Saturday, July 6, 2013


It’s Independence Day Weekend here in Philadelphia.  What a fine time to be in the city.

Block parties and live music, barbecues and picnics, burgers and ice cream, sparklers and fireworks, road-blocks and detours, this city truly lives up to the standards and expectations of Founding Farmer John Adams, who once wrote that Independence Day ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade…

…with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

Well, actually, he always thought it should be celebrated on the Second of July.

Sorry, old man.

In the Fourth we trust…a celebration of the tried and true totems of American history: the bald eagle and the buffalo, Yankee Doodle and Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty…

…the light bulb and the television and the arcade game, the steamship and the automobile and the space shuttle, the pioneer and the cowboy and the rock star…


…and that Old Glory herself…

…that grand old flag we call the Stars and Stripes.

In the spirit of Independence Day, I made a quick pit-stop to pay my respects to our most famous seamstress, Betsy Ross.

She’s buried, right there in Olde City, at 2nd and Old Sassafras Streets, underneath that monumental American elm…

…rocketing over the colonial courtyard, bursting with heavy branches high up in the muggy Coyote sky.

Or, at least, we’re told that she’s buried here.

It turns out that Betsy Ross’s funeral was held on 5th Street.  Twenty years later, her body was exhumed and moved to the now abandoned Mount Moriah Cemetery near Cobbs Creek in West Philly…

…and then, just in time for the Bicentennial of 1976, her body was moved again to this half-museum-half-gift-shop restoration, to be closer to the parade of her colonial brothers and sisters.


Or was she?

Rumor has it that, back in 1975, her gravediggers found no bodily remains under her tombstone there in Mount Moriah. 

Only a few bones, found elsewhere in the family plot, were hastily authenticated as Betsy Ross’s and moved to this courtyard…

...just in time for the opening of the Betsy Ross Bridge in 1976.

It doesn’t matter.


Like we say here in America, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

And so the legend stands.

She’s buried here, First Seamstress of the United States, the beautiful and noble widow who made, with her own blistered hands, the very first version of the American Flag.

Or did she?

Probably not.  Betsy Ross herself made no claim to this fact.  In the letters and journals of the Founding Farmers, there is nothing that verifies her status as the graphic designer behind the American flag.

The story of Betsy Ross sewing the first flag is, most likely, a tall tale, told and re-told by her grandson, who was trying to cash in some family gossip in order to grab the federal funding set aside for the big Centennial party of 1876.

Way too often, when you really start digging into the American saga, you find out you’re just shoveling hogwash.

History writ by the braggart.
Like they say in The X-Files, I want to believe but, Great Scott, they make it so, so hard.

And now, to find out that Betsy Ross might not even be buried here at the Betsy Ross House in the grave that bears her name, that she most likely did not design the American flag, that she was just a pawn whose good name and bodily remains were unceremoniously shuffled around to fit the latest Fourth of July anniversary…

…well, I’m finding it harder and harder to swallow that kind of moonshine.

So, in a quest for the authentic 1776 experience, on a mission to celebrate a certifiable Fourth of July weekend, I traveled to the badlands of West Philly, right off Lindbergh Boulevard, to the Historic Bartram’s Garden… of the most honest-to-goodness, historically bona fide places left in the city of Philadelphia.

No doubt about it. 

Here, at Bartram’s Garden, you are walking in the shadows of the greatest generation.


I knew I was on the right path the moment I parked my car.

There, right near the fence that bordered the parking lot, I spied a wild turkey…

…the Vice President of National Birds.

Before I even locked up my car and logged in to my iPhone, I could feel the colonial truth. 

Unlike the fake graves and the restored houses and the phony facades of Olde City and Elfreth's Alley, this place is real, reeking of authenticity, ripe with uncorrupted facts.

They were here.  It’s true.  Honest Injun, they used to come here.

Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Hamilton, the whole rebellious gang, they were here…

…and they loved it.

They came here, taking breaks from the tumultuous climate inside Independence Hall, to study the native flora and fauna.

They walked these same paths and stood underneath some of these same trees…

…hanging out with their old pals, the Family Bartram, taking tea and taking shade…leaving behind the quill pen, unbuttoning the stuffed shirt and taking off the powdered wig…sometimes hiding away from the relentless summer sun, sitting in the bosky coolness under the arched arbors near the house…

…talking politicks.

This place was alive and booming back in 1776, on the exact same grounds and grass that, over two hundred years later, holds my little shadow and marks my inconsequential footprints. 

A lot has happened in that time but, here in Philadelphia, one thing remains the same.

That one thing is Bartram’s Garden.

I try not to get suckered into thinking of the Founding Farmers as more than just human but, here in the sun-dappled park, it’s impossible to think of them as less than super-heroes, hard not to be overcome by their generous genius.

It’s hard to think of these great men as regular people.

Walking down these same paths, I imagine them walking with me, full of the most spectacular ideas, mad with vision, mad with country, their old fashioned belts notched with the greatest of accomplishments.

Here at Bartram’s Garden, you never walk alone.

You walk in the company of the Founding Farmers and, for better or for worse, you walk with their legends.

They never took a wrong turn, they never asked for directions, never made a typo, never replied-all, never tripped over their tongues, never fell in love with the wrong woman.

They never ate a booger and they never got caught peeing in the woods.

Here in Bartram’s Garden, their great shadow permeates every switchback and every path and you get the feeling, here in this garden, that boring conversations are outlawed…

...they never made an ordinary act.

They never yawned and they never said anything commonplace, but they burned, burned, burned like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

For all you city planners and for all you museum curators, take note.

Here at Bartram’s Garden, you never get the feeling that you’re being ripped off, or duped, or chumped, or buffaloed.

