia. His father, John Bartram, was a well-renowned botanist. William was an explorer, writer, botanist, naturalist and artist. He wrote “Travels” in 1791 about his adventures through the American South, among the first modern-style writers to portray nature in depth.
My day trip started with an easy drive to Philadelphia with the garden just a short hop off the PA Turnpike. I arrived on a Sunday morning right after opening. Bartram’s Garden is a 45-acre National Historic Landmark, and, when I first stepped out of my car and looked across the property, I was excited to see the skyline of Center City in the distance across the water. This was my first time visiting Philly, so I was hungry to take in every new sight.
I went through the welcome center to purchase tickets for a tour, conversing with the young woman at the desk, asking some questions then looking around the grounds before my tour started.
The grounds are free to the public and open year-round except for city-observed holidays. Guided tours are offered April through December. Aside from strolling through the beautiful property and having a picnic, there are artists’ workshops, musical performances and other arts and culture programs throughout the year.
While wandering around, I came upon the Ann Bartram Carr Garden, which was named after the granddaughter of John Bartram. This is the main garden in front of the house and welcomes visitors to the rest of the property. Ann was the one who created the 19th century exhibition garden, the first public green space at Bartram’s Garden. She knew other gardens were becoming popular, so decided to make theirs unique. With exotics as her specialty, she grew her own hybrid camellias and dahlias. At its peak, the garden featured 10 greenhouses, more than 1,400 native plants and 1,000 exotics.
During my tour, I found out that Ann had quite a knack for botany and drawing. Her uncle, William, spent a lot of time teaching her the skills and passions that he had. Due to the times, Ann’s talents were not acknowledged like those of her uncle and grandfather. Despite that, she was one of the first women to run a gardening business, and what really impressed me was her passion for sharing her love of nature. Being a woman, I can appreciate the courage she had to be a pioneer.
Sadly, due to financial difficulties, the property was sold in 1850. Today, Bartram’s Garden is managed by the John Bartram Association, which was created by descendants of John Bartram in 1893, in cooperation with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.
Bartram’s Garden is located alongside the Lower Schuylkill and provides free kayak and rowboat rides every Saturday (in season). Instead of driving, you can take a short cruise to and from Center City.
Michael J. Nevadomski, marketing coordinator for the John Bartram Association, strongly recommends a June visit.
“June’s big event is River Fest on June 3, which is one of our biggest community gatherings,” he said. “Free boating, (a lot of free food usually), a lot of family activities and a boat parade.”
Writer Erol Ozan once said, “Some beautiful paths can’t be discovered without getting lost.” I started that day thinking I would find out more about William Bartram, but my adventure gave me much more. I went searching for William, but my journey brought me to Ann.
Oh, about my hoped-for green thumb—I purchased a native plant at the Welcome Center that day and, by some miracle, it is thriving. I think Ann would be proud.
Bartram’s Garden is located at 5400 Lindbergh Blvd., Philadelphia. For more information, visit www.bartramsgarden.org or call 215-729-5281.
Author: Carissa Bannister Kauwell