Plants are our story
John Bartram, America’s first botanist, was endlessly curious about the natural world. He wanted to learn everything about the world around him and truly believed that all living things were beautiful in their own right. Bartram’s explorations of wild American landscapes were deeply influential to Europeans hungry for any and all information about the New World.
Bartram’s boxes: innovation for sharing botanical finds
John Bartram devised wooden crates to send his precious seeds and specimens to London merchant Peter Collinson, and eventually a wide variety of clients, in Britain. For five guineas, clients received a container of generally 100 or more varieties of seeds, as well as occasional dried plant specimens and natural history curiosities. Despite the dangers of a sea voyage to tender seeds, including seawater, rats, and theft, many happily made it to their destinations.
These boxes became essential to John Bartram’s livelihood and the start of a trans-Atlantic plant business that carried across three generations. The plant exchange had a significant impact on European gardens and landscapes, creating a new palette of colors and shapes. New plants included magnolias, mountain laurels, azaleas, and rhododendrons. Sugar maples, black gums, viburnums, and sumacs created brilliant fall color unseen in Britain until this point.
The Bartram business: budding entrepreneurship
Early seed and plants lists were hand-copied by John Bartram and shared with selected correspondents and printed in circulars in the 1750s. A one-page Catalogue, printed in 1785 by the third generation of the Bartram family, is one of the first botanic lists of North American plants.
A 1760 greenhouse, once warmed by a Franklin stove, housed tender species during John Bartram’s lifetime and still stands today. As plant exchange continued to grow and thrive, the garden was considerably enlarged as a commercial nursery under the third generation, and at its peak featured ten greenhouses and a collection of over 1400 native plant species, and as many as 1000 species of exotics, many under glass.
Since the Bartram Nursery re-opened, representing the first nursery at the Garden since the 1850s, it has focused on native plants and those collected by the Bartram family. Plants are available for purchase year-round in our Welcome Center, in addition to our Spring Plant Sale during the weekend in May and our Fall Plant Sale, in conjunction with the Honey Festival.