Wildflower Watch

William Bartram - A Legacy to Emulate

By Derek Norman with Guest Author Libby Kyer

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 17, Issue 4


Usually, this column highlights the work of members pursuing and promoting an awareness of native flora through individual initiatives and projects. However, in this issue we break with tradition and celebrate the work of William Bartram in his pursuit of native American flora in the 1700’s. His story has considerable historical significance, relevance and educational value for the America of today. 

With our ability to capture the beauty of Bartram’s botanical discoveries we have the opportunity to further the legacy of his work – connecting the past to the present and to the future - and so demonstrate to the larger public everywhere how botanical art inspires, communicates and connects. 

Libby Kyer, Editor of the Journal, offers a short account on why the ASBA’s William Bartram Botanical Art Exhibition in 2013 promises to be an historically significant event for the ASBA. 


The power of plants in forming civilization is a strong theme in the lives of John and William Bartram. John was born in 1699, to a Quaker farmer in Darby Township, PA. He taught himself about the plants of the Americas, using keen observation, reading and correspondence with plantsmen at home and abroad. 

From his farm in PA, John traveled to Lake Ontario, Florida, and the Ohio River, searching for interesting and useful plants for his own use and for a growing cadre of enthusiastic collectors. He formed an extraordinary friendship with English merchant Peter Collinson, and in 1733 sent two boxes of plants and seeds to him. These gifts helped ignite an obsession in England for gardens and new, useful and exotic plants. 

John's fifth child, William (1739- 1823), unlike his father, received a full formal education, and early on (by age 10 in his own words) developed an interest in natural sciences. He accompanied his father on numerous collecting trips, to the Catskills, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, New England and Florida. His father called him, “Billy, my little botanist.” And what a pair they were! John and William are credited with identifying over 200 native plants, which they cultivated and dispersed. 

William was also noted for his botanical and bird drawings during his teens. After assisting with his father’s garden and export concerns and other business ventures less successful, at the age of 34, in 1773, he set out on a trip through eight southern colonies that would last four years. He would leave home as a British subject, and return as citizen of a new nation, the United States of America. 

His journals and drawings on native plants and animals, as well as his encounters with Native Americans became, in 1791, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, etc., known commonly as just Travels. One of the foremost books on American natural history at the time, it includes accounts of plants, pathways, persons and peril. It is the story of a growing agrarian nation, as tied to the soil and the perceived values inherent to that as it is to its new nationhood. It is a portrait of the riches of the new land. With John Bartram Jr. at the helm, William returned home and helped Bartram’s Gardens become the premier US source for native cultivars for beauty and commerce. In 1783, they published the first plant catalog in the US. Over the years they supplied plants for Independence Hall, Mount Vernon, and Monticello. They eventually propagated more than 4,000 species of native and exotic plants. 

Perhaps John and William’s most exciting and enduring find was Franklinia alatamaha. The tree was discovered in a small grove near the Altamaha River in Georgia in 1765. They named it to honor Benjamin Franklin. On another trip William gathered seeds to begin propagation at their Gardens. 

Franklinia was never seen in the wild after 1803, but they still exist thanks to the Bartrams. All Franklinias today descend from their early seeds. The lush foliage, great fall colors, beautiful and delicate white blooms and its reputation as a challenge to grow make it a continued favorite with avid gardeners and arborists. A nationwide census between May 1998 and May 2000, commissioned by the John Bartram Association, found more than 2000 extant. The oldest documented Franklinias reported are at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, where two date from 1905. 

Today, the John Bartram Association and Bartram’s Garden and House advance the Bartram legacy of discovery, gardening and art, and inspire audiences of all ages to care for the natural world. Their mission dovetails nicely with the ASBA’s mission, resulting in the William Bartram Botanical Art Exhibition at Bartram’s Gardens. You’ll have the opportunity to create images from a core list of Bartram’s plants, from Abies balsamea to Zinnia peruviana, and hundreds of fascinating plants in between. This is your opportunity to participate in Bartram’s legacy by portraying one of the listed species, continuing his joy, enthusiasm, and “botanick spirit” for nature and art. 

  • Franklinia painted by William Bartram
  • Frontispiece of “Travels”, the first great American natural history by William Bartram
  • William Bartram, 1739-1823