Botanists in Bartram’s Garden

        This painting portrays four men related by blood and connected, perhaps more closely, by their passion for botany. From left to right they are Moses Marshall, Humphry Marshall, William Bartram, and John Bartram. They all examine the clipped branch of the plant, Franklinia alatamaha. Behind them is a view of the house built by John Bartram, which still stands today next to his botanical garden in Philadelphia. This particular part of the house shows John Bartram’s peculiar and distinct sense of style.

        Here, William and John Bartram stand side by side, portrayed at the age they would have been during a 1765 plant collecting trip.  Although there is no documented meeting between these four men, they exchanged letters, plants and shared a European clientele for their respective businesses. The Humphry Marshall in this painting looks fixedly at the weathered face of John Bartram, eager to absorb all of the information he can from his older cousin. Moses gazes intently down at the plant, as if to memorize its every feature. William Bartram looks at the Franklinia with a vague sense of satisfaction, perhaps he knows he will save the species. John Bartram’s gaze is inward – he has achieved a great deal in his lifetime, not least of which is passing on his botanical knowledge and legacy to the younger generations.

        The Franklinia is connected to both the Marshalls and the Bartrams. It was first observed by John Bartram in 1765 during a collecting trip near the Altamaha River in Georgia. He made note of its form, but was unable to collect a specimen. William Bartram, who had accompanied his father on that trip in 1765, returned to the Altamaha River in 1776 where he again found the plant. This time William collected seeds, which he planted in Philadelphia. The resulting plants finally flowered in 1781, four years after John Bartram’s death.  Realizing that it was a unique species and genus, William named the plant after his father’s friend, Benjamin Franklin.

        This single, successful collecting trip is responsible for the species surviving today. Franklinia was never found anywhere outside of that small patch along the Altamaha River. Humphry Marshall was the first to officially publish a record of the plant in his Arbustum Americanum, crediting its discovery to the Bartrams. Moses Marshall documented the last confirmed sighting of Franklinia in its’ native soil during an expedition to Georgia in 1790. Moses took quite a few specimens of the plant back to Marshall’s Garden, but sadly they either died or were too weak to produce viable seeds. Although there were unconfirmed sightings of Franklinia in the early 1800s, it was considered extinct in the wild soon after.