Historic Bartram’s Garden

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to carolyn@carolynsshadegardens.com.  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

John Bartram House, Philadephia, Pennsylvania, US


“Whatsoever whether great or small ugly or handsom sweet or stinking…every thing in the universe in their own nature appears beautifull to mee.”

John Bartram 1740


For Mother’s Day this May, I was surprised with a picnic and visit to Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US, the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America.  Prominent Philadelphia Quakers, John Bartram (1699-1777) and his son William (1739-1823) were the most important American plant explorers of the 18th century, traveling south to Florida, west to the Mississippi, and north to Lake Ontario.  They introduced more than 200 native plants into cultivation.  By mid-century, their 102 acre garden (now 45 acres) contained the most extensive collection of North American plants in the world.

Native Bartram oak, Quercus x heterphylla, a rare hybrid between red oak, Quercus rubra, and willow oak, Quercus phellos, discovered by John Bartram.

…the Botanick fire set me in such A flame as is not to be quenched until death or I explore most of the…vegitative treasures in No. America.”

John Bartram 1761


The intrepid Bartrams shared their discoveries with scientists throughout America and Europe, especially England.  John Bartram’s discoveries were considered so important that he was appointed Royal Botanist by King George III.  Bartram founded the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia with his friend and colleague Benjamin Franklin.  In addition, he started a thriving seed and plant business with his lists appearing in London publications as early as the 1750s.  In 1783, Bartram published the first American nursery catalogue.  [Historical information and quotes courtesy of Bartram’s Garden.]

John Bartram purchased his farm in 1728 and completed this portion of the stone house in 1731.

The house and gardens are a National Historic Landmark and have been well preserved despite their location in a very developed part of Philadelphia. Fortunately, they were acquired by the city in 1891 and became part of the public park system.  The property is on the banks of the Schuylkill River and is a joy to visit both to see the historic buildings and to wander through the peaceful gardens.  I would visit Bartram’s Garden just to see the specimen trees.   I am going to take you on a short photographic tour below, but I highly recommend an actual visit.

This formal façade, which faces the gardens, was added between 1758 and 1770.



Close up of the façade



Carved stone window in the facade



This pristine example of a two-level Pennsylvania bank barn was built in 1775.



Stone watering trough



John Bartram’s first experimental garden



Looking from the house towards the kitchen and stables



Walking along the wooden boardwalk by the river



The foundation of this simple mill based on an ancient European design was carved from the bedrock next to the river.



Apples were crushed in the circular trench by a wooden wheel.



There are some very beautiful wetlands on the shores of the river.


If you love trees, and especially specimen trees as I do, you don’t want to miss seeing the huge mostly native trees at Bartram’s Garden.  I include photos of some of them below, but they are so large that it is hard to get a good photograph.  You have to see them in person to truly appreciate their magnificence.


The oldest ginkgo tree, G. biloba, in North America planted by William Bartram in 1785.



Luckily there was a field below this amazing American yellowwood, Cladrastis kentukea, so I could get a photo of the whole tree.



The house next to the yellowwood gives it some scale.  We were fortunate to catch it in full bloom.



Yellowwood flowers



Under the yellowwood tree



American beech, Fagus grandifolia



Native willow oak, Quercus phellos




Native common hackberry, Celtis occidentalis

Bartram’s Garden is a public park and is open all year for self-guided tours except city-observed holidays.  I hope you have the chance to visit.



Nursery Happenings:  The nursery is closed until the fall.  Thanks for a great spring season!

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53 Responses to “Historic Bartram’s Garden”

  1. Oh gosh that yellowood is truly beautiful! I am a tree and shrub person for sure. Will have to make it here. I’d love to see that gingko. Female or male? The fruit is interested to me but the leaves are so pretty!

  2. Very cool and timely post. A barn of native stone built in 1775. Things were starting to get going in Lexington and Concord. Our county was coming into it’s own. The Cladrastis is lovely indeed. One of my favorite finds of his is Franklnia. I’m a fan of exfoliating bark. it’s our own Stewartia. Nice post.

    • Scott, The Franklinia there was not very impressive, but I should have mentioned that Bartram discovered it in the wild and then it went extinct. He named it after Benjamin Franklin. I have tried to grow a Franklinia several times with no success so I am probably prejudiced against it. Carolyn

  3. I will make sure to visit. You know I like trees!

  4. Thanks for the tour–it looks like an amazing place. And the history–wow, we really need to appreciate those who went before us. I learned a lot from this post–thank you!

  5. Stacey Polan Says:

    Thank you for this blog. Your pictures and prose are an inspiration and comfort. With your helpful words and garden, my very small and shady plot has provided enjoyment. However, I must depart my PA home for work in Florida. Your blog will maintain my connection to this very special environment. Thank you and best wishes.

  6. Adding this to a must visit list, also descending from some early Philadelphia Quakers.

  7. I don’t suppose I’ll ever be able to visit in person so I’ve really enjoyed this tour Carolyn. The stone work reminds me so much of English cottages.

