THE BARTRAMS: A NOT-SO-BORING BOTANISTS SERIES

February 26, 2012:When you think of a botanist do think of Indiana Jones? Probably not. More likely you have an image of a frail bespectacled man or woman skipping through meadows with a notebook under one arm and a plant press under the other. Horse poppies, I say! Many of the botanists of yore were rough and tumble, true grit plant hunters that walked into the unexplored wilds of the world seeking to find new plants for science or profit or both. With a rifle in one hand and pruning shears in the other , they plumbed the depths of the trackless wilderness to bring us many of the beautiful garden plants that we know and love today. These weren’t shrinking violets, they were gardeners with guts, they were not so boring botanists.

If you’re proud to be an American, then we can thank your red, white and blueblood to America’s first botanists, the Bartrams, father John and son William. They’re botanical efforts led to the American Revolution and our freedom . . . well, kinda, sorta, if you look at it in a certain way. I’ll explain later.

John Bartram, born 1699, was a Quaker and a farmer. He had no formal education, but a passion for the study of plants, particularly medicinal plants. His farm, located near Philadelphia, was the staging center for John’s plant hunting trips into the American wilderness and became a nursery facility for introducing the plants he found into circulation.

Two circumstances created the means of independence by which John Bartram could free himself from his farm and make extended trips into the American interior. One was a gardening revolution going on in England. The very formal manicured gardens of the nobility were on their way out and the new trend was more open pastoral landscapes and informal plantings. The rich and famous now wanted exotic plants for their estates and those plants would come from North America. John Bartram made a connection with a wealthy merchant in England and agreed to ship seeds and plant specimens he found to him and soon his market grew into scores of rich patrons. The international nurseryman now had the time and resources to travel and he journeyed to Lake Ontario, Ohio and Florida, all rather loosely mapped wilderness at the time.

When his son, William grew of age he joined his father on his expeditions. Father John was made Ye Royal Botanist for the King in North America in 1765 and father and son celebrated by taking a trip to Florida, which at that time had no Howard Johnsons’ nor Interstate 95. As they were roaming Florida and South Georgia they came across a group of trees on an island in the Altamaha River that they had never seen before. These small (up to 20’) trees bear attractive white flowers with brilliant orange stamens in the center. With no record of this species, they named it the Franklinia tree (Franklinia altamaha), after Benjamin Franklin, a friend of John Bartram. No other trees than that small grove of Franklinia were ever found anywhere else. The last reported sighting of a wild Franklinia was in 1804 in the Altamaha river valley. Nothing else since. They are now extinct in the wild.

All the Franklinia that are in landscapes and nurseries today are descendents of the seeds from a few trees that the Bartrams collected. Here’s the odd thing. Franklinia will not grow in the Altamaha valley or in other semi-tropical climates similar. It needs colder climes. The Pacific Northwest is a good spot. Franklinia is not an easy tree to grow. I’ve propagated seeds pretty easily but planted trees don’t grow exuberantly, or at least that’s what I’ve seen from the one I have planted. It’s believed that the last wild population of Franklinia were survivors from the last Ice Age. As the ice cap retreated and the climate grew warmer it’s been hypothesized that what was once an abundant plant dwindled down to a handful of individuals waiting for the Bartrams to find them. Pretty amazing, but not as amazing as how the Bartrams started the Revolutionary War.

Remember I told you that the lastest rage in England was planting North American plants on the gentry’s estates? No less a gentry than Frederick, Prince of Wales, the heir apparent to the throne of King George II, was knee deep in planting his estate with American trees. The story goes that in 1760 the prince was planting a batch of American trees supplied by the Bartrams when a sudden rainstorm developed. The prince refused to leave the field until the planting was done and subsequently caught pneumonia and died. Another version has him dying of a lung abcess after being hit in the chest with a cricket ball during a match, but we conspiracy theorists believe that, if true, it was one of the Bartrams playing that day. Neither the English government nor the American government, to this day, will acknowledge the Bartrams’ role as hitmen.

How does this start a war you wonder? Well Frederick was a very liberal fellow. He was an accomplished musician, a patron of the arts, and opposed the Gin Laws, England’s early attempts at Prohibition. A live and let live kind of guy. When he died, the new successor to the throne , George II’s grandson, George III, was not such a mellow chap. King George 3 was the guy that riled up the colonials by his heavy handedness and incited them to rebellion. Historians and landscape contractors suffering from Sunday boredom hypothesize that, if Frederick had lived and gained the throne, his gentler touch may have kept the colonies intact and we would still be British subjects today.

John Bartram, at 70, decided he’d tuckered out from all his travelling and camping and retired to the family nursery. At his farm he entertained Ben Franklin and George Washington and other notables. He proposed to Franklin the idea of sending a plant hunting expedition into the American West. Franklin, it is said, passed the idea along to Thomas Jefferson and thirty years later – Lewis and Clark. John Bartram died in 1777.

William Bartram, being younger and less tired, continued his plant explorations with a 4 year long trek through the Southeast (North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama). He was a Rouseau-like “natural man” character. Disappearing for months on end going alone into the wilderness and then suddenly showing up on the coast to send specimens back to Philadelphia. He had no fear of Indians or the wild creatures of swamp and forest, except for alligators. It is said that after he came back from the Southeastern wilderness he was plagued by nightmares of alligators for the rest of his life.

William Bartram extensively traveled through the southern Appalachians including the Smoky Mountains. There’s a hiking trail that follows some of his route from North Georgia to Wayah Bald in North Carolina, the Bartram Trail. Much of the area that the trail runs through I had worked as a forestry contractor in the early 80’s. Mountainsides steeper than a horse’s face, valley’s so narrow the dogs have to wag their tails up and down, slicks of laurel and rhododendron thicker than the hair on a hound’s back, it’s no Sunday amble to traverse this area by trail today. I can’t imagine bushwhacking your way across it 200 years ago. Billy Bartram, as they say in the mountains, must have been “hard as hackwood”.

After William returned to the family farm from the Southeast, he never went adventuring again. He spent his remaining years in the family nursery business and doing botanical illustrations. William was an accomplished artist and the foremost nature illustrator of the time before Audubon. William died in 1823. The nursery was run by successive generations of Bartrams until 1850 when it was sold off. The city of Philadelphia now owns it and has restored it into a historical park, Bartram’s Gardens.

There you have it. Another of the lives of the Not-So-Boring Botanists. Stay tuned next time for . . . George Forrest and the Attack of the Bloodthirsty Tibetan Lamas!.

F & P