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A century ago, Bartram’s Garden was already historic.
In 1895, the garden’s fate was in jeopardy, threatened by the industrialization spreading down the banks of the Schuylkill River. Slated for potential development was an oil refinery that would decimate the garden’s character and view.
“The air would be vitiated with evil odors and the trees would perish,” wrote a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter at the time.
Ultimately, the garden was spared. And almost 300 years after John Bartram settled on Lenni Lenape land and began studying the cultivation and care of indigenous plants — seeking learnings from Indignenous people as far away as Florida and Nova Scotia — the waterfront farm he transformed stands as the oldest surviving botanical garden in the country.
While there have been significant changes, the 45-acre haven, considered the birthplace of gardening in the U.S., maintains its mission to inspire interest in nature.
Now run by a nonprofit association in cooperation with the city, the garden has opened its leafy doors to the Black and Brown community that has grown around it. It provides a welcome green oasis, which executive director Maitreyi Roy has filled with fun and educational programming.
Over the past decade, Roy’s goal has been “to make sure that the garden is really a neighborhood space,” said Caroline Winschel, “and that it’s something that’s very firmly rooted in Southwest Philadelphia.”
From Quaker farmer to international botanist
A young John Bartram, born 1699, acquired the plot of land on which the garden sits in 1728. Then, it was part of Kingsessing Township in Philadelphia County, and was covered by farmland.
A third-generation Quaker from a farming family in Darby, Bartram was always fascinated by plants, according to Winschel. After he bought the farm, he began to fill it with as many types of flora as possible. He’d study books, then set off on collection expeditions for months at a time, leaving his wife Ann to care for their children, and the land.
“I always think about her,” said Winschel, “what that must’ve been like. Waiting, hoping he was going to come home. He always did.”
He came home bearing life, bringing plants and seeds native to faraway lands.
Much of the time, he did a good job at keeping them alive in the city’s Northeastern climate. His systematic approach to collecting and planting huge varieties of specimens became well known among plant scientists in America — and in Europe.
Transatlantic flower delivery
As his renown spread, Bartram kickstarted an enterprise. On the encouragement of some wealthy plant lovers in England, he launched what is basically the predecessor to today’s 1-800-FLOWERS.
He and workers would carefully package small plants, seeds and seedlings along with meticulous growing instructions, fortify them to survive transatlantic voyages, and ship them to rich people who wanted a little piece of America in their country.
His garden became known as the center of trans-Atlantic botany trade, helping introduce dozens of new species to British horticulture.
While alive, he scored other impressive accomplishments. In 1743, he co-founded the American Philosophical Society with friend Benjamin Franklin.
Bartram and his son William “discovered” and named a Georgia species of tree, now called Franklinia alatamaha after Franklin. Planted locally in 1777, the Bartram’s are credited with rescuing the tree from extinction.
At least one enslaved Black person
Living in the 1700s, Bartram was not without entanglement in the business of enslavement.
Historical accounts are few, but he’s believed to have enslaved one man, later called “Harvey.” As a Quaker, he eventually condemned the practice of enslavement — even before many others in his faith — and granted Harvey freedom.
There are no modern records of “Harvey,” or any other enslaved persons who might’ve been on the property, but historian Sharece Blakney published a detailed history of African American people and Bartram’s,available for free at the garden’s website.
Though Bartram became staunchly anti-slavery, his daughter Ann still owned people as late as 1792, 15 years after her father’s death.
Ann took over the garden when her father died. Her brothers John Jr. and William joined her, and William became an outstanding botanist in his own right, and the international seed trade continued.
In 1810, the garden passed through the family once more, to granddaughter Ann Bartram Carr. Under her watch, the collection grew to hold nearly 2,500 varieties of plantlife.
In the mid-19th century, however, financial troubles led Carr to sell the property to railroad entrepreneur Andrew Eastwick.
A groundskeeper runs for City Council
Eastwick, an engineer credited with invention of the steam shovel before he got rich building trains for Russian czars, kept the garden as his own private park, and left the Bartram family’s botany intact.
Things ran smoothly until Eastwick died. In the late 1800s, Eastwick’s heirs tried to sell the garden to be industrialized.
It was saved by a passionate groundskeeper named Thomas Meehan, a British native who’d moved to Philadelphia expressly to work at the famed arboretum.
“He ran for City Council on a platform of ‘Save Bartram’s Garden,’” explained Winschel, the director of development. Meehan got elected, and in 1891, the garden was placed into City of Philadelphia’s care, where it’s been ever since.
Though it was officially a public park, and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1963, “it didn’t feel very open to the neighborhood,” Winschel said.
Showcasing the culture of Southwest Philadelphia
Today, under executive director Roy’s leadership, Bartram’s has turned its focus toward civic and community engagement.
Since 2012, the garden has offered two paid summer internship programs for young neighbors. The year prior, Bartram’s founded its Sankofa Community Farm, a four-acre enterprise rooted in African ideals that distributes more than 15k pounds of food each year, according to the garden’s website.
Most of the garden’s attractions, including public boating, field trips, and family movie nights are free and open to the public. The few ticketed events held before the pandemic stopped them, are offered to nearby neighbors and ACCESS card holders for a discounted $2 fee.
Even more access is coming. An extension of the Schuylkill River Trail, which already incorporates the garden on the water’s west bank, will connect it to South Philadelphia and Center City.
It’s an exciting prospect for Bartram’s, and will probably bolster it’s already impressive 100k annual visitors. The pedestrian walkways inspire Bartram’s staff to further root the park in Southwest Philly, Winschel said.
“You want to make sure that people arriving on that bridge…arrive and they know, ‘Okay, I’m not in Fairmount Park,’” said Winschel. “I’m somewhere that’s different. I’m somewhere that has its own history, and has its own story, that has its own culture.”