Hang It Up

Following in the Bartram’s Footsteps

By Carol Woodin

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 18, Issue 1

Sooner than we all think, the deadline will arrive to submit entries for Following in the Bartrams’ Footsteps. (Jan. 11, 2013) We have only one season to prepare for this exhibition, although many artists have already depicted some of the Bartrams’ plants with or without being aware that they have done so. The list found on Bartram’s Garden’s website (see link below) is extensive, and includes much of our native flora. These plants have spread to gardens around the world, many in some measure due to the Bartrams’ thriving plant business. 

Our main focus will be the native plants discovered, collected, or introduced by John Bartram and his son William during their travels throughout the eastern US. Exotic plants cultivated and dispersed by the Bartrams are denoted by an E, and these exotics will have a secondary priority in choosing works for the exhibition. We may want to tell the story of America’s first plant catalogs, so some exotics may be included. However, the story central to this exhibition will be the native plants the Bartrams encountered on their journeys. 

In 1765, John Bartram was appointed Royal Botanist, and undertook a trip with his son William throughout the southeast to Florida. Although the intelligence Bartram acquired was cultural, geographic, and natural history-related, his 1766 report to the king was used to encourage British real estate ventures throughout the region. 

William had become an accomplished natural history illustrator as a teenager. Later, in his 30’s, he appealed to Dr. John Fothergill to fund his own 4-year journey (1773 to 1777), greatly expanding the previous journey’s explorations, and covering the Carolinas, Georgia, and East and West Florida (extending westward to the Mississippi River). By the time William returned to Philadelphia, the nation was in the early throes of the Revolutionary War, and his father was filled with anxiety for his garden, which he believed was threatened by advancing British troops. 

The habitats John and William found in their travels were those peopled by Native American nations and early colonists, still supporting such creatures as the eastern cougar, American bison, and ivory-billed woodpecker. William recounted magnificent mixed forests of the piedmont, with crystalline streams and forest duff a foot thick. The broad savannahs, deep forests, impenetrable swamps, and wild mountaintops they described were already changing with advancing agriculture, logging, and settlements. 

These formerly widespread habitats are found in isolated remnants today, as much change has occurred throughout the range. Remarkably, most of the plants they discovered and/or cultivated are still extant. Some of the wildflowers aren’t easily transferred to the garden, and many shouldn't be, and remain in their favored wild locations, though in fewer numbers. Many of our most beautiful wildflowers are on the list: Trillium, Lilium, Dodecatheon, Lobelia, Viola, and Polygonatum. Other trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants have become popular garden varieties, from mighty Magnolia to brilliant Monarda and vigorous Tradescantia, and still others deserve to be. 

This remarkable family hungered for knowledge of the natural world, studied it closely, and dispersed details and methods of that study. They modeled a way of observation that we as botanical artists employ today, and the plants and habitats we observe have often passed through their hands to ours. By understanding how their gifts to us have traveled down the years, we can be mindful of how our contemporary contributions to the art form might travel down the years ahead. 

The plant list which is divided into John’s lists, then William and John Junior’s lists is an extensive list, beginning with trees and moving into wildflowers. A huge number of plants are listed, but don't be intimidated. The list includes many beautiful wildflowers, trees and shrubs so scroll through all the options to find the native plant that speaks to you.

Exhibition Info & Call for Entry

  • Nelumbo lutea, American lotus; Dionaea muscipula, Venus flytrap; Ardea herodias, great blue heron
  • Rosebud Orchid, William Bartram c 1791