Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

When Pennsylvania’s thirty-seven-year-old founder William Penn (1644-1718) drew plans for Philadelphia, he specified a central park of ten acres and four symmetrically placed squares of eight acres each “for the comfort and recreation of all forever.” In his September 30, 1681, instructions to his commissioners, he also mandated private space. “Let every House be placed, if the Person pleases, in the middle of its platt as to the breadth way of it, that so there may be ground on each side, for Gardens or Orchards or feilds, that it may be a greene Countrie Towne, which will never be burnt, and allwayes be wholsome.” Pennsylvania was unusual in establishing a rich and varied gardening tradition from its very inception. It placed a high value on gardens because of the cultural predilections of its leadership and colonists rather than on the dictates of cli­mate and geography.

Penn acquired his land grant for Pennsylvania from King Charles II as settlement for a debt of sixteen thousand pounds owed by the Crown to his father, Admiral Sir William Penn (1620-1670). Penn envisioned the colony as an opportunity to offer his compatriots in the Religious Society of Friends freedom from persecution for their belief in responsibil­ity for social welfare, peaceful resolution of conflict, and liberty of conscience. Because plants are basic to the essential commodities of food, medicines, building materials, and fibers, George Fox (1624-1691), founder of the Society of Friends in Britain and Ireland, believed that Quaker schools should offer practical education by teaching “the nature of herbs, roots, plants and trees.” It was inevitable that Quakers would take an avid interest in gardening.

Born in London, William Penn suffered a bout of small­pox at the age of three, in 1647. His family moved out of the city to the country village of Chigwell, Essex. In 1666, he witnessed the grisly London plague described by Daniel Defoe in the Journal of the Plague Year. Fires frequently leveled entire neighborhoods. Penn rec­ognized that crowding was a health and safety hazard; as a Quaker, he believed it was incumbent on him to do something about it. His vision of a “greene” Philadelphia stemmed from his Quaker principles. Fellow Friends, who rejected art, music, theater, and dancing, found satisfaction in collecting and propagating plants that might possess medicinal or horticultural value.

Penn insisted that toleration of dissent form the official corner­stone of Pennsylvania’s “frames of government.” Because the number of Quakers willing to commit to the new colony was insufficient to achieve the goal of making the colony productive, he invited religious dissidents from continental Europe to participate in the endeavor. German-speaking Anabaptists, Amish from Switzerland, and Mennon­ites in Alsace and the Palatinate were recruited to come to Pennsylvania. Primarily farmers, they settled in the colony’s vast interior.

English Quaker and German-speaking colonists brought different values and cultures to Pennsylvania. Quakers focused their attention on communal life and resorted to reason and knowledge to solve problems. By contrast, the Anabap­tists were farmers or craftsmen who served the farming community with little interest in education beyond the ability to read the Bible. They were content to be separated from the secular world and its distractions. These differences result­ed in distinctive lifestyles and gardens.

The farms of the Commonwealth’s German-speaking people were – and still are – meticulously tended. The agricultural aspect of the farm was the province of men, but women tended kitchen gardens that supplied vegetables, including onions, peas, and cabbages, and herbs such as parsley, dill, and sage. Flowers, unless they were had some practical use, were rarely planted. Men constructed the gardens, preparing the soil and applying manure for fertilizer, but women planted, watered, and cultivated them.

Kitchen gardens maintained by Pennsylvania Germans were modeled after ninth-century medicinal herb gardens of Benedictine cloisters in Reichenau, Ger­many, and St. Gall, Switzerland. Their design generally consisted of a courtyard divided into four squares separated by walks. Raised square or rectangular beds occupied each of the quadrants. The raised beds were advantageous because they afforded good drainage, ease of maintenance, early warming of the soil to allow for advanced planting of cool weather crops, and ease in adjusting the quality of soil to accommodate the requirements of particular plants. They had the disadvantage of drying out more quickly than field soil and had to be watered during intervals of little rain.

