Vegetable Love Vaster Than Empires (William Bartram’s Botanical and Culinary Adventures)

Bartram's Travels Bird Illustration
Image from the Georgia Historical Society

 

“Nature, thou ever budding one,
Thou formats each for life’s enjoyments,
And, like a mother, all thy children dear,
Blessed with that sweet heritage, — a home!”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Wanderer”

There are sometimes born into this world people of singular goodness. American naturalist William Bartram was one such person. (Kaspar Hauser, I would argue, is another.) I came across Bartram while researching staghorn sumac. From the tree’s crimson seed clusters — or drupes, more accurately — comes the lemony seasoning often used in Mediterranean cuisine. Sumac grows just as readily along the Eastern seaboard, as well, and it was one of the many plants Bartram painstakingly classified. He had a great love for plants and animals, a love which he worked tirelessly to impart to the wider world.

His mild yet inquisitive nature Bartram may have inherited from his father, a noted Quaker, explorer, horticulturalist and, according to Carl Linnaeus, “the greatest natural botanist in the world.” Along with with being a member of the royal societies of London and Stockholm, the elder Bartram co-founded with Benjamin Franklin the American Philosophical Society, and made contributions to botany so important as to have the Western world’s intellectual elite flocking to his doorstep. Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, and many others paid visits to his botanic garden, the first of its kind in North America. That the elder Bartram’s origins were those of a humble, half-educated farmer counted little; such was the renown unwonted genius could win in a smaller world.

Bartram's Travels Nature Illustration
Image from EncyclopediaofAlabama.org

 

In this milieu of botanical and intellectual ferment William Bartram came of age. Born in 1739 in the Kingsessing neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he spent his childhood in his father’s garden. At age 14, he accompanied his father on field studies of New Jersey’s pine barrens and New York’s Catskill Mountains. The boy was uncommonly perceptive and had an eye for color, talents which were made evident by his beautiful drawings of the plants and animals discovered by his father. Yet these talents and skills resided in a personality otherwise shy, somewhat rudderless, and given to romantic reverie. When father and son returned home from the journey, the former had a mind to apprentice the latter to a doctor in order “to learn physic and surgery.” Only the fear that doing so would take his son away from his drawing stayed him. Benjamin Franklin himself intervened in the family affair, offering to place William in a print shop. But the long hours confined indoors disagreed with the young man. After a subsequent failed effort at getting him in the trading line did it become clear that his temperament was that of “a rover rather than that of a steady worker,” as a biographer would later write. “Gentle, modest, and contemplative” William wished for nothing more than to draw and classify his beloved flora and fauna.

The wish would be fulfilled. In 1772, John Fothergill, an eminent Quaker and physician, wanted to add plants to his London garden. He had seen and admired William’s drawings and proposed to pay him 50 pounds a year, plus expenses, to venture into the wilds of eastern and western Florida to search out new seeds and specimens, and “to draw birds, reptiles, insects, and plants.” William happily agreed and, in April of 1773, left for the southern colonies. The rover had found his calling.

It was there in Florida and elsewhere in the American Southeast that Bartram would undertake one of the most exhaustive surveys of American flora and fauna the world had yet seen. As he braved the torrid subtropics, surviving attacks by wolves and alligators, battling hungry bears and even hungrier mosquitoes, he discovered hundreds of plant specimens. He dried and stored as many as he could in linen books so they might be sent to Europe and elsewhere. He called his collection the “Hortus Siccus,” or “Dry Garden.” Many of the specimens therein are familiar today. They included the Venus fly trap, pickerel weed, live oak, and water lotus, to name a few.

Bartram Lotus Illustration
Image from the Bartram Garden Club

 

This last plant made for good eating. Its sweet flavor, which recalled chestnut, apparently pleased Bartram enough for him to overlook the other effect it worked on him, which he described as “laxative.” Indeed, he proved an eager trail nibbler, regularly sampling the fruit of the many wild plants he encountered. Wild lime, he wrote, “looks & tastes like a custard having a little tartness.” He appreciated the tartness of wild plums, as well, especially “at sultry noon, in this burning climate.” When preserved in sugar, he judged them “a most delicious and reviving marmalade.” Even the odd domesticated fruit he came across had its charms in such strange environs. Near the Tensaw River, which flows through south-central Alabama to Mobile Bay, Bartram stumbled on fig trees growing at the site of a since-abandoned French settlement. Their fruit were “the shape of pears and as large, and of a dark bluish–purple color.” Like wild plums, they too made for “a very acceptable dessert after the heat and toil of the day.”

Courses to be had before dessert were another matter. They could as likely disgust as delight. Bartram cheerfully ate the meat of soft-shelled turtle and manatee, which he deemed “wholesome and pleasant food.” He loved trout, which he cooked with orange juice and rice, so well that he would brave alligators to catch them. (In one such instance an alligator snapped its jaws so close to his head that Bartram “expected any moment to be dragged out of the boat and instantly devoured.”) The freshwater bowfin fish, on the other hand, “tastes of mud, and is not much esteemed”; and the snake bird, a type of cormorant, he judged as “scarcely to be eaten unless constrained by insufferable hunger.” Squab were “almost a lump of fat” and “excessively fishy in taste and smell.” And the rattlesnake meat he sampled he could not bring himself to swallow. Some flesh he found objectionable for more aesthetic reasons. Though by his own admission sandhill crane “made an excellent soup,” Bartram confessed that “as long as I can get any other necessary food I shall prefer their seraphic music in the ethereal skies” to their savory meat in a simmering pot.

