He was friends with Benjamin Franklin and served as King George III’s royal botanist. He stopped at almost nothing to gather the unique and unusual from up and down the East Coast and into Canada. The trees, shrubs and flowers he found make up what is now a 45-acre National Historic Landmark that offers shady, tree-lined paths and stunning views of the Philadelphia skyline.
Of course, naturalist and author John Bartram probably saw a very different view when he purchased 102 acres from Swedish settlers in 1728 and began establishing a place for what caretakers of the property today call “the most varied collection of North American plants in theu world.”
Today, the grounds of Bartram’s Garden (5400 Lindbergh Blvd, Philadelphia) are open year-round from dawn till dusk. Admission and parking is free, and visitors can take guided tours Tuesdays through Sundays from the first week of May until the first week of December. For a full Philadelphia experience, take the No. 36 trolley to 54th Street. From there, it’s a short walk to the garden. You can also walk or bike to the garden on the Schuylkill River Trail.
However you arrive, the garden offers a variety of delights. On a recent visit, a group of friends and I spent most of our visit exploring the paths in the garden behind the site’s stone house. Many of the trees along the path date back centuries, and their leafy shade took the bite out of the hot summer sun. Among the offerings: Franklinia alatamaha, discovered by John and William Bartram in 1765 in southern Georgia and named for Benjamin Franklin; Ginkgo biloba, with their lovely fan-shaped leaves and graceful branches; and Bartram’s oak, an uncommon hybrid of red and willow oak. Trees along the paths are labeled unobtrusively, and even though it was a Saturday afternoon, we ran into few other visitors, making it a peaceful walk.
Bartram’s Nursery offers a variety of plants discovered by Bartram and his descendants or sent to him by other botanists around the world. In fact, Bartram pioneered a way to ship plants, seeds and horticultural curiosities across the ocean. According to the garden’s website, “For five guineas, clients received a container of generally 100 or more varieties of seeds, as well as occasional dried plant specimens and natural history curiosities. Despite the dangers of a sea voyage to tender seeds, including seawater, rats, and theft, many happily made it to their destinations.” Many of the plants found at the garden today are available for purchase in the park’s Welcome Center or at seasonal plant sales held on the grounds. The grounds also offer small organized gardens, full of coneflowers and other colorful perennials. Our favorite was a large bed of succulents with hundreds of yellow blooms. It was a stunning display.
While summer offers a beautiful view of the gardens, other seasons offer unique activities. In the fall, the tree-lined paths are highlighted by the wooded area ablaze in yellow, red and brown. The hilly property is wonderful for winter sledding. Gardening and DIY classes are offered all year. And every Saturday from mid-July through the end of October, you can enjoy free kayak and rowboat rides at the garden’s community boat house. You can book part of Bartram’s Garden for weddings and parties, too. People have also used the garden as a backdrop for stunning engagement and wedding photos.
However you choose to spend your time there, Bartram’s Garden offers a brief escape from the big city. And while it’s been around for centuries, it’s one of Philadelphia’s best-kept secrets.
Be sure to check out the other wonderful green spaces spotlighted in TheBlot Magazine’s “Park It” series.
Erin L. Nissley is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.