Most plants in the garden are of humble origin, with no remarkable tale to tell. Not so Mr. Franklin’s tree, Franklinia alatamaha.
The curious large shrubs on the banks of the Altamaha River in Georgia were observed by noted botanists John and William Bartram in 1765. William Bartram collected seeds on a subsequent visit, which were cultivated and named in honor of their father’s friend, Ben Franklin. Franklinia disappeared from its native habitat a half century later, victim to development, flooding, or perhaps fungus from overplanting of cotton, so all trees in cultivation today descend from the Bartram’s seed.
The Franklinia in my garden has a similar survival story to tell.
Nearly twenty years ago I discovered mine in a tree growing nursery in the mountains of western North Carolina. I promptly purchased twenty-five of the eight foot tall trees for the landscape company I work for, Meadows Farms. The trees arrived dormant at our nursery in early March, and within days one was planted in my garden next to a newly constructed shed.
The Franklin tree has a weakly fibrous root system, and trees are difficult to transplant. The trees in the nursery began to leaf in mid April, then declined quickly with warmer temperatures. In my garden, the tree sprouted smaller than normal leaves, an indicator of problems from transplanting. Fortunately, our landscape designers had sold but a few of this uncommon tree, so few clients were disappointed when they died.
Somehow, mine survived, one of twenty-five. I have yet to see another Franklinia in a nursery in the years since, though I have seen listings for mail order trees. If you are shopping for one, I would recommend only trees grown in containers, so that the shock from transplanting is minimized.
In late July the Franklin tree is just beginning to bloom, and will continue through late September, when the leaves often begin to turn orange to scarlet. The tree is magnificent with clusters of marble sized buds opening to camellia-like three inch white flowers (also similar to Stewartia pseudocamellia).
Franklinia’s moderate size (growing to thirty feet tall and two-thirds as wide), spectacular blooms, and Fall color make it a wonderful tree for any garden.