Franklinia alatamaha is probably the rarest of all trees native to North America. The species was discovered in 1765 along the Altamaha River, in southeastern Georgia, by famed botanists and horticulturists John Bartram and son William. Ultimately, they named the species in honor of their dear friend Benjamin Franklin. William went back a few years later to collect seed which was successfully propagated. Were it not for this fortuitous discovery, and the recognition of having found something exceptional, this species, last observed in the wild in 1803, would now be extinct. Franklin tree soon became an attraction at Bartram’s Garden; the oldest botanic garden in the country, on 46 acres along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.
The importance of Bartram’s Garden cannot be overstated. It was located next to the seat of government of this emergent nation, and came to symbolize the grandeur, diversity and richness of its natural resources. The Founding Fathers and delegates were frequent visitors there, and used its serene and inspiring environment as a welcome respite from the responsibilities of governance.
“As the men made their way down to the river’s edge, they were seemingly unconcerned with order or layout. Beauty was all around them and they were above all relieved to be freed from the heat, frustration and locked doors of the State House. They reveled in inspecting plants they had never seen before and took a particular pleasure in the exquisite white flowers of Franklinia alatamaha...The tree was such a horticultural wonder that botanists pilgrimaged to Philadelphia to see it. Only the British were awkward about the discovery, preferring the name Gordonia pubescens and refusing to accept Franklinia alatamaha--which was probably not surprising, given Franklin’s role in the American Revolution”
-- Andrea Wulff, The Founding Gardeners
Franklinia alatamaha is an exquisite deciduous small tree, or large shrub, that reaches heights between 10 to 25’ at maturity. It produces an abundance of fragrant, camellia-like flowers that are up to 3” across, with white petals and a vivid orange center. The blooming period occurs late in the season, when very few other woody plants are in bloom, and extends for several months beginning in late summer and often lasting through early fall until frost. The leaves are oblong and narrow, up to 5” long, glossy and dark green. They provide exceptional fall color when they turn vivid shades of orange, red, or burgundy, sometimes while still in bloom which creates quite a show. Franklin tree can be multi-stemmed or grow with a single trunk. The bark is attractive, smooth and gray, and with age is marked by white striations with age. Very few woody plants provide such a high level of visual interest across all seasons.
With regards to provenance and genetics, all existing plants are direct descendants of the few specimens collected by William Bartram himself. Because the species was extirpatedso soon after its discovery, there was very little opportunity to study it in the wild, which has led to some surprises in regards to its growing requirements once put into cultivation:
“Despite its southern roots, Franklinia is hardy in zones 5-8. In the 'Manual of Woody Landscape Plants,' Michael Dirr notes ironically that Franklinia performs better in the northern United States than it does in the south, perhaps because it is susceptible to a soil-borne disease associated with cotton.”
-- Sandy Feather, Penn State Extension
For a species that was endemic to such a limited area, Franklinia alatamaha is remarkably adaptable. It can be grown in full sun to part-shaded, in soil that is moist but well-drained. It does best in a high quality environment, rich in organic material. Its fibrous root system is susceptible to rot in poorly-drained soil, so heavy clay should be avoided. It should be protected from excessive heat in the south, and provided a spot with some afternoon shade. If grown in the northern limits of it hardiness tolerance, it should be given a spot shielded from the wind. It is otherwise trouble-free, and has proved to be an exceptional choice for small spaces. Zones 5-8