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Old Philly gardens attract visitors from around the world
The Dallas Morning News
PHILADELPHIA — More than 250 years ago, John Bartram gathered the most exotic plants he could find in colonial America. Curiosities such as wisteria, magnolia and poison ivy. He packed their seeds in boxes and sent them back to England.
Nobility was delighted.
North America promised unknown riches and discoveries back then. And Bartram, founder of the first botanical garden in North America, was at the center of excitement.
Poison ivy? England couldn't get enough.
"The plant has a beautiful flower and great fall color," said Bill LeFevre, executive director of what is now Bartram's Garden, a national historic landmark.
Bartram's nursery sold plants to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Now it's a sliver of green amid oil refineries and tenements of industrial Philadelphia. Yet visitors come from around the world.
Thirty miles away in Kennett Square, Pa., travelers find another property with an impressive pedigree. Longwood Gardens was established by industrialist Pierre du Pont in 1906. This year the 1,050-acre garden, considered one of the top in the nation, celebrates its centennial.
The grounds started as an arboretum of trees and was slowly transformed into a pleasure park, with Italian fountains and ornate formal gardens. In the 1950s, Longwood began searching the world for exotic plants to enhance its collection — a new poison ivy, perhaps.
Bartram's boxes: In 1748, a box of seeds collected by a Philadelphia nurseryman was delivered to Painshill Park, an estate 25 miles southwest of London. Some of those plants — tall trees now — still thrive. Last year the garden opened an exhibit called American Roots. It includes nearly all the species John Bartram first sent over. Plants such as sassafras, rhododendrons and Virginia cedar take center stage. But one of the garden's most touted plants is wisteria. The seeds were collected a few years ago from an ancient plant that grew in Bartram's Garden in the 1700s, and still thrives today. It's likely the same plant Bartram harvested more than 250 years ago. Admission about $10. Open daily except for Christmas and Dec. 26. Contact: www.painshill.co.uk.
Longwood Celebration: The garden is located in the Brandywine Valley, about an hour's drive southwest of Philadelphia. Illuminated musical fountain displays and musical entertainment are offered Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday nights until Labor Day. Fireworks are planned for July 22, Sept. 3 and Sept. 9. Longwood is open year-round. Admission varies by season and ranges from $12-$15, with discounts on Tuesdays. Contact: www.longwoodgardens.org; 610-388-1000. Bartram's Garden, 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, is about four miles south of downtown Philadelphia. Open daily. Admission free. Guided 45-minute tours: 12:10 p.m.,
In 1970, botanists hit pay dirt. An expedition to the South Pacific yielded a hardy plant with a pretty flower. After a few years of tinkering in greenhouses, the annual was released to the public.
Now Impatiens are the nation's most popular bedding plant. In total, the garden has introduced more than 13,000 of its discoveries to the public.
U.S.'s first gardens
The two gardens, Bartram's and Longwood, are the country's first and one of its grandest. Consider them botanical bookends for a garden-loving traveler. They're easily seen in a day, although you'll want to spend more time at Longwood. It may be the prettiest place in the nation to take a walk.
The garden makes a big impression. A path from the entrance leads to the 600-foot Flower Garden Walk. In season, thousands of blossoms mimic the color spectrum — purple at one end, white at the other, with shades of yellow, red and orange in between.
A topiary collection also amazes guests. Gardeners have transformed yew into a living-room chair, a giant puppy and twirling designs. Across the hedge, you'll find the Main Fountain Garden, inspired by the European displays du Pont loved. Longwood boasts that it has more fountains than any other U.S. garden. And on select summer evenings, fountain shows are set to music and fireworks. This summer, the garden plans elaborate celebrations with musical performances and exhibits to mark its centennial.
Then there's the newly renovated conservatory. No mere greenhouse, it's an art gallery of plants.
Balls of mums hang from the ceiling. Palms shade benches. One room showcases cactuses. Another displays bonsai, and not just evergreens. A 2-foot-tall ginkgo looks so much like a tree in miniature that I wouldn't have been surprised to find a pipe-smoking hobbit sitting beneath its branches.
Thank you, John Bartram
Back at 45-acre Bartram's Garden, the beauty is in the story.
All the country's show gardens and arboretums, from Dallas' pretty perch on White Rock Lake to the Alaska Botanical Garden in Anchorage, can be traced to John Bartram.
Born in 1699, he was a gentleman farmer who lived in a modest stone house. In his home, visitors find a large hearth, tiny bedrooms and a study. It was here that Bartram cataloged his findings, collected from Ontario in the north to Florida in the south.
In a converted barn, Bartram packed his botanical boxes to ship to England. His reputation grew until he was named the royal botanist by King George III.
After Bartram's death, his family continued the business, which published the first U.S. plant catalog. The family's reputation was such that when Joel Poinsett, the U.S ambassador to Mexico, found an intriguing plant in the Yucatan in 1820s, he brought the discovery to the Bartrams.
Within a few years, the poinsettia was a Christmas tradition.
Now the Bartram home provides a view of downtown skyscrapers and refinery oil tanks. Next door stands the Bartram public housing project. Even Philadelphians overlook the site.
But for garden lovers with a sense of history, this is holy ground. Where else would they find botanical exhibits such as this summer's offering, "Taking Root," the history of the flowerpot in America.
The grounds preserve a pleasing landscape, sloping to the banks of the Schuylkill River. Paths lead through informal gardens with native plants Bartram grew. One he prized is now the oldest ginkgo tree in North America. The Chinese plant was imported from England in 1785.
But the garden is most closely associated with a plant no longer found in the wild.
A tree for Ben
On a plant-hunting trip in 1765, Bartram and his son William discovered an unusual tree growing in Georgia. When William returned later, he found the plant in bloom and brought the seeds back to Philadelphia.
John Bartram named it the Franklinia, after his friend Benjamin.
When explorers returned for more samples, no one could find the tree. And no one has since.
All the franklinias growing in the world — at last count more than 2,000 according to an Internet census — are descended from that original Bartram find.
"It's kind of like a gardener's dream," said Bartram's spokeswoman Michele DiGirolamo. "It's a little hard to grow. It blossoms in the fall, and it has a story."
Longwood has a similar tale.
In 2000 the garden acquired a unique camellia from China. It flowers year-around and has leaves like an azalea.
"You have a chance of having it flower every day of the year," said Tomasz Anisko, the garden's curator of plants, who accompanied the flower back from Asia.
Only a few dozen of the plants are known to exist in the wild. Longwood is cultivating the species, hoping to preserve it, just as Bartram did with the franklinia. The blooming plant is often displayed in the conservatory. For plant fanatics, it's like seeing a celebrity.
Longwood recently held a fund-raiser and auctioned one of the specimens.
The final bid: $2,400.
It may seem a lot, but think back to Bartram's American exotics.
His boxes of unlabeled seeds were sold by subscription. The going price: 5 guineas, or nearly $1,000 at current prices.
And the shipment didn't include calamine lotion.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company