Philadelphia is full of firsts—from the nation’s first public school to the first lager beer. It’s also home to the country’s first botanical garden.
You may have missed that last one, because Bartram’s Garden occupies an unlikely spot, wedged between the murky waters of the Schuylkill to the east and a tangle of railroad tracks to the west. Across the river looms The Philadelphia Gas Works.
Despite such industrial reminders, Bartram’s Garden remains serene, with 45 acres of butterflies, squirrels and extraordinary plant specimens. Located at 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, it’s also fairly close to Penn.
The garden is named for John Bartram, considered to be America’s first great botanist and a friend of Penn’s own Ben Franklin. The two men likely met before the summer of 1738 when Franklin’s “Pennsylvania Gazette” reported Bartram’s discovery of ginseng along the Susquehanna River.
Garden Curator Joel T. Fry says that the two men were likely great influences on each other—Bartram had the idea for forming a scientific society as early as 1738, which ultimately became Franklin’s proposal for the American Philosophical Society of 1743.
As plaques in the entrance courtyard explain, Bartram traveled as far north as Lake Ontario, south to Florida and west to the Ohio River in search of plants and specimens. His efforts paid off, as Bartram and his son William are credited with introducing more than 200 species of American plants to cultivation.
The Bartrams also published the first printed plant catalogue in America, in 1783, and supplied plants to Independence Hall, Mount Vernon and Monticello.
Walking along the garden path, you can still see evidence of their labors today—the oldest surviving Gingko in North America grows here, dating from 1785 when Bartram’s neighbor William Hamilton presented it to him. There are also two examples of the Franklinia tree, a short specimen with several narrow trunks and white flowers that give off a sweet, honey-like smell. John and William discovered this tree in 1765 near Ft. Barrington on the Altamaha River in Georgia and named it after the great civic leader.
If you visit the Garden, you can take a self-guided walking tour around the grounds, which are free and open to the public every day except City holidays.
The map (also free) provides a comprehensive key to the horticultural highlights, including a Yellowwood tree, one of the oldest plants in the garden, a massive tulip tree and fine osage and chestnut specimens.
By following the path onto a wooden platform, you can get close to the water’s edge, too, and see tidal markings from the 1780s to 1850s carved into the bedrock. Nearby you’ll see the remains of Bartram’s unusual cider press, with circular grooves cut directly into the rock, where apples were crushed by a revolving wooden wheel. In front of Bartram’s house, which is open for tours, you’ll see the common flower garden, a collection grown for exchange with other botanists, as well as the upper kitchen garden, with parsley, leeks, cucumbers and potatoes planted in neat rows.
It’s hard to ignore the city sounds altogether, and the urban skyline does pop up in the background from time to time, but walk deeper into the garden and those sights and sounds fade, drowned out by the summer song of cicadas.
Bartram’s Garden is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, except Mondays and City-observed holidays. Guided house tours are available from noon to 4 p.m., March through the second week of December. Admission for house tours is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and students. For more information, go to www.bartramsgarden.org.
Originally published on September 8, 2005