The Anabaptists brought the foursquare raised garden to Penn’s colony. Colonial versions were fenced rather than walled as they had been in Europe. The integrity of the foursquare model was often preserved, but symmetrical gardens with split rows of even numbers of raised beds were not uncommon. Settlers constructed gardens near their houses, close to a well or spring, to facilitate watering. Fencing kept wandering cows, rabbits, skunks, and raccoons from nibbling the produce. Browsing deer would be shot and butchered for meat. Spaced picket or pale fences permitted air circulation around the crops, discouraging growth of rot and mildew. Packed earthen walks separated the beds. If the beds were too wide to permit convenient access to the centers, wooden planks were laid across them so that soil would not be compacted during water­ing and weeding. Museum curators and researchers have reconstructed gardens of this type at the Landis Valley Muse­um, Lancaster County, a popular attraction along the Pennsylvania Trail of His­tory, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).

For Pennsylvania’s Anabaptists, farming was not merely a livelihood. The appearances of their farms mattered: everything had to be in order and properly maintained, including fields that were planted with contrasting patterns of color. The Anabaptists derived great satisfaction from making things grow; the stewardship of plants became an almost sacred duty. They preserved heir­loom seed varieties long before plant geneticists recognized the urgency of banking germplasm of historical crop plants. The reverence with which Penn­sylvania Germans cared for their farms and kitchen gardens gave the Keystone State a distinctive standing among the colonies.

Quakers who immigrated to Pennsyl­vania remained in and around Philadel­phia or settled along the lower Delaware River. William Penn, who was mostly absent from the colony because he returned to England to protect his interests and defend Quakerism, built Penns­bury Manor on the banks of the Delaware River, where he stayed for two brief periods, totaling less than four years. The Pennsylvania Historical Commission, forerunner of the present-day PHMC, reconstructed Pennsbury Manor and its gardens beginning in the late 1930s. Thomas W. Sears (1880-1966), landscape architect and avid landscape photographer who had opened an office in Philadelphia in 1917, designed the gardens, smaller than the original, following descriptions from Penn’s writings. Sears concentrated on “garde­nesque” landscapes for wealthy clients living in the picturesque Main Line sub­urbs west of Philadelphia, and among his greatest commissions was Appleford, in Villanova, Montgomery County, a magnificent estate for Lewis and Annabel Parsons. To renovate and enlarge Appleford, cited by architects as one of the nation’s greatest melding of architecture and landscape, the Parsons engaged architect R. Brognard Okie (1875-1945). The Pennsylvania Historical Commission hired Okie in 1936 for the re-creation of Pennsbury Manor, which was completed in July 1939.

The gardens at Pennsbury were formal. A series of terraces with English grass descended from the house to the river and an avenue of poplars led from the front door to a barge landing. A park surrounded the house with hedged gardens in front and rear. Gravel walks separated beds, and trails were cut for riding through the forest. A two-acre kitchen garden abutted one side of the house and was laid out with raised rectangular beds, hotbeds (beds planted over fermenting horse manure), and formal beds for medicinal herbs. Dozens of British imports – among them roses, pop­pies, stocks, currants, apples, plums, apricots, artichokes, asparagus, goose­berries, and hawthorn for hedging – adorned the gardens, in addition to native species that Penn had instructed his gardeners “to have … roots and flowers next spring by transplanting them out of the woods.” In late summer 1684, Penn directed Ralph Smyth, his gardener at Pennsbury, to “Sett out the garden by the house, plant, sweet herbs, Sparragras [asparagus], carrels, parsnips hartechokes, Salatin [herbs and vegetables used for salad], & all flowers & Kitchen herbs there.” He also instructed Smyth to “lett a peach be planted between every apple tree” and “let all the peeches about the grounds in Indian fields be saved, make a barrel of wine or two, & dry the rest, save that a few be preserved when almost ripe.”