    • Karen, You should come to the Philadelphia area to visit gardens. It is definitely a gardening mecca with Longwood, Winterthur, Chanticleer, Bartram’s, the Morris and Scott Arboretum, etc. Many of PA’s Quaker settlers came from England so it should look familiar. Carolyn

  8. Melanie Drury Says:

    Thanks for sharing such fascinating information. I live an La. And have planned a summer trip to Longwood Gardens. I will have to stop by Bartram’s Garden. I have learned so much from your e mail/ newsletter.

  9. paulinemulligan Says:

    What a lovely surprise for Mother’s Day, wonderful to go and see so many beautiful trees, the Yellowwood is especially beautiful, don’t think we have that one over here. I thought all the stonework just as beautiful as the trees, someone took pride in their work many years ago. Thanks for sharing your visit with us.

  10. History such as this would make a visit to John Bartrams garden all the more appealing. Wonderful images and story telling you give us today Carolyn, and i just love that American yellowwood, Cladrastis kentukea.

  11. Carolyn this is a must for me when I finally get the chance to visit…I must see this amazing historic place…thx for sharing these magnificent trees.

  12. Perhaps some day I’ll be lucky enough to tour around America. I have so many places I’d love to see, and this looks like a very interesting place that would be on my to-go-to list. Love the circular trench where apples were crushed. I love hearing about little historical facts that like.

  13. Great tour, thanks for taking us along. I love Yellowwood trees, their flowers are super.

  14. Carolyn,
    Enjoyed the tour! Read Bartram’s book many years ago, it was fascinating

  15. I read that first quote and immediately thought, ‘He must not have been thinking about the mosquito when he said that!’

    But what a fascinating history! It sounds like a fabulous place to visit, and such grand, immense trees. Photos can never do such trees justice!

    • Indie, I agree about the mosquito, but John Bartram was the kind of person so driven by exploration that I would bet that the hardships along the way didn’t bother him. I can’t imagine what it would have been like traveling through the whole eastern half of the US in the first half of the 1700s. Carolyn

  16. Paula Burns Says:

    Hi Carolyn! Enjoyed the photos of the beautiful trees. I love the pure butter yellow of the gingko in the Fall. I did a little volunteering at the garden some years back. Don’t forget to visit the house; it’s charming. Have a nice summer!

    • Paula, I really will have to go back and tour the house. My 14 year old son was with us and he was a good sport about the garden but the house would have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Ginkgo trees are lovely in the fall. Carolyn

  17. Wow, that yellowwood is amazing!!

  18. Carolyn, While I was somehow NOT getting to the gardens on my list to visit to this spring (including both Longwood Gardens and Bartram’s garden), you *were* visiting them. So at least I get to visit by proxy. Your enticing views of these gardens make me more determined to actually get there next spring.

  19. I had to re-read the date on that ginkgo several times to be sure I was seeing correctly. That is amazing! It looks in perfect health for such an old tree. So glad you captured shots of the yellowwood, I’ve read about this tree but have never seen one in person or seen a really good picture. You managed to capture both the size and frame of the tree, plus some great shots of the blooms.

    • Marguerite, There were two more ginkgo trees that came to the Philadelphia area with the Bartram tree. Unfortunately they were cut down. It is amazing to realize how old that tree is. I am always astonished when people feel free to cut down trees that are older than they are. Carolyn

  20. For more on Bartram and his plant exporting business, read ‘The Brother Gardeners’ by Andrea Wulf.

  21. I can appreciate the ‘Botanick fire’! John Bertram would be pleased to see the great trees that he planted and the home that he loved are kept so well. The yellowwood is amazing!

  22. Carolyn,

    I was part of a group of ladies who cared for the experemental garden in the back of the house. This group worked there for maybe fifteen years or more before it disbanded. I took many pieces of the perennials and biennials (and seeds) from there to plant at the historic Harriton House in Bryn Mawr. I’ll tell you more about it sometime, but I learned a lot about gardening there. I’ve spent a lot of time at Bartrams Gardens.

    Pam Coath

  23. Cynthia Kardon Says:

    Carolyn: I have visited this garden several times. It is amazing and provides an opportunity to see what life was like in the eighteenth cenutry. Imagine taking your boat across the river to center city! How close you are to the bustle of town, but living in paradise.
    So many people in Philadelphia don’t even know this gem exists as it is now nestled between the approach to the Airport and a large public housing project. Once at the house you are truly transported to another time and place and have no idea what is just beyond the gates of the farm. It is magical.

  24. It looks a very beautiful place. Interestingly the top of the carved window looks very like Etruscan tomb carvings, could maybe have been an influence. Christina

  25. This is now on the list of things to see next time I am in PA.

  26. Thank you Carolyn for this beautiful photo essay! I think you have inspired a whole new set of Bartram’s Garden visitors. And thank you all for the lovely comments. Please check out our website for visitor information and our upcoming events. Keep in touch on our Facebook and Twitter pages and by sharing your photos on Flickr. Hope to see you all soon!

  27. Georgia Kolbas Says:

    Awesome sight ! I had a question l was hoping you may be able to answer. I thought years ago l read that .bartram was given three ginko trees as a gift by witherspoon (statue at horticulture center) . Do you or anyone know if that is accurate. Thanks much appreciated georgia

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