Saturday, March 23, 2019

The father of American botany

Born 320 years ago today, was John Bartram, the father of American botany. He was made King George III’s botanist of North America, and Carl Linnaeus called him the greatest natural botanist in the world. With barely any education, he developed a thriving business in colonial Pennsylvania selling botanical specimens around the world. And, he went on many an exploratory journeys searching for new plants. Although it is thought he kept field journals on these trips, only two have survived.

Bartram was born into a Quaker farming family on 23 March 1699 near Derby in Pennsylvania. He received little schooling, but from an early age was drawn to botany, and, in particular, medicinal plants. In 1723 he married Mary Maris with whom he had two sons, but she died very young. In 1927, he married Ann Mendenhall with whom he had nine more children. By this time, he had inherited a farm from his uncle, and sold it to buy a larger one on the banks of the Schuylkill River at Kingsessing, four miles from Philadelphia. He converted the marshy lands into productive meadows by draining them; and began to use innovative fertiliser and crop rotation methods. He counted Benjamin Franklin among his friends, and it was with Franklin that he cofounded the American Philosophical Society in 1743.

Having set aside a plot for cultivating plants and shrubs, Bartram soon turned this into a thriving business supplying specimens to other botanists. He was introduced to fellow Quaker Peter Collinson, a London mercer and science enthusiast, who helped him secure contacts and clients in Britain and other European countries, not least the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who later said of Bartram that he was the ‘greatest natural botanist in the world’. With increasing financial security, Bartram began to travel, mainly to collect plants, undertaking more than a dozen extensive journeys to different parts of North America between 1736 and the mid-1760s, culminating in his longest trip to the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.

In 1765, lobbying of King George III by Collinson and Franklin secured Bartram a pension of £50 per year as King’s Botanist for North America, a post he held until his death. His seeds and plants then went to the royal collection at Kew Gardens, as well as to botanic gardens in Oxford and Edinburgh. He was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm in 1769. He died in 1777. See Wikipedia,, American Heritage, Bartram’s Gardens, or Bartram Heritage (available to view at Googlebooks) for further information. Bartram’s third son, William, went on to become a famous botanist, natural history artist and ornithologist in his own right. And Bartram’s garden remained the major botanic garden in Philadelphia until the last Bartram heirs sold it in 1850. Today, the house and garden are part of a thriving 45 acre visitor and horticultural centre.

John Bartram seems to have kept journals on all his expeditions, most of which, it is thought, were sent to Collinson in London. However, only a couple remain extant. The journal of his 1743 trip to Lakes Onondaga and Ontario was published in 1751 as Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions, Animals, and other matters worthy of Notice made by Mr John Bartram in his Travels from Pensilvania to Onondaga, Oswego and the Lake Ontario in Canada. It is freely available at Internet Archive, but was also republished by the Imprint Society in 1973 as A journey from Pennsylvania to Onondaga in 1743. Secondly, also extant, is part of the diary Bartram kept on his last and longest journey in 1765-1766. This was published, in 1769, as part of William Stork’s A description of East-Florida, with a Journal, kept by John Bartram of Philadelphia, botanist to His Majesty for the Floridas: upon a journey from St. Augustine up the river St. John’s as far as the lakes. With explanatory botanical notes.

In 1942, this latter journal was re-examined and annotated by Francis Harper for the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society as a Diary of a Journey through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida from 1 July, 1765 to April 10, 1766. It can be accessed at JSTOR (log-in required). Here is part of Harper’s introduction: ‘The actual journey commenced on July 1, 1765. A happily detailed diary accounts for the activities of each day thereafter until April 10, 1766, at the commencement of the return journey by water from Charleston. Since John Bartram was primarily a botanist, his diary deals largely - but by no means solely - with the plant life of the South. He discusses soils and fossil shells as well as rice and indigo plantations: he furnishes a record of hurricanes at Charleston during the previous hundred years; he tells of hobnobbing with colonial governors and plantation owners, and of lodging under pines and palms in the wilderness; he mentions in a single line the discovery of Franklirtia and Pinckneya on the Altamaha; he describes the towns of Charleston, Savannah, and St. Augustine; he gives an account of the calumet ceremony on the part of the Indian chiefs at the Treaty of Picolata on the St. John’s River - the only description of this ceremony from a point so far east.’

Four pages of extracts from the journal, further annotated by Ben Burroughs, can be found online at the Coastal Carolina University website. Moreover, Florida History Online also has a set of extracts on its website for the months of December 1765, January 1766 and February 1766. Here, though, are four extracts (as found in the 1942 Transactions of the American Philosophical Society).

2 January 1766
‘White frost on the boat; thermometer 35. Set out to view the cove, which was surrounded with extensive marshes on the south-side, on the east and west with marshes, several hundred yards wide, then a narrow cypress-swamp joined to the common pine-land; we came again into the river 80 yards broad, which ran at first a south course, then bended east for several miles: We saw very extensive marshes on each side (with several short cypress-trees and maple-hammocks interspersed) until we came to a pond on the south, soon after which we landed and climbed up a tree, from which we had a prospect of the lake lying N. W. with an extensive marsh between: We observed many short willows, but the woody swamps are chiefly black and white ash, with red maple next the river, and generally a cypress-swamp interposed between the pine-lands and swamps of ash; we rowed several courses in sight of extensive marshes and swamps, 2. 3 or 4 miles wide more or less; the river was pretty high, 2 foot above the driest times, by reason of the great rains, yet it barely covered the swamps even in pretty low places, but indeed there is little difference in their height for scores of miles, unless near the palmetto and pine-lands: We landed on a shelly bluff of 2 or three acres of sour orange-trees full of fruit; then rowing along the cypress-trees, which grew here next the river, a deep swamp interposed between the cypress and pine-lands; we came to Clement’s Bluff, where we encamped on a shelly bank 12 foot perpendicular; the lower part next the water was an indurated shelly rock, the bluff is 300 yards long and one broad, more or less, beyond which it gradually declines back to a fine savannah, then to the pine lands, palmetto and shrubby oaks; this is on the west-side of the river, as is the orange-grove; thermometer 48. P. M.’

