John Bartram: botanist to kings and Catskills

What brought the famed American botanist John Bartram to the Catskills? Among his British clients, there was particular, almost mythic interest in the balm of Gilead tree. (Illustration by Will Lytle)

The eminent Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus, father of modern taxonomy, once called him “the greatest natural botanist in the world.” The aristocrats of mid-18th-century Britain – obsessed with natural science, Romantic philosophy and the fad of landscape gardening – regarded him as their very own Johnny Appleseed and eagerly awaited the arrival of their “Bartram’s Boxes”: bundles of seeds, saps and specimens shipped from North America, along with the carefully recorded and scientifically astute observations of the collector. His pursuits as an amateur naturalist – a tough sell in that time and place – were encouraged by no less an iconoclast than his Philadelphia friend Benjamin Franklin, with whom he would later co-found the American Philosophical Society. His name was John Bartram, and he played an early, pivotal role in the scientific history of the Catskill Mountains.

By the account of the great Catskill historian Alf Evers, the early American botanist, naturalist and explorer John Bartram represented a new kind of man in the America of the mid-18th century and embodied a new sense of relationship to nature. The autodidact Philadelphia farmer Bartram possessed what Evers describes as a childlike wonder and curiosity that did not pass with childhood, as they were supposed to, but rather snowballed into a lifetime of travel and field study.


In those days, an all-consuming fascination with plants and animals was not an easy trait to maintain or defend in an adult. Nature, Evers tells us, held little allure for the serious 18th-century Colonial man. It was not a vast and terrible mystery to be explored, but rather a pest-filled nuisance to be passed over upon a horse in between the serious work of church and making money (typically via acquisition and sale of said nature).

John Bartram was born into a Quaker family in Colonial Pennsylvania in 1699. The child had no formal education beyond the local school. He indulged no pretense and regarded himself as a simple farmer, albeit one in the grips of a fascination with the physician’s profession, medicine and medicinal plants. He read widely in scientific literature and dedicated a small area of his family farm to his experiments. Apparently, he was precocious enough as an amateur botanist to make the acquaintance and capture the attention of men like Franklin and chief justice of Pennsylvania James Logan: himself a serious man with a curious sideline interest in describing the sex life of Indian corn. The amateur man of science, the serious dabbler, was common among the upper classes in Enlightenment Europe, but was a rare and more idiosyncratic breed in the Colonies, where commerce and religion organized life with an iron fist.

And Bartram may never have enjoyed the opportunity to make his name as an unlikely hero of science, had he not discovered some fertile commercial applications for his passion via his association with an English woolens merchant named Peter Collinson. A successful importer/exporter as well as an awestruck naturalist, Collinson found a perfect transcontinental partner in Bartram. It was Collinson who drove Bartram to collect both his seeds and his botanical and horticultural observations and send them to England to feed the growing art of landscape gardening, in which gardens that resembled idealized scenes found in nature had begun to replace the formal and orderly grid of the traditional British garden. In wealthy British eccentrics, Collinson and Bartram found a hungry market for Bartram’s exotic botanical materials.

It was Collinson who steered Bartram to the Catskills, though he did not call them by that name, referring to the area instead as the region of “Hudson’s river.” Why the Catskills? Among the British landscape designers of the day, there was particular, almost mythic interest in the balm of Gilead tree, and the Catskills was thought to contain a motherlode of the species.

At Collinson’s prodding, Bartram made a number of ventures to the Catskills over a 12-year period beginning in the early 1740s. While Collinson’s coveted balm of Gilead would turn out to be a false grail of sorts (its seeds were prohibitively difficult to acquire and did not fare well when planted in English soil), Bartram’s insatiable curiosity regarding North American trees and plants and the nature of geological formations made his time in the Catskills supremely productive and historically significant.

Bartram’s final trip to the Catskills took place in the late summer of 1753: “A journey to ye Cats Kill Mountains with Billy,” he wrote in his journal. The Billy referenced was his 14-year-old son William, a youth who shared his father’s fascinations and went on to become a historically significant writer and illustrator, whose book Bartram’s Travels had a direct influence upon the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. The motivation for this trip was once again Collinson’s lust for balm of Gilead, which was once again frustrated. But when the Bartrams returned home, John at once wrote an account of the region: nine densely packed pages in his journal under the heading “Observations on ye Katts Kill Mountains,” which Alf Ever identifies as “the first account of the mountains from the point of view of a naturalist,” and an influential document until this day.

John Bartram traveled extensively through the Colonies, eventually becoming the appointed “king’s botanist” for North America. He discovered and characterized a wide range of North American shrubs and trees, including kalmia, rhododendron and magnolia species. He is also recognized as the first to bring the Venus flytrap to cultivation. Some just call him “the father of American botany.”

The Mountain Top Historical Society presents “In the Footsteps of John Bartram: Native Plant Tour of the Catskills,” led by Carol Woodin, on Saturday, June 29. Beginning with a lecture, Woodin will tell the fascinating history of the Bartrams and their travels throughout the Northeast and in the Catskills. After the lecture, participants will proceed to the Mountain Top Historical Society Visitor Center (in Haines Falls) to park and arrange carpooling to North/South Lake. There, Woodin, Paul Harwood and Robert Gildersleeve will lead the group on a walk in the footsteps of the Bartrams, following the same journal entries used by Alf Evers. Admission costs $10 and is free for Mountain Top Arboretum and Mountain Top Historical Society Members. For more information, visit