European explorers and voyagers reported the wonders of the natural resources of the new America. This vast, unexplored region was to be used to increase the knowledge of naturalists, resources for physicians and agriculturists, and products for the merchants. The colonists interested in natural history were explorers and collectors of items for those European buyers. The 1700s saw a brisk traffic in seeds and plants from America to England. Quite a number of the wealthy nobility in England had conservatories where they conducted experiments in growing plants from other countries. At that time, agriculturists were looking to raise crops that would more readily feed more people or animals.
John Bartram (1699-1777), a Quaker farmer, was commissioned by Peter Collinson, a Quaker merchant in England, to package and send collections of plants, insects and other examples of nature. Collinson, in turn, would send packets of seeds and bulbs to Bartram. A book containing the writings of ďJohn and William Bartramís AmericaĒ was edited by Helen Gere Cruickshank, and holds numerous selections of travels and correspondence by both men. Many of the preserved specimens that Bartram sent are still in the British Museum of Natural History.
Self taught, Bartram traveled over mountains and through rivers drawing and writing in journals or letters to friends about the flora and fauna of the regions he explored. Traveling was not easy as there were no well-trod paths and there was the danger of traversing through Indian territory. From his 102-acre farm near Philadelphia, Bartram traveled south through Florida, north to Lake Ontario, and west to the Ohio River. Bartram and his son are credited with identifying and introducing into cultivation more than 200 of our native plants.
You rarely read about John Bartram without also reading about his son, William, with whom he traveled and made many discoveries. They discovered a grove of trees growing along the Altamaha River in Georgia in 1765. William gathered seeds to propagate at their garden. They named the tree Franklinia alatamaha in honor of John Bartramís great friend, Benjamin Franklin. This tree (also known as the Lost Camellia) has been extinct in its natural habitat since 1803 but many specimens can be found throughout the states. The Bartrams are credited with saving it from extinction.
In 1728 John Bartram was named chief botanist for the colonies. By 1765, Bartramís international reputation earned him the notice of King George III who honored him as Royal Botanist, a position he held until his death in 1777. Bartram corresponded with many botanists including Linnaeus who wrote of him with high praise. In 1769, he became a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. He was also a recipient of a gold medal from the Society of Gentlemen in Edinburgh in 1772 for obtaining seeds of useful trees and shrubs.
The garden Bartram set up on the west bank of the Schuykill River in what is now Philadelphia is world renowned. This was the first American botanical garden and the longest and most significant in the middle colonies. Historic Bartram Gardens includes a botanical garden, meadow, parkland and wetlands as well as his house.