1026 Franklinia alatamahaCommon Names: franklinia, Franklin tree Family: Theaceae (tea Family)
What a story! King George III had appointed John Bartram the "King's Botanist" for the American colonies. Bartram established the first botanical garden in the New World at Philadelphia. In 1765-66, Bartram and his son, William, traveled to the southeastern part of what would become the United States of America. They explored and collected plants in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. Near the Altamaha River in Georgia, the Bartrams discovered a small tree that no European had ever seen before. The tree had flowers like a camellia: A showy, fragrant pure white cup about 3 in (7.5 cm) across with five petals and conspicuous bright golden stamens. They named the new tree the Franklin tree, after their friend, Benjamin Franklin. The Bartrams sent seeds and cuttings back to Philadelphia and to Europe for propagation. That turned out to be a good thing, because the Franklin tree has not been seen in the wild since the 18th century! Today franklinia is available from many nurseries, but every specimen is descended from the material the Bartrams collected.
Franklinia is a smallish tree, 15-30 ft (5-9 m) tall, with an open, airy form. The deciduous dark glossy leaves tend to be crowded near the twig tips. They are up to 6 in (15 cm) long, and turn orange to scarlet in autumn. Flowers are produced in succession throughout the summer until first frost, often closing up partially in the evenings. The fruit is a woody capsule which matures the following year. Larger trees sport attractive bark with light and dark gray stripes.
Franklinia alatamaha is known only in cultivation; all plants are descended from seeds and cuttings collected by the Bartrams in Georgia in 1765. There is a report that franklinia was seen again along the Altamaha River in 1790, but not collected. Since then, many people have searched in vain for the lost franklinia!
CultureIn some situations franklinia can be difficult to establish, due to susceptibility to verticillium wilt disease. Light: Grow franklinia in partial shade under tall trees, or better yet, in full sun. Moisture: Franklinia thrives in moist but well drained acidic soils. Water during prolonged dry periods. Mulch. Hardiness: USDA Zones 6 - 9. Curiously franklinia seems to perform best in zones 6 and 7, considerably north of the zone 8 region in Georgia where it was first collected. (Maybe would-be re-discoverers should look further north.) Propagation: Plant seeds as soon as they are ripe - don't let them dry out. Softwood cuttings are easy to root.
Franklinia makes a beautiful specimen tree in an open woodland garden. And what a conversation starter! Franklinia is especially showy in fall as the leaves start turning red while the tree is still blooming with snow white flowers. The rare and lovely franklinia should be more widely grown. It is readily available from nurseries that specialize in rare plants.
A member of the tea family, franklinia is closely related to the loblolly bay (Gordonia lasianthus), but has deciduous, rather than evergreen leaves. The flowers look a lot like those of a single-flowered white camellia (Camellia japonica), also in the tea family.
I have a fondness for obscure native shrubs and small trees. My franklinia graces a corner of the yard along with Carolina buckthorn (Rhamnus caroliniana), pawpaw (Asimina triloba, hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata), witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), rusty black-haw (Viburnum rufidulum), Florida mountainmint (Pycnanthemum floridanum) and several rhododendrons. A lovely little woodland hideaway.
Steve Christman 7/17/06; updated 5/27/08