Horticultural Highlight: Franklin tree, Franklinia alatamaha

September 28, 2013

Time was my spouse and I could not agree,

Striving about superiority:

The text which saith that man and wife are one,

Was the chief argument we stood upon:

She held, they both one woman should become;

I held they should be man, and both but one.

Thus we contended daily, but with strife

Could not be ended, till both were one Wife.

                                   –   B. Franklin 1733

October is an appropriate month to recognize our Franklinia alatamaha, Franklin tree. Not only is it the month that we can enjoy both its red, autumn foliage, along with its beautiful, white blossoms, but this is actually the month, in 1765, that this outstanding, native tree was first discovered, by John Bartram (1699-1777).  Bartram, of Philadelphia, who has been referred to as the “father of American Botany,” is famous for his plant collecting throughout eastern North America, from the shores of Lake Ontario, to northern Florida. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) called Bartram the “greatest natural botanist in the world.” In Bartram’s journals, from the night of October 1, 1765, he wrote, “This day we found several very curious shrubs…,” along the Altamaha River, in southeastern Georgia.  This proved to be the beautiful Franklinia alatamaha, Franklin tree, which he named in honor of his good friend, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), both of whom were co-founders of the American Philosophical Society in 1743. The Franklin tree, the only species within its genus, while native to Georgia, is cold hardy as far north as Boston.

The attractive, 3” across, white, 5-petaled, slightly-fragrant, cup-shaped, flowers, are accented by the bright orange, stamens, at their center. Beginning to flower in September, this is one of the latest blooming trees or shrubs found at Mount Auburn.

Franklin Tree on Fir Avenue at Mount Auburn Cemetery

If successfully fertilized, these flowers will produce a woody, 5-valved capsule, which contains its seeds.  The Franklin tree actually has a variable habit, growing either into a large, multi-stemmed shrub, or into a small, single-trunk tree. The simple, leaves are 5-to 8-inches long, up to 3-inches across, shiny, dark green, with an entire, or remotely serrate margin. In the autumn, these leaves change to brilliant reds, and/or oranges, usually while the plant is still producing its contrasting white flowers, occasionally until the first killing frost.

The Franklin tree’s fascinating history is particularly enhanced, by the fact that it is now known only in cultivation. Seeds originally collected in 1777 by William Bartram (1739-1823), John’s son, who often accompanied his father, and also conducted his own plant expeditions, were grown at the family’s Philadelphia homestead. All of the Franklin trees that we know today are believed to be descendants from these earlier cultivated specimens. There are no known wild Franklin trees, and repeated searches of the area of McIntosh County, Georgia, where it was first seen, have led this beautiful plant to be listed as extinct in the wild. Hence, we can thank the Bartrams, for saving this plant from extinction, to continue to enhance our landscapes. On your next visit to Mount Auburn, look for our only Franklin tree, on Fir Avenue

 

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky c. 1816 by Benjamin West (1738 – 1820). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Selected Benjamin Franklin quotes, from Poor Richard’s Almanack, and other sources…

Well done is better than well said.

He who’s content has enough. He who complains has too much.

The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance.

I never knew a good war or a bad peace.

Half a truth is often a great lie.

Happy’s the wooing that’s not long a doing.

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

Let thy discontents be secrets.

About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant

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3 Comments

  1. Helen Klopfenstein says:

    You’ve inspired me to try and find a source for this beautiful shrub. It would be a lovely addition to our Pacific NW garden.

  2. Sally Rogers says:

    I once owned a Stewartia tree and ask if you think the Franklinia and the Stewartia are at all related. The Stewartia has a mottled bark at the end of the season and I don’t see that with the Franklinia. I loved my Stewartia, always introducing it to friends and neighbors as no one knew what it was. Lasted about 10 years in my yard, suddenly died. I used to visit your Stewartia at f-5 and yours was always bigger and healthier than mine. The two trees have much in common.
    Thanks for your article. Old Ben would be happy!

    • Jennifer Johnston says:

      Hi Sally, We are having a little website trouble, and we apologize for our delay in getting back to you. Jim Gorman is here with me and he says: “yes they are both in the camellia family and the flowers are very similar, although the fruits are distinctively different. Nevertheless, there are more species of Stewartia than there are of Franklinia. Luckily, we have not experienced any die back on any of the numerous Stewartia that we have in our collection.” Sorry to hear of the loss of your tree. Please feel free to visit our spectacular Stewartia in the Dell whenever we are open!

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