March marks the beginning of spring—the season when nature unfurls her mysteries. And back in 1760, it was just such mysteries John Bartram (1699-1777), America’s foremost botanist, was looking to investigate when he arrived in Charleston on March 13. The Pennsylvania native was in town to see fellow enthusiast Dr. Alexander Garden and search for native plants to describe and send to England.
With success here and throughout the eastern American colonies, Bartram eventually was made Botanist to the King. His son, William (1739–1823), followed rather literally in his father’s footsteps, arriving in the Holy City in 1773—again in early spring. Not just a botanist, but also an artist interested in plant and human life, William used Charleston as a base of operations, relying on local connections such as Garden and Lionel Chalmers to introduce him to others on his trek throughout the Southeast—an adventure published in 1791 as Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, etc.
His beautifully rendered illustrations (including those shown here) and the poetic quality of some of his text were not only of interest to other natural historians, but also fired the imaginations of Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—who both went on to write poems of spring. Which proves, if nothing else, the cyclical nature of nature itself, and that of poetry and history, too.