John Bartram Lives!

“If you would not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worth reading,
Or do things worth the writing!”   
Benjamin Franklin

“All would live long, but none would be old.”  Benjamin Franklin

John Bartram in Bartram's Garden.

John Bartram presents a Franklinia to visitors at his Philadelphia garden


I have done worthwhile things, achieved some notoriety, seen many wonders, had experiences that challenged my being, and–most importantly–collected plants.  I will take Ben’s advice and write about them.  I will let the reader determine their value.

In my age I have been named Royal Botanist to the North American Colonies by King George.  For that honor, I am given a stipend of £50 per annum.  I am a fellow in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.  I correspond with many of the finest scientific minds and botanical collectors of the age:  Dr. Carl Linnaeus, Mr. Jan Gronovius, Dr. James Fothergill, Mr. Philip Miller,  Mr. Mark Catesby, Baron Robert James Petre, and most especially Mr. Peter Collinson.

Dr. Franklin has been a part and partner of all of it.  Ben has humorous words for most of the points on which a life turns.  He’s a master.  I count him my greatest friend, most opinionated mentor, and godfather to many of my children.  His is a shadowy presence that leans over my shoulder as I write.  I can hear him:

“Pick up the pace.  Don’t be erudite.  Get to the point!”  He says this because he knows where I’m heading.  He knows it’s going to become more about him.  And it tends to becomes ALL about him in most circles of his correspondence. 

Franklinia alatamaha:  It is a unique species that takes on characteristics of the Magnolia, Stewartia and Gordonia but wraps them up in ways that are distinctive to its own magical presentation. 

People ask me all the time about it.  It has become an example of what I find, cultivate, and introduce to the international trade of botanicals.  It was named to honor Ben.  Of course!  Billy and I discovered a small copse of Franklinia on a trip of exploration up the Alatamaha River in Georgia.  That country is wildly exotic and full of the riches that would excite any confirmed natural scientist.

John Bartram the King's Gardener, Kirk R. Brown, Lecturer Horticulturist Botanist

John Bartram in his natural element dressed for the trials of the road.

On this particular expedition, I was hopeful that my son, William (or Billy to the family) would catch the same passion for scientific investigation that has dogged my travels throughout adulthood.  I’m afraid that my expectations of him will never be realized even though he has been my much-considered and especially treated son.  Ann and I must wait to see how he will come out.  Anticipation–though good for the Christian soul–is very bad for the heart!

In all of the 300 years since I first saw the light of day, people have returned to my garden on the banks of the Schuylkill River to the south of the main intersection of Broad and Market Streets in the city of Philadelphia in the commonwealth granted to the Quaker, William Penn by King Charles II.  Old Billy Penn founded this colony on the notion that its citizens were entirely free to worship the God (or Gods) of their personal definition.  My father’s generation of Quakers believed fully in the independence of the will.  And that the soul is imbued with a spirit that shimmers with the spark of divinity granted by our Creator God.

Each one article of God’s creation carries the same spark.  God’s animals and minerals and vegetables contain some reflection of his fire.  Each must be preserved, conserved and protected if the whole is to succeed.  As creatures in the vastness of His wisdom and creativity, we mere human beings only deserve that which we can fully use.  We are charged to conserve the balance for the future benefit of our species.  All other demands that we place on God’s nature threaten His light in this world and ultimately the future of our species.  We must never be profligate.  We must never waste.  We must never use our earthly powers to select and destroy.

To these ends, I commit this space.  And in conclusion I will never lose sight of the fact that there is a “…wonderful order and balance that is maintained between the vegetable and animal economy…”  John Bartram, 1737

Hello world!

“The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead.”    Thomas Jefferson

JOhn Bartram Lives Kirk R. Brown

John Bartram on an adventure in Connecticut during a season when the Lilac trees were in bloom

It’s been 302 years since I was born.  In all of that time, people have returned to my garden on the banks of the Schuylkill River to the south of the main intersection of Broad and Market Streets in the city of Philadelphia.  They have seen what is left and have acknowledged what they know or are told about my plants or Billy’s paintings or the nursery’s introductions.  They are introduced to botanical history and horticultural wonders.  They smell the mulch in the spring or the composting leaves in the fall.  They wonder whether any of it is still vital.  Is it still important?
And I smile.  I still believe, after all of these years, that it’s vital.  It’s crucially important to our survival.  We need to remember and know that Horticulture (with a capital “H”) provides us with nourishment for body and soul.  Horticulture promises the future.  Horticulture confirms our place in the natural order.  Horticulture is our future.
And that is why John Bartram Lives.  His spirit returns triumphant.