Bartram Turtle Illustration
Image from the Georgia Historical Society

 

Like anyone, Bartram enjoyed most those meals he didn’t have to prepare himself. And those meals were for him plenty, as his gentle, courteous nature won over the Seminole, Cherokee, and Muscogee (Creek) tribespeople he encountered in his travels and thus won him many invitations to dinner. They saw in him a strange botanically minded man-child, with Ahaya the Cowkeeper, chief of the Alachua band of Seminole, going so far as to dub him “Puc Puggy,” or “Flower Hunter.” For his part, Bartram delighted in the attention, because he held the indigenous people he met in high regard. Their customs of land use, for example, which encouraged communal cultivation for the greater good rather than individual gain, he saw as preferable to the British system of private ownership. “It is from the most delicate sense of the honor and reputation of their tribes and families,” Bartram observed, “that their laws and customs receive their force and energy.” This proved a welcome contrast to a monolithic and byzantine system of common-law.

From mutual respect grew lasting friendship. Bartram found himself an honored guest at many important native celebrations. At a feast in Talahasochte, Florida he ate “bear ribs, venison, fish, turkey, corn cakes,” and a “very agreeable, cooling sort of jelly” made from a decoction of cat briar and honey. The hickory nut milk made by the Muscogee delighted him, their method producing a liquid “as sweet and rich as fresh cream.” Fresh corn cakes fried in bear’s fat were a favorite of his, as were honeyed water and passionfruit jelly. Yet the festive bounty could contain an occasional sour note. Bartram wrote of a “very singular dish” that he labeled the “least agreeable” of the dishes served him by his native hosts — and for an understandable reason: It was a “belly or paunch of the beef … not overcleansed of its contents.”

Bartram Bird Illustration
Image from the Bartram Garden Club

 

Bartram’s records of these meals appear in Travels through North & South Carolina, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws, which is known today by the simpler title, Bartram’s Travels. Published in 1791, Bartram’s accounts offered an intoxicating view of the vast and — to readers of the Old World — alien American landscape. Although it sold fewer than a thousand copies, some of those copies eventually found their way into estimable hands. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two towering Transcendentalist figures of the mid-19th century “American Renaissance,” would draw inspiration from Bartram’s accounts. And of his nearer contemporaries in Britain, Bartram could boast of having enthusiastic readers in the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both of whom relied on his accounts and specimens for furnishing their literary landscapes. “He told of the magnolia, spread / High as a cloud, high overhead!,” read two lines of Wordsworth’s poem “Ruth.” And in the first lines of his “Kubla Kahn,” Coleridge echoes Bartram’s description of the fountains and creeks he encountered on his travels:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced

Bartram’s inspired vision of the natural world was quietly seductive, so much so that the Victorian man of letters Thomas Carlyle thought all American libraries ought to keep it as a “future biblical article.”

Bartram Alligator Illustration
Image from Florida History Online

 

Not every reader enjoyed Travels. Its author’s sympathy for the Muscogee and Cherokee unsettled those given to a more imperialistic view of the world. The London Monthly Review accused him of being “so enthusiastically attracted to rude nature, that he deplores the intrusion of civilization.” And a reviewer for the Universal Asylum wrote, “We cannot help thinking that he magnifies the virtues of the Indians, and views their vices through too friendly a medium.”

No amount of negative criticism could shake Bartram’s faith in his vision. In 1791, Bartram wrote to his friend Benjamin Smith that he foresaw a “Magnificent structure” and that he “would be instrumental in its advancement.” This structure was one in which people lived in harmony with nature, men and women were neither enslaved nor left landless, and eternal truths and moral law governed conduct in everyday life. Bartram labored tirelessly to advance this vision, remaining a bachelor so that he could remain devoted to his gardens and studies.

Still, in his later years, he often declined offers to put his knowledge to greater use. He refused an appointment of Professor of Botany at the University of Pennsylvania in 1782, as well as a place, at President Thomas Jefferson’s invitation, in the expedition of William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, which would survey to its westernmost limit the territory Jefferson had purchased from France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. Until his death in 1823 (which happened, happily enough, in his garden) Bartram remained solitary, insisting that he had grown too tired and infirm to rove the wider world any longer.

Yet I for one can’t help but wonder if his seclusion reflected a sense of surrender, as the westward expansion that followed in the wake of Lewis and Clark, along with countless other ambitions of a restless young nation, confronted Bartram with a vision that decidedly conflicted with his wondrous own. Yes, refuge for him in his declining days lay, as he wrote, in “the vegetable world,” whose “glorious display of the Almighty hand” was unmatched anywhere else in creation.

 

Sumac Lemonade
From Phyllis Pray Bober’s “William Bartram’s Travels in Lands of Amerindian Tobacco and Caffeine: Foodways of Seminoles, Creeks and Cherokees” (1996)

Staghorn sumac, Dwarf sumac as well as Smooth sumac (Thus glabra) may all be used. However, be certain that you are gathering densely clustered berry-like RED fruits, not the white ones of poison sumac. Make this drink in late summar when the fruits ripen; they will remain ripe on the shrub or tree into winter, although you may also dry any remaining ‘heads’ of fruit as the Indians did. The advantage is in not allowing autumn rain or winter snow to dilute the acid which is primarily found in little hairs on the surface of the fruit. Bruise the berries and soak in water until it turns pinks. Alternatively, submerge a slightly crushed cluster of berries in a clear glass pitcher of water and allow to steep in the sun for a few hours. Strain through muslin or several layers of cheesecloth to remove berries and the little hairs. Sweeten with honey and serve chilled (or hot as a tea).

For more information of Bartram’s gustatory adventures, see also Kathryn E. Holland Braund’s “William Bartram’s Gustatory Tour” in Fields of Vision: Essays on the Travels of William Bartram (2010)

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