The Franklin tree, Franklinia alatamaha, is an ornamental tree only found in cultivation today. The fragrant, camellia-like flowers make it a worthy addition to the garden and its history makes it a conversation piece.
John Bartram found this tree in 1770 growing along the Altamaha River in Georgia, and named it for his friend Benjamin Franklin. After 1790 it couldn’t be found in the wild, and all of our Franklinias since are thought to be descended from this original collection.
In 1999 I participated in a study of the genetic diversity of the plant by the Holden Arboretum; I sent them a fresh cutting from the tree I planted at Crow’s Nest so that they could determine how closely related are the Franklinias in cultivation. I never did find out the exact results of that study.
Our Franklinia, along with one planted at Taylor Memorial Arboretum when I worked there, was donated by Lydia Thomas and Anne and Tom Moore, from the nursery that was once on their property.
Although it was found in Georgia, Franklinia is hardy here in Pennsylvania. Bartram planted one in his botanic garden along the Schuykill River, and you can go to Bartram’s Garden today and see a large specimen. Like several other southern species, Franklinia was likely pushed south during the Ice Age, and hadn’t had the time to migrate north again even though the climate here again was suitable for it. (Today, there are often human-made barriers to such migrations in the form of agricultural and suburban land uses, instead of more natural forest habitats.)
Franklinia had likely a small wild population at the time Bartram saw it, and so was vulnerable to extinction from any number of possible causes. We are fortunate to be able to grow it in gardens today, even if this is much diminished from its potential former wild glory.
For a description of Bartram’s travels, see John’s son William Bartram’s “Travels,” originally published in 1791 as “Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee country.”