Alert to the possibility that native species might provide medicinal cures or crops for profit, he directed assistants to observe the Native Americans’ use of plants for medicinal purposes. He knew that the Native Americans grew peaches from seeds given to them by earlier set­tlers and wondered whether growth in the rich soil of the New World might have wrought beneficial changes in the fruit; the colonists harvested huge crops of the fruit and produced brandy from them. Penn also speculated that Ameri­can grapes might produce wines that would rival France’s. The foresighted founder prescribed that one acre of ground be set aside for forest for every five cleared for agriculture. He died before his vision could be fulfilled, but his ideals influenced his contemporaries, generations of their descendants, and sub­sequent settlers.

By 1698, many Philadelphia merchants had become wealthy and had erected fine houses. Gabriel Thomas, an English visi­tor to the home of an “Edward Shippey,” marveled at a garden “that equalizes (if not exceeds) any I have ever seen, having a … Summer House erected in the middle of his extraordinary fine and large Garden abounding with Tulips, Pinks, Carnations, Roses (of several sorts), Lilies, not to mention those that grow in the Fields.” Edward Shippey was most likely Edward Shippen (1639-1712), a Quaker merchant whom Penn had appointed the first mayor of Philadelphia in 1701. Thomas did not detail the design of Ship­pen’s garden, but historians surmise that it followed the lines advocated by Leonard Meager’s 1670 book, The English Garden, which championed formal beds, borders, knots, and edgings and was found in the libraries of many colonial period residences. An axial walk would have extended the length of the garden with lateral walks branching at right or acute angles to form a regular pattern. Geometric beds bordered by clipped box hedges would have filled the interstices between lateral walks. It was common to place an arbor, sundial, summerhouse, or statue at the end of each walk. A circular bed with a pyramid-shaped evergreen often occupied the center of the garden, but Shippen had placed his summer­house in this space.

Quakers continued to search for practical uses of what they had learned, applying their knowledge of plants to medical problems. George Fox visited Pennsylvania in 1671-1672 and bequeathed a tract of sixteen acres to the Quaker Meeting in Philadelphia; part of it was for a physic garden to teach children how to make “Oils and Ointments” used in treating common ailments. The Penn­sylvania Hospital, established in 1755, approved plans for a physic garden in 1774 with the purpose of providing medicinal ingredients to local physicians. However, the garden was not planted for two centuries, until 1976, when the Philadelphia Committee of the Garden Club of America and the Friends of the Pennsylvania Hospital laid it out in honor of the nation’s bicentennial celebration.

King George III appointed John Bar­tram (1699-1777), a Pennsylvania Quaker farmer and self-taught naturalist, as Royal Botanist for the colonies. In his 1782 Letters from an American Farmer, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (1735-1813) – ­neither an American nor a farmer, but a French aristocrat – recorded a story of how Bartram came to study botany. Bar­tram had, one warm day, taken refuge under the shade of a tree while plowing a field. He picked a daisy and studied the orientation of the disc and ray flowers. Marveling at the complexity of the daisy, he thought to himself, “What a shame … that thee shouldst have employed so many years in tilling the earth and destroying so many flowers and plants, without being acquainted with their structures and uses!” This inspiration along with a prior interest in medicinal plants prompted him to begin collecting novel species. He learned Latin from James Logan, who had served as Penn’s secretary and administrator. Logan was interested in plants and had investigated the means by which Indian corn was pollinated and could be hybridized. He communicated this information to Peter Collinson, a Quaker merchant in London with an avid interest in horticultural novelties, who forwarded it to Carolus Linnaeus, the renowned Swedish botanist and taxonomist. Sufficiently impressed, Linnaeus declared Logan a “hero of the sciences.” Logan recognized Bartram’s genius and introduced him to Collinson who, in turn, referred Bartram to Linnaeus. Collinson and Benjamin Franklin, who raised sub­scriptions for the purpose, underwrote many of Bartram’s explorations into the woods and mountains of the Alleghenies, and into the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, Florida, and the wilderness surrounding Lake Ontario.

