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Botanical Garden Was a Favorite of Forefathers

July 12, 1987|C. GARCIA-BARRIO | Garcia-Barrio is a Philadelphia free-lance writer.

PHILADELPHIA — On July 14, 1787, the Constitutional Convention recessed for a visit to John Bartram's garden.

Drawn by the garden's reputation as a botanical marvel, the delegates, who'd been busy framing the Constitution, rode just after dawn to Bartram's homestead along the Schuylkill River. His garden is in southwest Philadelphia at 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard.

"We crossed the Schuylkill at what is called the lower ferry, over the floating bridge to Gray's Tavern and in about two miles, came to Mr. Bartram's seat," wrote the Rev. Manasseh Cutler in this account of the visit.

A Connecticut clergyman, botanist and lawyer, Cutler had friends and acquaintances among the delegates.

"We found him (John Bartram Jr.) in his garden in a short jacket and trousers, and without shoes or stockings," Cutler wrote. "He at first stared at us and seemed somewhat embarrassed at seeing so large and gay a company so early in the morning."

Bartram's unexpected guests included delegates Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Alexander Martin, George Mason, John Rutledge, Caleb Strong and Hugh Williamson.

The father of the barefoot host, John Bartram (1699-1777), had bought the 102-acre farm at a sheriff's sale in 1728.

The elder Bartram earned a good living from farming but his real love was botany. Encouraged by his friends Benjamin Franklin and James Logan--William Penn's Indian agent--Bartram developed a famous six-acre botanical garden.

It became a mecca in the 18th Century for the Colonies' intellectuals and visitors from abroad. John Bartram Jr. and his brother, William, ran the farm and garden after their father's death.

Oldest Botanical Garden

Bartram's Garden is America's oldest surviving botanical garden. The site's 44 acres have four nature trails, part of the National Recreation Trail System. The trails lead along some of the paths the delegates walked.

Visitors can picnic, as Benedict Arnold did with his bride, go bird watching or learn about trees and herbs in the 10-acre garden. They can see many of the same kinds of plants John Bartram Jr. grew two centuries ago.

The spice bush could have stirred the delegates' memories of their Continental Army days. Dried and powdered, the berries served as a substitute for allspice during the Revolutionary War. The "Discover Edible Plants Tour" leads along some of the same paths the delegates followed, including a place where the spice bush grows.

The Bartrams' piece de resistance --the Franklinia or Franklin tree--has exquisite, camellia-like blossoms. They caught the eye of the elder Bartram and son William as they trekked through the wilds of Georgia. They took home cuttings, planted them and named the tree after their friend Benjamin Franklin.

The Bartrams saved the tree from extinction. Not seen in Georgia after 1803, the Franklinia still grows at the Bartram garden.

Swedish Farmhouse

If the garden sparked the delegates' interest, the Bartrams' house probably did, too. Starting with a small Swedish farmhouse built in 1689, the elder Bartram made several additions. One of them was a stone facade with columns and carved window frames.

"Bartram did it about 1770, largely with his own hands," says D. Roger Mower, administrator of the John Bartram Assn. Bartram gave the old homestead a neoclassical update, adding the facade. Neoclassicism, which swept America in the mid-18th Century, emphasized restraint, order and symmetry.

The house has period pieces, although few of the original furnishings remain. One beautiful exception is a blue-and-white china cup and saucer, once part of a set of 12 that Benjamin Franklin's wife gave to Ann Bartram, the elder Bartram's wife. It commands a prominent place in the stove and lodging room, now an exhibit area.

An ox bladder lies on a sturdy oak table in the entrance hall. "Bartram brought home rooted specimens from great distances, using ox and cow bladders," Mower explains. The bladders provided a watertight--if strong-smelling--way to carry plants.

Ample Kitchen

Herbs drying over the hearth scent the ample kitchen. A mortar, pestle and iron herb grinder conjure up visions of Ann Bartram preparing to season food for her husband and nine children. A wooden churn and butter rollers bring to mind other chores. On a shelf among 200-year-old earthenware sits a concoction of violet syrup labeled "laxative for children." It is a reminder of the Bartram's home apothecary tradition.

The study, like the rest of the house, has been furnished to look as it probably did in the mid-18th Century. Arrowheads, dried specimens, seeds, quills and books on botany lie on the desk.

The botanical garden is open daily and admission is free. The restored 18th-Century farmhouse is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday from May to October. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children. A tour followed by afternoon tea can be arranged for groups Tuesday through Friday. Gourmet box lunches are available for groups of 10 to 50 with reservations.

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