The Bartram Gardens, located at 54th Street and Lindberg Boulevard, have been called Philadelphia’s best-kept secret. The gardens are three miles from downtown Philadelphia in an unkempt section of town, which is nothing like it was in the days when John Bartram and his son, William, were pioneers in American botany.
The eight-acre property adjoins the Schuylkill River and is a peaceful haven amidst a neighborhood of low-income and poverty-influenced residents. The University of Pennsylvania is not far away, and the Philadelphia skyline stands imposing in the distance.
The oldest surviving botanic gardens in North America, the Bartram Gardens have a link to Georgia that is fascinating. John, the father, and his son, William, spent time in Georgia and also in the Carolinas and in Florida. And across to Mississippi.
Before the revolution, John was paid 50 pounds a year as the king’s botanist (King George III) and wrote a book, “Diary of a Journey through the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.” Later, William embarked on a four-year exploration through eight Southern colonies, collecting plants and seeds and making drawings on native flora and fauna. He also did a study of the Native American Indians, traveling on horseback and living off the land.
William traveled through Athens in 1773 and noted in his journal what he observed, offering this description of what was to become present-day Clarke County: “At one particular place, where we encamped, on the great Ridge, during our repose there part of a day, our hunters going out, understanding that their route to the low land on the Oconee [River], I accompanied them. We had not rode above three miles before we came to the banks of that beautiful river. The cane swamps, of immense extent, and the oak forests, on the level lands, are incredibly fertile; which appears form the tall reeds of the one, and the heavy timber of the other.”
Both father and son explored the Altamaha River where they discovered a tree that grew along the river near Fort Barrington. William returned several times to the Altamaha, collecting plants and shrubs. He was taken by a flowering plant, which he named “Franklinia,” in honor of his father’s close friend, Benjamin Franklin. The Franklinia tree is now extinct in the wild, but you can find it at Bartram Gardens. “We never saw it grow in any other place, nor have I ever since seen it growing wild, in all my travels, from Pennsylvania to Point Coupe, on the banks of the Mississippi, which must be allowed a very singular and unaccountable circumstance; at this place there are two or 3 acres of ground where it grows plentifully,” William wrote in his journal.
As I stood and observed the Franklinia tree in the midst of a section of town that most people choose to avoid, especially after nightfall, I could only imagine what my native state was like in a day when the environment was pristine and unmolested.
The impact of what I was seeing fell heavy on the emotions as I read from a brochure that all Franklinia trees known in existence today came from the seeds collected by William Bartram and were propagated at Philadelphia’s Bartram Gardens.
The Bartram’s connection with Ben Franklin brings about good feelings for a man’s whose influence has long affected the state of Georgia. Ben was the colony’s agent during the time he spent in France, and we have propitiously chosen to perpetuate his memory in Athens. There is nearby Franklin County and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences on the University of Georgia campus.
If only a tree from the banks of one of the state’s most important rivers had been saved from extinction. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a Franklinia tree at botanical gardens across the state?
Loran Smith is an administrative specialist for the University of Georgia sports communication department. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.