Bartram and his son William realized they were documenting species never before described. They established a botanic garden that allowed them to grow the seeds they had collected and to observe the plants in detail. They planned to display native species as well as those that had been imported. By including exotic specimens, they clarified what was native and what was not. They laid out their garden in 1729 on several acres around their farmhouse that extended to the Schuylkill River. They planned to care­fully arrange the plants in rows with everything carefully labeled, but their efforts proved more haphazard. The aptly named Alexander Garden (1685-1756), a physician, zoologist, and botanist from Charleston, South Carolina, for whom Linnaeus named the genus “Gardenia,” visited Bartram in 1754 and described the garden. “Here you meet with a row of rare plants almost covered over with weeds, here with a Beautiful Shrub even Luxurient amongst Briars and in another corner an Elegant and Lofty tree lost in a common thicket” Bar­tram had cleverly exploited what present­-day scientists would term microenvironments to nurture plants from diverse habitats. Garden recalled that Bartram had indicated a spot with “several rocks & Dens where he shewed me some of his rare plants, which he brought from the Mountains … Every den is an Arbour, Every run of water, a Canal, and every small level Spot, a Parterre, where he nurses up some of his Idol Flowers & cultivates his darling productions.” Bartram displayed native and exotic tree species in rows in an arboretum. An open field above the river was filled with indigenous wild­flowers that flourished in seasonal suc­cession.

Although many claim that Bartram’s was the first botanic garden in the colonies, there were oth­ers in Philadelphia that preceded it. The first was apparently set up by a brotherhood of German Rosicrucian mystics at their mona­stery, Das Weib in der Wuste, on the banks of the Wissahickon Creek, in 1694 (see “A Walk on the Wild Side: Philadelphia’s Wis­sahickon Creek” by Susan Oyama, Fall 1993). Christopher Witt, an English physician and botanist who lived in Germantown, planted another in 1708, and Witt’s better-known neighbor, Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651-1719), cul­tivated a third at about the same time. Fair Hill, the home of Isaac Norris, on the banks of the Delaware was reputed to have one, and James Logan (1674-1751), who had taught Latin to the elder Bartram, kept a garden at Stenton, his stately residence in Germantown. None of these botanic gardens were as comprehensive as the Bartram family’s, which has been preserved and is open to the public (see “Like Father, Like Son: The Extraordinary Bartrams” by L. Wilbur Zimmerman, Summer 1995).

By the mid-eighteenth century, inter­est in ornamental domestic gardens had grown as the merchant upper class had prospered. This was especially true among Quakers who continued to reject art in their homes. Charles Norris built a greenhouse and a hothouse for growing pineapples – for which the colonists had an insatiable penchant – on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. The enthusiasm for gardening extended to the public domain as well. Two proprietary plea­sure gardens, Grey’s on the Schuylkill and Harrowgate, made popular by its mineral springs, two miles north of the city, offered tea, coffee, and chocolate for breakfast, fine dining, liquors, and opportunities for social interchange and political discussion. By 1765, bathhouses were added to some of the gardens. The New Bath gardens in North Philadel­phia, Wig Wam on the Schuylkill, and Harrowgate offered a pleasant “water cure” in addition to refreshments. These commercial pleasure gardens were designed with serpentine walks, tree-lined perimeters, vine ensconced bowers, arbor alcoves, and summerhouses in the latest London style. They became favorite venues for conducting business and political discussions and for polite flirtations.

Interest in gardening blossomed at a time when garden style was changing rapidly – and radically – in Great Britain. English gardens had customarily adhered to Northern European models characterized by symmetry, a strong axis, yews trimmed into dense wall-like hedges punctuated with elaborately sculpted topiary and geometric beds filled with knots bordered by low, squared boxwood rims. By the 1700s, Britons wearied of such stilted, architec­tural, and predictable gardens. The edu­cated upper middle class was influenced by the philosophy of Francis Bacon, who embraced nature as an entity subject to rational exploration; nature became a partner in the garden. The idea of includ­ing nature in the garden was carried fur­ther by other authors, setting the stage for a revolution in garden design. Because affluent colonists looked to the British upper class for its cultural cues, the emerging new style ultimately affected the design of their gardens.

