11 Philly Botanists (And One Bad Plant) You Might Not Know

This city has always been a horticultural hotbed. Here, while we wait for spring, are the men and women who helped it grow.

This image taken on July 16, 2012 shows Bartram's Garden with a Franklinia tree in the foreground in Philadelphia | Photo by Lee Reich/AP

This image shows Bartram’s Garden with a Franklinia tree in the foreground. John Bartram named the tree for his friend Benjamin Franklin. | Photo by Lee Reich/AP

Did you know that half the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention here in Philly were farmers? Washington had Mount Vernon, and Jefferson had Monticello; James Madison considered farmers the greatest guardians of public liberty. Our founding fathers were keenly interested in breeding and raising the novel trees, shrubs and flowers around them, and on the banks of the Schuylkill, John Bartram and his family established the nation’s first commercial nursery. (Before the Revolution, Bartram served as King’s Botanist for North America for George III.)

Here, for you to contemplate while you page through seed catalogs and dream of spring, is a brief overview of local botanists who left their mark on our world.

  1. James Logan (1674-1751), secretary to William Penn and a founder of the precursor to the University of Pennsylvania, tutored John Bartram (and later Ben Franklin) in the classics and introduced Bartram to the work of famed Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus. Logan also wrote a detailed treatise on his experiments with germinating plant seeds. He eventually became mayor of Philadelphia, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and acting governor. Stenton, his estate in Germantown, is a National Historic Landmark; its grounds contain a renowned Colonial Revival garden. The Garden Club of America was founded at Stenton in 1913.
  2. John Bartram (1699-1777) was one of those Renaissance men from our nation’s infancy. Carl Linnaeus considered him “the greatest natural botanist in the world.” Besides establishing his nursery, where you can still buy plants today, and inventing the “Bartram Box” in which he shipped specimens to Europe, Bartram traveled extensively throughout the 13 colonies, collecting seeds and plants. In perhaps his most famous “discovery,” in 1865 he and his son William saw a small flowering tree near the Altamaha River in Georgia and named it for John’s close friend Benjamin Franklin. Franklinia alatamaha soon disappeared from the wild; all living specimens of the popular ornamental tree today are descendants of those the Bartrams grew from seed they collected.
  3. Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), painter and father of three artist sons named for famous artists (Raphaelle, Rembrandt and Titian), organized the first scientific exhibition in America, in 1801. He later founded the Philadelphia Museum, an extensive collection of plants, animals (especially birds) and archaeological finds. It was one of the first museums in the world to adopt the Linnaean system of taxonomic classification, and presented its holdings scientifically rather than, as had been the fashion, as mysterious relics from a wild and unknowable world.
  4. After an extended visit to the Continent in the wake of the Revolutionary War, William Hamilton (1745-1813), member of a wealthy local family of lawyers and politicians, established The Woodlands, his home on the west side of the Schuylkill, as the foremost American example of the modern classical style in architecture and landscape design. (Thomas Jefferson, who consulted Hamilton on gardening, called the mansion “the only rival which I have known in America to what may be seen in England.”) Hamilton grew nearly 10,000 plants in his greenhouse, including breadfruit, cinnamon, coffee, tea, mangos and sugarcane. The estate was renowned for the beauty of its vistas, and Hamilton for his hospitality; on July 4, 1787, when the nation celebrated the ratification of the Constitution, a three-mile parade through the city culminated at The Woodlands, and 17,000 citizens picnicked on the grounds. The estate was made over into a cemetery in the 1840s. Local writer Elizabeth Gilbert used The Woodlands as the setting for her 2013 novel The Signature of All Things.
  5. Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1814), a botany professor at Penn, taught Meriwether Lewis to collect, dry and catalog botanical specimens, and Lewis carried a copy of Barton’s 1803 book Elements of Botany, the nation’s first textbook on the subject, with him as, with William Clark, he set out in 1804 at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson to explore the Pacific Northwest.
  6. An Irish immigrant who settled in Philadelphia, Bernard McMahon (1775-1816) was Thomas Jefferson’s gardening mentor. Besides publishing the first American seed catalog, in 1802, McMahon wrote the immensely popular The American Gardener’s Calendar (1806), which championed the use of native species over “foreign trifles,” offered step-by-step instructions for growing thousands of plants, and contained the first American essay on landscape design. Jefferson entrusted many of the seeds and cuttings collected by Lewis and Clark to McMahon to raise. The plantsman named his 20-acre nursery on the Germantown Road “Upsal Botanic Garden” to honor Linnaeus’s connection to Sweden’s Uppsala University.
  7. John Bartram’s granddaughter, Ann Bartram Carr (1779-1858), who had continued his nursery business, introduced the poinsettia into commerce in 1829 at the first-ever Philadelphia Flower Show of the young Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Carr, the third and last generation of the family to own the nursery, reversed her grandfather’s business model by bringing plants from faraway places to Philadelphia. In 2013, the current keepers of Bartram’s Garden began a project to replant her one-acre garden of exotic Asian plants, including peonies, camellias and chrysanthemums.
  8. Charles Darwin was so impressed with the careful research and descriptions of self-taught naturalist Mary Treat (1830-1923), the estranged wife of a physician in Vineland, New Jersey, that he referenced her work throughout his book Insectivorous Plants. Four species of plants and animals are named after Treat.
  9. Kudzu, the invasive Asian perennial known below the Mason-Dixon line as “the vine that ate the South,” was first planted in the United States in the Japanese Garden in Fairmount Park for the 1876 Centennial. (The garden dates back to the Centennial; Shofuso, the villa, was added in 1958.) Marketed throughout the South as a fine plant to provide porch shade, kudzu took off and has since spread nearly unchecked. Today it swallows some 2,500 acres of land every year.
  10. In 1888, British-born nurseryman Thomas Meehan rediscovered the pink dogwood, Cornus florida var. rubra, along the banks of the Schuylkill River after it was believed to have become extinct. Meehan worked at Bartram’s Garden when he first arrived in America in 1848 and would later save that national treasure by organizing a campaign to preserve the land on which it stood from development. His son, J. Franklin Meehan, had a successful career as a designer of local golf courses, including Ashborne, North Hills and Sandy Run.
  11. Enterprising entrepreneur Washington Atlee Burpee (1858-1915) was an accomplished poultry breeder by the tender age of 14. In 1888, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Burpee bought Fordhook Farm in Doylestown and turned it into a testing ground for new varieties of flowers and vegetables. When Burpee died, his Burpee Seeds was the largest seed company in the world. According to his New York Post obituary, he was “known internationally as an authority on the culture of sweet peas,” one of our favorite flowers.
  12. After a local Quaker, John Stogdell Stokes Jr., experienced what he described as a “lightning-bolt Catholic conversion” in his garden in 1946, he established, with Edward A.G. MacTague, the Mary’s Gardens project, dedicated to planting and preserving gardens made up of flowers “named in medieval times as symbols of the life, mysteries and privileges of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus.” (Examples: Our Lady’s Nightcap, a.k.a. Canterbury bells, and Our Lady’s Veil, a.k.a. baby’s breath.) When Stokes died in 2007, he left his website and extensive research to the Marian Library at the University of Dayton.

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