From the Missouri Botanical Garden:
Franklinia alatamaha, commonly called Franklin tree, typically grows as a single-trunk tree with a rounded crown or as a multi-stemmed shrub. As a single trunk tree, it can grow to 20’ tall or more, but is more often seen growing much shorter. Camellia-like, cup-shaped, 5-petaled, sweetly-fragrant, white flowers (to 3” diameter) bloom in late summer to early fall. Each flower sports a boss of egg-yolk yellow center stamens. Narrow, oblong-obovate, glossy dark green leaves (to 5” long) turn quality shades of orange, red and purple in autumn. John Bartram was appointed Royal Botanist for North America by King George III in 1765. In that same year, John Bartram and his son William discovered franklinia growing in a 2-3 acre tract along the banks of the Altamaha River in southeastern Georgia. Franklinia has never been observed growing in any other place than along the Altamaha River. In a return trip in 1773, William Bartram collected seed from this site and brought it back to the Bartram’s garden in Philadelphia where the tree was successfully grown. This tree has been extinct in the wild since 1803. It has been perpetuated in cultivation (all plants derive from the seed collected by Bartram) not only because of its rarity but also because of its attractive flowers and foliage. The current genetic base of this plant is quite narrow in large part because all plants currently in existence in the world come from the materials collected by the Bartrams. Franklinia belongs to the tea family and is closely related to Stewartia and Gordonia (loblolly bay). It is not known why this tree disappeared in the wild. Land along the Altamaha River was cleared for cotton plantations leading to one theory that a cotton pathogen found in the soil (carried downstream through erosion) was the main cause of the extinction of the colony. Other extinction theories include decline from climate change, destruction by man, single colony of plants was not genetically diverse enough to withstand pathogens or changing conditions, or a local disaster (flood or fire).
Genus name honors Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), American printer, scientist, philosopher and statesman.
Specific epithet name has an extra “a” in it (apparently because of an alternate spelling for the river when the tree was named).
I love Franklinia trees. My old neighbor Johnny had one…until a drunk driver drove up onto his lawn and front garden and bulldozed it down. His tree was about 12 feet tall and I remember at the time the insurance adjusters from both sides didn’t see it as a big deal.
To a plant lover, it was a big deal.
It was. Franklinia trees are notoriously hard to grow, so once you get one established you celebrate the lovely little tree discovered by John Bartram and named in dedication of Benjamin Franklin.
It’s root system makes it persnickety and this is a tree that hates being moved or transplanted. Which means when you find the perfect spot in your garden, it must stay there.
Where mine is planted I wasn’t sure how it would fare. This was a bed I reclaimed from the crazy forsythia that tried to swallow parts of our property whole for 50 years or better. Yes off on a tangent, but I hate forsythia with a burning passion. It should be labeled an invasive plant.
But I digress.
When I reclaimed this particular planting area and one immediately adjacent I started with digging out as much forsythia as possible. Then there was the soil to deal with. This area of my gardens has heavy clay content. So bags of sand, bags of grit, leaf mold, mushroom soil, dehydrated manure, green sand, gypsum.
And I am still adding amendments every year at this point and still digging out forsythia. This week alone when I was planting two Bayberry bushes in the right corner of this bed, I had to amend the soil again and I dug out more forsythia and two five to six foot sections of root that were as wide as my wrist!
Franklinia trees like well drained soil. As per Fine Gardening:
Grow in organically rich, moist but very well-drained soil of acidic to neutral pH, in full sun. Resents transplanting and should not be disturbed in the landscape.
My Franklinia tree seems to be growing well with red rhododendrons, hydrangeas, a pair of blueberry bushes and various herbs and perennials. This is it’s first year to bloom since I bought it at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia. Could I have bought it elsewhere? Probably but it seemed fitting to literally buy it from the source.
My tree came from Bartram’s Garden spring plant sale. There is a fall plant sale at their upcoming honey festival September 8th from 10 am to 4 pm.
I had been watching my Franklinia tree bud for a couple of weeks and this morning I went to take a peek and the lovely soft white flowers are starting to open. My tree is small so I am so happy it is happy and blooming.
And that is the thing about gardening: how happy these small triumphs after lots of hard work make you feel.
Enjoy the day! It’s beautiful outside with a nice little breeze.