In the 1730s, Painshill, a naturalistic garden south of London, was designed to evoke the legendary landscape of antiquity. As visitors strolled leisurely around a lake that had been excavated at its center, they came upon scenes reminding them of the Elysian Fields, Ancient Greece (replete with tem­ples), Ancient Rome (evoked by statuary) and the watery underworld of the River Styx. Informal groupings of trees and shrubs set off by expanses of open lawn followed curved lines creating an idealized vision of nature. Painshill dazzled every­one who toured it.

Of the gardens designed in Philadelphia during the second half of the eighteenth century, one was a faithful rendition of the English landscape proto­type. After admiring and studying the new gardens in England, William Hamil­ton returned to Philadelphia in 1788 and constructed what Thomas Jefferson praised as “the chastest model of garden­ing I have ever seen outside of England” at The Woodlands, his residence in south­west Philadelphia. The original gardens were converted into a cemetery with Vic­torian era-style gardens in 1840 and noth­ing but the contours remains of the original.

The influence of diverse cultures that found a home in colonial Pennsylvania has persisted to the present. Amish and Mennonites have shaped the landscape of rural Pennsylvania into an agrarian paradise visited by people from all over the world. Quakers left an indelible mark on the gardens of Philadelphia. No other region in the United States has as many arboreta, historic and pleasure gardens. The vision of a “greene Coun­trie Towne” has not died. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, established in 1827, administers Philadelphia Green, a nationally acclaimed program that assists community groups in transforming vacant lots into verdant recreational areas and helps residents in deterio­rating neighborhoods establish vegetable and flower gardens (see “Growing bigger and better year by year” by Liz Ball, Spring 2001). Philadelphia Green, responsible for more than twenty­-five hundred greening projects in Penn’s beloved Philadelphia, is supported in part by the Philadelphia Flower Show. William Penn, surveying the flowering fortunes of his “large Towne” from high atop Philadelphia City Hall, would undoubtedly approve.


Individuals interested in visiting historic gardens in the southeastern counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia are encouraged to write: Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, 30 South 17th Street, Suite 1710, Philadelphia, PA 19103; telephone (215) 599-0776; or visit the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation website.


For Further Reading

Adams, William H. Gardens Through His­tory: Nature Perfected. New York: Abbeville Press, 1991.

Birnbaum, Charles A., and Robin Karson, eds. Pioneers of American Landscape Design. New York: McGraw-Hill Company, 2000.

Dunn, Richard S. and Mary M. Dunn. The World of William Penn. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.

Earnest, Ernest. John and William Bar­tram, Botanists and Explorers, 1699-1777, 1739-1823. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940.

Favretti, Rudy F. and Gordon P. DeWolf. Colonial Gardens. Barre, Mass.: Barre Publishers, 1972.

Hedrick, U.P. A History of Horticulture in America to 1860. Portland, Ore.: Timber Press, 1950.

Klein, William M., Jr. Gardens of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

Leighton, Ann. American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century “For Use or for Delight.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

Moss, Roger W. Historic Houses of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Sarudy, Barbara W. Gardens and Garden­ing in the Chesapeake 1700-1805. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1998.

Weigley, Russell F., ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W. W. Nor­ton, 1982.


Myra K. Jacobsohn is a resident of Spring­field, Montgomery County. She is professor emeritus at Arcadia University, formerly Beaver College, in Glenside, where she taught biology for twenty-seven years. A graduate of Barnard College, she holds master degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and received her doctorate from Bryn Mawr College. She has published research on a variety of topics in plant and cellular biology in the professional biological literature. Her interest in gardens is an avocation of long-standing, encouraged by students who much preferred learning about garden history and architecture than the intricacies of plant biology. She is currently writing a book on garden planning for new homeowners.