3 January 1766
‘Clear cold morning; thermometer 26. wind N. W. The ground was froze an inch thick on the banks: this was the fatal night that destroyed the lime, citron, and banana trees in Augustine, many curious evergreens up the river, that were near 20 years old, and in a flourishing state: the young green shoots of the maple, elm, and pavia, with many flowering plants and shrubs never before hurt: Set out from Clement’s Bluff, rowed by much rich swamp and marsh; saw many elder-trees in flower (which grow in plenty close to the river next the water reeds) and many alligators, though so very cold that it had froze the great convolvolus and coreopsis, yet the great shrub after held out: The banks were in several places 2 or 3 foot high, shelly, and two rood broad; then fell back to a fine rich grassy swamp, chiefly ash, elm, and cypress, but much more open than down the river below the great lake, with more frequent patches of marsh and high grass and small maples, willows, and cephalanthus thinly scattered upon them; the higher banks with live and water-oaks. Landed about noon on the east-side on a bluff, 6 or 8 foot high, and 150 yards broad, but soon falls back to a cypress-swamp,
at the upper end of which oaks and palmettos join the river, and a little back the pines begin.’

6 January 1766
‘Clear morning: thermometer 38. Strong wind at N. W. Set out and soon saw a great body of very different swamp and marsh joining it, some dry, others middling moist, and some very wet, some reedy soil, some myrtle, oak, cypress, and lastly pine; then we came a little farther to tall water-reeds on both sides, and much elder grew next the river and close to the reeds, which last grew very thick close to the bank, and from 14 to 16 foot high; sometimes a narrow ridge, about a rood wide and a foot or two high, would run close to the river, on which grew oaks, hiccory, maple, and ash, the ground back being scarcely above the common flow of the river; but as we rowed higher up, the soil was in many places of an unknown depth, of tenacious rich mud, especially on the Indian side, which is generally higher than ours, and so stiff that cattle may walk upon it very safe, and bears choice grass, though full of tall trees, as hiccory, maple, water-oak, and ash: We rowed by a very large island on the east side and another on the west, the best I have seen in Florida; the river, for these two days, has run very crooked. Landed on a high rich shelly bluff, some good flat soil, but full of palms, and a little back the pine-lands begin: The last frost killed the young shoots of ash, hiccory, eupatorium, peanines, sunflowers. and the tops of two lovely evergreen shrubs, one of which would have grown all winter, if the frost had not killed it; the bark was burst from the wood, but the lower part was not hurt, the other was full of flowers, green and ripe berries, yet the tender tops for half a foot were killed: ’Tis very common in this country for vegetables to produce at the same time flowers, green and ripe fruit; and if the tender shoots are by chance killed, they soon send out fresh ones; here is a native gourd or squash, which runs 20 foot up the trees, close to the river; the people eat them when young, but they are bitter when old, and about the size of a man’s fist.’

7 January 1766
‘Clear morning; thermometer 36. Set out from Cabbage-bluff, so called from the great number of palm or cabbage-trees growing there; after some miles rowing round several points of the compass, it being generally good reed-marsh and sonic cypress-swamps, we came to the middle lake, 1, 2, or 3 miles broad, and 8 long; its general course is S. E. at the N. E. end is high ground, producing oak, palm, myrtle, bay, and a fine new evergreen, something like the purple-berried bay, but the leaves grow alternately, and the berries close to the stem, like myrtle; here is a pretty stream of sweet water, small enough to run through the bung-hole of a barrel, and at about 200 yards distance from it runs out a large stream of water, so warm as to support the thermometer at 71 in it, feels warm to a coolish hand, tastes more loathsome than the others beforementioned of the same kind, and may be smelt at some roods distant; hereabout is drove on shore, the most delicate crystalline sand I ever saw, except what is got on an island near our capes, though this is still finer: A few hundred yards from the last 
spring is another much like it in taste, but much larger, and near 30 yards broad, having three heads within 30 yards; the water is very loathsome and warm, but not so hot as one’s blood: This differs from the other in having most of its surface covered with duck-meat; its banks full of shelly stone of the snail-shell kind, and running level with the river; the last had some fall; they are not above 200 yards from the lake. Set out and arrived at a rocky bluff, at the entrance of the head of the river, which was two or more miles wide, but gradually narrowed; this bluff is composed of snail and muscle-shells, indurated into hard rocks, which would break or split for building or burning into lime; but a bluff we landed at in the forenoon was more remarkable; for as the bank was perpendicular, we had a better opportunity of searching deeper; we saw about 3 foot above the water a mass of clustered sea-shells, as periwinkles, cockles, and clams, the very productions of the sea, and to what depth they went is unknown; but this I believe, that they reach all under this whole low country at uncertain depths, and support the superior soil, under which the prodigious sulphureous and saline fountains run, which are continually fed by the slow settling of rain-water.’

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