How does Bartram’s Garden achieve such authenticity?


It uses plants and trees.


In a small, tight corner between house and lawn, there stands a Magnolia grandiflora, also known as the southern magnolia.

Although it’s an early bloomer, here in the beginning of summer, its great white flower still hangs, strong and proud, amidst its glossy, evergreen leaves.

The magnolia has the distinct characteristic of holding both its flower and fruit on the same tree at the same time.

Being one of the most primitive and earliest of the flowering trees, this is a good time to notice the ripening of its portly, prehistoric fruit.

But, here at Bartram’s Garden, it’s hard to see a southern magnolia like this without thinking of George Washington.

Washington was a meticulous gardener and this was one of his favorite trees.

On Mount Vernon, there is a whole section of his garden dedicated to the magnolia.

He even named his favorite horse Magnolia.

George Washington was also a fan the Carolina silverbell, one of Bartram’s best discoveries…

…and, of the American white cedar, Washington wrote: a handsome evergreen tree, beautiful foliage and odoriferous.

He must’ve been talking about those blue, grumpy fruit, technically a soft cone that, when crushed, smells like a wintergreen cigar.

Here at Bartram’s Garden, you can also find the oldest surviving ginkgo tree in all of Turtle Island.

It's a magnificent tree but, at the same time, it's hard to be impressed with its age.

Even young ginkgo trees, to me, look ancient.

Now how come they don't put that inside a snow globe?

Walking along the paths, I also found some shagbark hickories and caught its distinctive bark…

…in the words of Donald Culross Peattie, to everyone with a feeling of things American, and for American history, the Shagbark seems like a symbol of the pioneer age, with its sinewy limbs and rude, shaggy coat…

…like the pioneer himself in a fringed deerskin hunting shirt.

But, of course, it’s hard to catch a hickory and not think of that twenty-dollar-bill man, Old Hickory himself, Andrew Jackson…

…who was, supposedly, as roughshod as the tree itself.

Have you ever tried to crack a hickory nut?

They're just as tough as they sound. 

You won't meet many people in your life, or in history, who deserve the nickname Old Hickory.

It’s like this all around Bartram’s Garden, where the Presidents come alive.

Even all the rustic fences…

…brings to mind that old rail-splitter of a President, Honest Abe.

Right near the vegetable garden, there is a tall Virginia pine…

…and it’s impossible not to think of Thomas Jefferson…

…whose book Notes on the State of Virginia chronicles and describes all the great and small plants and animals of his home state.

Each item on the list is the equivalent of staking a flag in the ground.

And, of course, even though it’s far from the tallest tree in the garden, the curious franklinia looms large and tall…

…the lost camellia, one of Bartram’s greatest finds, discovered in the wet swamps of the Carolinas on the brink of extinction, named for Ben Franklin himself.

I found Bartram’s own legacy, permanently planted in front of the brick house…

…his own discovery of the naturally hybridizing red and willow oak…

…which was named, in his honor.


Like most great places, Bartram's Garden has something to say.

It starts telling you a story: each tree has a name, a place and a native range that is part of a larger, united landscape that, when given the chance to interact with mankind, takes on a new identity, shapes a new kind of character, grows a new kind of world.

It’s not the kind of expression that can be summed up on a bumper sticker, not the kind of idea that can be contained in a single icon or symbolized on a flag.

It’s not going to make a pretty costume.

And yet, I have to admit, a part of me does wish it could fit on a coffee mug.

Walking along the loose lanes of the garden, the Bartrams’ vision becomes clear.

Trees, plants, shrubs, flowers and weeds…that’s country.

They designed and built, with their own blistered hands, a defiant statement against the scientific royal landscapes found in the traditional gardens of Great Britain and France.

A true act of rebellion, this garden was always meant to celebrate the wild and weird flora that the Bartrams discovered and named during their travels around the colonies, along the coast or out there in Indian country…trees like this osage orange growing out of the weeds behind a fence…

…or like the southern hackberry, a tree that would never be accepted into the elegant realm of English gardens, thanks to its unseemly, corky bark...

…a tree whose appearance would never pass muster.

They also discovered the sourwood tree, not a very spectacular tree at all, but a tree native only to this part of the world...

…the kind of tree that really deserves the stamp: MADE IN THE U.S.A.

And, my favorite sight of the day, something that I’ve always wanted to hunt down and catch…

…the flowering of the buttonbush tree.

In the eyes of many professional landscapers and gardeners, this plant has a low-class status, found naturally in the mucky, sunny banks of swamps and bogs along the great American rivers…

…but given a prominent place here at Bartram’s right next to one of the long stone houses.

Now there’s your stars and stripes.

It’s too bad, but it’s just as well, that this place is far away and inconvenient from the gift shop row of Olde City, not the kind of place that will go on a tight tourist itinerary.

Like the other historical attractions, it’s rich with information but, unlike the other tourist traps, you don’t feel like you’re being milked.

Everything is correctly identified.

And, unlike the other historical theme parks down there in Olde City, you have the option to explore it in the order that you want.  You have the option to make your own path. 

I’m sure there are guided tours and I’m sure there are group discount admission rates but it’s also open to the public, from dawn to dusk every day, and you have the choice to come and go as you please, take your time, tell your own story, find your own way.

You’re on your own.  Enjoy the independence day.


  1. You're right about the stories of old city being rewritten for the masses. That's the charm of Bartram's I think, it is so tucked away people seek it out and it doesn't have to compete with the flash and fancy of Old City

  2. Thanks, Sarah. It sure is nice to have someone agree with me here in this city. I like your blog, a lot of information about some of my favorite trees that I never knew before. Keep going.