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John Bartram made lasting contributions to botany

We have all heard about Thomas Jefferson’s green thumb and intense interest in plants and gardening at Monticello, his estate overlooking the University of Virginia. But how many have ever heard of John Bartram? He was a farmer who is best remembered as the first American-born botanist of merit.

Bartram taught himself all he knew about botany and related subjects. He learned Latin in a few months and could read the writings of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist responsible for much of the plant nomenclature still used today. From an early age, Bartram had an interest in plants, especially their medicinal uses.

Bartram purchased his first farm near Philadelphia in 1728 at a sheriff’s sale. It is now America’s oldest surviving botanic garden. Soon after he bought the farm on the Schuylkill River, Bartram discovered a hybrid of the red and willow oaks in his own backyard. It was later named Bartram oak by the French botanist Andre Michaux, who was also responsible for the identification of many different genera and species around the world.

In the early 1730s, Bartram explored the surrounding neighborhood and headwaters of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. He collected native plants, cuttings and seeds that he planted on 8 acres around his farmhouse. The site provided a variety of exposures and soil conditions needed for the numerous plants to survive. Today this sloping site is the historical botanic garden.

Bartram was also classed as an early America explorer because his search for new plants often took him into unknown territory of the young continent. His trips were confined to fall and early spring because he was occupied with farm chores during the summer. Farming supported his large family.

For the next 30 years, Bartram traveled north to Lake Ontario in present-day New York, west to Pittsburgh and the Ohio River and south to Charleston, S.C., in search of new plants. His travels brought him in contact with new people, who sometimes provided inspiration for the new plant names.

It was a common practice among botanists to choose plant names that reflected friendships. Such is the case with the “Gardenia,” which Bartram named after the English physician Dr. Alexander Garden.

We often overlook the contributions Bartram made to European plant collections. Nearly every botanical garden in England has one or more native American plant. Sugar maple, witchhazel, mayflower, wild honeysuckle, cumber tree/cumber magnolia, mountain laurel (Pennsylvania’s state flower), Canada hemlock, Franklinia and many of our viburnums are but a few. In most cases these plants are directly descended by seed or cuttings from stock originally sent by Bartram.

Bartram was also concerned with the culture of his plants. He had a strong interest in soil fertilization, soil erosion, reclaimed marshland, improved crops and vegetables, cultivation of native grapes and the introduction of certain fruit trees. By the time of his death in 1777, he had introduced nearly 200 species of plants to Europe. He did more than anyone else in the 18th century to enrich European gardens with American plants.

If oyu’re ever in Philadelphia, take time to visit Bartram’s Garden. For more information, visit www.bartramsgarden.org.

Bill Lamont is a professor and extension vegetable specialist at Penn State and can be reached by email at wlamont@psu.edu.