Monday, March 23, 2009

John Bartram

John Bartram was one of the first botanists to study North American plants in the Linnaean tradition and is considered the father of American botany. Carolus Linnaeus himself, who founded modern taxonomy and developed the system of binomial nomenclature, called Bartram “the greatest natural botanist in the world.” Bartram was never classically trained and only attended the local school in Darby, Pennsylvania. Bartram came from a Quaker farm family and started his botanical research with only a small plot of land where his family allowed him to grow whatever plants he found interesting. Bartram had always had an interest in medicine and medicinal plants and read on the subject thoroughly. What he called his "great inclination to plants" began when he was ten years old, and Bartram used his knowledge of medicinal herbs to treat the neighboring poor who could not afford a Philadelphia doctor. John Bartram was eventually able to create a business out of his hobby after corresponding with European botanists such as Linnaeus, Dillenius, Phillip Miller, Sir Hans Sloane, Peter Kalm, and Gronovius. He made these acquaintances through another Quaker interested in botany named Peter Collinson, who lived and worked in London. Collinson desired North American plants for his English garden, and Bartram was able to trade bulbs and seeds for money and natural history books. Bartram and Collinson began corresponding in 1732, and through time Collinson came to serve as Bartram’s agent by distributing Bartram’s packages amongst his European clientele, parcels that came to be known as “Bartram’s Boxes.” Most of all, Collinson and Bartram exchanged ideas and encouragement for their mutual passion. Their friendship lasted until Collinson’s death thirty-six years later.
With Collinson’s help, Bartram became King George III’s officially appointed botanist, which came with an annual salary of fifty pounds. With the additional income, Bartram was able to travel down the East Coast to Florida, collecting new American specimen in the Carolinas and Georgia as well. He had also explored and studied specimen up in Lake Ontario to the north and the Ohio River in the west. Most of these discoveries were shipped to collectors and scientists in Europe, which at the time remained the center of botanical study. These specimen were often named by European botanists rather than Bartram, and his name can only be found on some genera of mosses, Bartramia, and a few other plants such as the American service berry, Almenanchier bartramiana. Bartram’s other discoveries include the rhododendron and kalmia species and the Franklin tree.
Bartram married twice, first to Mary Maris and later to Ann Mendenhall after Maris’ death. He had eleven children total. His third son, William Bartram, was to become a famous botanist and ornithologist in his own right, who continued the family business.
Bartram was eventually to own an 8 acre botanical garden in the Kingsessing section of West Philadelphia, which is known as the first true botanic collection in all of North America. His former garden is now known as Bartram’s Garden, operated by the John Bartram Association and the city of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Commission. It is the oldest living botanical garden in America.

1 comment:

  1. The links above don't work because, for some reason, they all have spaces in the links. I can't figure out how to edit my blog posts, so here are the links next to the text they were supposed to be embedded into:

    John Bartram:

    Carolus Linnaeus:

    "great inclination to plants":



    King George III:

    the Franklin tree:

    8 acre botanical garden:

    Bartram's Garden:


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