Friday, September 14, 2012

Bartram's Garden, redux

Back in 1980, I spent a chilly spring working on an archaeological excavation at the home of John Bartram (1699-1777), the father of American botany. After prior summers laboring on militarily precise excavations of medieval bishop's palaces, late Roman cemeteries, and Iron Age villages in England and the Netherlands, to suddenly be mucking around somewhere in southwest Philadelphia in search of a few greenhouse foundation trenches and sherds of glass and flowerpots seemed quite a step down. The Bartram's Garden excavation was woefully ill-equiped: no field notebooks, inadequate hand tools, and a total lack of heavy machinery. And how ridiculous we must have looked when, lined up like dancers doing the Hustle in silence, we stamped down the back-filled site at the excavation's close.

At that time, I knew nothing about John Bartram--and, in yet another failing of this silly project, which was part of a university class, there was minimal information provided about the property owner, why he was important, and how the excavation contextualized his personal history and that of the American landscape.

In the years following, I'd hear references to John Bartram: how he collected seeds and plants from the southern colonies, how the many species that he sent to Europe became part of our common plant vocabulary, or how his Latinized name was incorporated into various plants' Linnaean nomenclature. But not until this spring, armed with a greater interest in all things horticultural, did I return to Bartram's Garden.

The place had been totally rejuvenated since my dreary days there.  A new information center, knowledgable guides and gardeners, and a renovated garden added up to a terrific afternoon. 

Well-tended and clearly-marked stands of plants, like this false indigo (Baptista australis), sparked me to consider experimentation in my own garden. Upright blue-flowering plants always deserve attention.
In another area, carnivorous plants were enclosed in this most appropriate cage constructed from thorny branches. What a whimsically menancing display! Bartram is credited with naming and introducing cultivation of the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula).

The information center sold the best souvenirs: seedlings from the garden. In homage to Bartram's plant dissemenation ventures, a great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and a sprig of intensely celery-flavored lovage were transported back to my Massachusetts garden.

Above the door of his greenhouse--perhaps that very same greenhouse that we so unsuccessfully sought to find in our excavation--Bartram carved a quote from Alexander Pope: "Slave to no sect, who takes no private road, but looks through Nature up to Nature's God."

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