We hear so much today about extinction and ecosystem collapse, but sometimes, by luck, a plant can be saved – if not in the wild, at least in garden collections, and its gene pool preserved for the future. For garden-lovers and plant-lovers, one fascinating and wonderful story like that is the story of Franklin’s Tree, known to botanists as Franklinia alatamaha. Perhaps you have never heard of this tree, and that isn’t surprising, but sit back and get ready for a tale of exploration, adventure and sheer good luck. Learn too how you can have a branch of this tree in your own garden, thanks to the work and skill of this country’s dedicated horticulturists. “Are we ready? Then I’ll begin. . .”
The Discovery and Extinction of Franklin’s Tree
It can be hard to imagine just how wild and rugged America was in those first years of settlement. The early explorers entered virgin territory, virtually untouched by the American Indians, who lived largely off the land. As well, the arrival of Western diseases with the earliest explorers had tragically decimated those populations, leaving deserted villages and empty tracts of land over millions of acres. Now imagine John and William Bartram paddling their canoes down the Altamaha river in Georgia in 1765. They lived in the relative sophistication of Philadelphia, founded by William Penn just 80 years earlier.
The Bartrams were botanists, naturalists and horticulturists – keen professional gardeners eager to explore the plant riches of their new country. John was officially the Royal Botanist for North America, appointed by King George III, but his son William was only 26 when they went on this expedition. Near Fort Barrington, along the river banks, they came across what John said were ‘curious shrubs’ and later William was to write that they only ever found this plant in an area of no more than 2 or 3 acres, where it was relatively abundant. To this day it has never been found anywhere else.
William returned to the spot later, on a three-year exploring and collecting trip funded by the British doctor John Fothergill, a wealthy man who had his own private botanical garden outside London. Seeds arrived in Philadelphia in 1777, and in 1781 they flowered in the Bartram’s garden. William studied the plant for some years, and they declared it a new species, naming it after Benjamin Franklin, who had been a close friend of his father.
As for those original trees, they were last reported by the British collector John Lyon in 1803. After that, Franklinia was never again seen in the wild. It had become extinct, perhaps a victim of settlement, perhaps of diseases introduced with the cotton plant, but we really don’t know. Any plant with such a limited distribution is always going to be vulnerable, and jumping to guilt and blaming European settlement probably isn’t the answer.
More detailed DNA research reveals that Franklinia is related to the loblolly-bay, Gordonia lasianthus, another unique tree of the American south, but even more closely to Schima, an Asian group of about 20 species found from Nepal through China. It is most likely that there was once a large number of related plants spread across Asia and North America. Following periods of glaciation and cooling in the Pleistocene (which ended about 12,000 years ago), all these plants growing between China and Georgia were wiped out, leaving just some remnants, like Franklinia and the loblolly-bay, growing in the South. So Franklinia was threatened long before Europeans arrived. Indeed, the area where Bartram found the trees is not even particularly suited to their growing, suggesting it really was just a few specimens hanging on, already on their way to a natural extinction.
In Philadelphia the tree proved difficult to grow, and that first tree nearly died before being taken by a nurseryman who managed to propagate it. Even so, growing this tree proved very difficult, and at one point there were perhaps no more than 100 trees left on the planet. The plant attracted renewed interest in the 1970s, and hard work made propagation easier, so that today there are perhaps 1,000 trees growing in botanical gardens, parks and cemeteries, as well as in private gardens, around the world.
What is Franklin’s Tree Like?
Franklinia alatamaha is a relative of the camellia, and therefore of the tea plant. It is a large shrub or small tree, typically growing 15 to 25 feet tall. The gray bark is patterned with vertical white striations, and the 6-inch leaves are glossy and dark green, turning orange red in fall. The extent to which it is deciduous depends on the climate it is growing in. The large, fragrant, white flowers resemble single camellias, and they open from July through the summer. For successful flowering a long, hot summer is needed. The seeds go dormant as soon as they are pollinated, and only begin to develop in the next spring, so it takes over a year for the seed capsules to mature. This type of dormancy is very rare in trees outside of the tropics.
In gardens this is a notoriously tricky tree to grow, needing hot summers, moist soil, the right balance of sun and shade, plus plenty of patience and luck. If you do manage to establish one successfully, it will probably live a hundred years or more. Some nurseries do offer plants, but there is an easier way to enjoy at least part of this tree, thanks to some professors at North Carolina State University.
Meet the Mountain Gordlinia
Professor Thomas Ranney is a well-known plant breeder at the Department of Horticultural Science at NCSU, and like many plant professionals he was fascinated by Franklin’s Tree, and the story of how close we came to losing it from the planet. Knowing how close it was to the loblolly-bay, in 2003 he and an associate, P. R. Fantz, succeeded in crossing the two trees together, producing a rare ‘intergeneric hybrid’. This special type of hybrid has the ‘x’ showing cross-breeding in front of the name, not in the middle, so this hybrid tree is called x Gordlinia grandiflora. The usual common name is Mountain Gordlinia.
Like most hybrid plants the Mountain Gordlinia is tougher and easier to grow than either parent. It still takes a little care, but if you have an acidic woodland garden growing camellias and azaleas well, you should have no serious problems with it at all. It is a beautiful semi-evergreen tree, with glossy leaves turning reds, oranges and plum-purples in fall, with some leaves falling but most remaining. It grows in zones 7 to 9, and the beautiful pure-white flowers are larger than on either parent tree, up to 6 inches across, like a single camellia, with the bonus of a lovely perfume, between honeysuckle and orange blossom. It is also a strong grower, reaching 12 feet tall within 10 years, and double that when mature. Planted in acidic soil that is moist but not boggy, in partial shade, it should do well for you – and it’s 50% the exotic, desirable, but very difficult Franklinia – and a great story to tell at your garden party.