If you are looking for something unusual, as well as a challenge, consider the Franklinia. Franklinia alatamaha is a large shrub or small tree with a mysterious story and a showy appearance. It’s been extinct in the wild since the early 1800’s. It may not be the easiest plant to grow. But the flowers are spectacular, and you can entertain friends and family with the story.
It was ‘discovered’ by botanists John and William Bartram along the Altamaha River. John was Royal Botanist for King George III and traveled throughout the colonies to collect and preserve botanic specimens, seeds, and living examples. He and his son William were world-renowned plant collectors and hybridizers.
They saw the Franklinia near Fort Barrington in the British colony of Georgia. They were intrigued by their new find, which they stumbled upon in October of 1765. It’s easy to imagine them being drawn to the brilliant fall colors of the leaves setting off the showy fall flowers.
In William Bartram’s words, written in 1791 “We never saw it grow in any other place, nor have I ever since seen it growing wild, in all my travels, from Pennsylvania to Point Coupe, on the banks of the Mississippi, which must be allowed a very singular and unaccountable circumstance; at this place there are two or three acres of ground where it grows plentifully.” The sight of two to three acres of this shrub in its fall finery would have been something worth writing home about!
They collected seed and cuttings from the unusual shrubs and grew them in their Philadelphia garden. The plant is named in honor of their friend Benjamin Franklin. Nurseries in Philadelphia started cultivating Franklinia in the nineteenth century.
Is it Native?
There is some speculation that it is not a native of Georgia, and possibly not even native to the states. One theory is that is was brought in accidentally by French in the 1600’s, or perhaps in the hull of a slave trader ship. It was only ever documented in that one location by the river in what is now the State of Georgia.
Another theory is that it was a northern species that “escaped” glaciation. Its life cycle lends credence to the theory of a more northern nativity. It blooms in September, which is a lot later than most North American flowering tree species. Also, the fruits take a long time to mature – more than a year. And, it is not the least bit drought tolerant.
It seems to prefer the soil, water, and climate conditions found at the high altitudes of tropical and subtropical climates. It thrives with cool nights, and long mild days with strong sunlight from October through March. All these preferences lead some to believe it might be Asian in origin. It is a member of the tea family which includes camellia.
Other experts, such as Michael Dirr—author of multiple horticulture books and expert on woody trees and shrubs—believe that Franklinia is a native American plant. His (and other’s) theory is that the rise of cotton growing in the south introduced a soil fungus that was carried downstream via erosion. The fungal pathogen was fatal to Franklinia, thus its decline.
No Longer Occurs in the Wild
There are no known Franklinia trees growing in the wild anywhere in the world, although they grow well in cultivation from Massachusetts to Florida. The last sighting of one in the wild was in 1803, when researcher John Lyon noted a handful of originals in the spot where the Bartrams had seen acres.
All Franklinia in cultivation today are direct descendants from the trees propagated in the Bartrams’ garden. No one is sure why the plant went extinct. If it was an accidental introduction, perhaps it was never really suited to the area. Others think perhaps fire, flood, or over-collection was the cause. Or, maybe it was the soil fungus from cotton growing.
Why was it in Georgia, and how did it find its way there? Perhaps someday there will be a way to solve this mystery. For now, we can enjoy the beauty and mystique of this plant.
Franklinia has a reputation for being finicky. It needs well drained soil (so the banks of the Alatamaha were not exactly ideal). Full sun or light shade are best, along with acidic soil and rich organic matter. It will not grow in clay or compacted soil and leaves will yellow if soil is alkaline. It is not pollution or urban tolerant. When planting, try to disturb its roots as little as possible.
It is not drought tolerant, so be sure to water during dry spells. Because it lacks fibrous roots, any disturbance to its root system can cause stress. Keep root zone covered with an inch or two of mulch (don’t let the mulch touch the trunk).
It doesn’t live a particularly long time – perhaps to about 50 years. There are reports of long-lived specimens, and you may have just the right spot for it. If you are up for a challenge, give it a try.
Franklinia is a deciduous, understory tree with an upright pyramydal habit. It doesn’t reach great heights, seldom even reaching 30 feet. The glossy green leaves give it an air of elegance. Coupled with its 3” wide showy flowers, it is stunning.
Leaves sport fall colors ranging from orange to red, and purple. It blooms late into fall and the fall color sets off the last of its pure white of the blooms.
It’s bark is attractive. It can be grown as a multiple stemmed tree or as a single trunk.
Did We Say It Is Fragrant?
The tree is a member of the tea family, along with camellias. Its white flowers are lightly fragrant. Some say it is reminiscent of orange blossoms or honeysuckle. With most of our native fragrant plants blooming in spring to summer, Franklinia provides a lingering sense of summer scent in the fall.
Placement in Landscape
Plant it in a woodland garden, or as a specimen or accent plant. Companion plants are mountain laurel, Christmas fern, coast azalea, and Fothergilla.
Each year we get many requests for Franklinia. We’ve heard you! We ordered in a nice crop of these trees from a reputable grower. They are in 5 gallon containers and about 3′-5′ in height with multiple branching. Plant them now to enjoy their fall color and flowers in your own landscape.
Top: Chris M Morris Franklinia alatamaha at Arnold Arboretum Courtesy of Flickr Commons
Fall Color: Left: Wendy Cutler 20121019_UBCBG_FrankliniaAlatamaha_Cutler_P1340839 Franklinia alatamaha, at UBC Botanical Garden FlickrCommons; Right: Photo (c)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)
Habit: Left: 2014 Plant Image Library Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha) 2428-3*A Flickr Commons. Right: https://landscapeplants.oregonstate.edu/plants/franklinia-alatamaha