America's First Rare Plant: The Franklin Tree

AUG 19

You have the perfect spot. It's just begging for a special tree, something unique. But every tree that comes to mind has already been done; not that there is anything wrong with using a classic, throwing neighborhood uniformity a curve every once in a while would be fun, right? Here's a solution: How about a Franklin tree? Never heard of it?  You are not alone.

Much has been written about the search for the Franklin tree or lost camellia. In 1765, Philadelphia botanists John and William Bartram first observed the tree growing along the Altamaha River in Georgia. John made note of "several curious shrubs" for that day's journal entry (later published as Bartram's Travels). Collecting its seeds for when he returned home, Bartram then propagated the small tree in Philadelphia. After years of observation, Bartram assigned the "rare and elegant flowering shrub" the name Franklinia alatamaha, in honor of his father's close friend, Benjamin Franklin and the river by which it grew. But not much was seen of the curious tree in the years that followed. Bartram wrote:

"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 3 acres of ground where it grows plentifully." (W. Bartram 1791: 468).

The Franklin tree was last verified in the wild in 1803 by the English plant collector, John Lyon. All known specimens today are descendants from seed collected by William Bartram and propagated at Bartram's garden in Philadelphia. Needless to say, this one of the rarest trees in the country.

Today, the native Franklinia is a small, deciduous tree growing fifteen to twenty feet high and ten to fifteen feet wide, with elongated, dark green leaves that turn red, orange, or pink in the fall. Its most striking feature is its showy 2-3 inch snow-white, lightly fragrant flowers, with clusters of golden yellow stamens in the centers, looking similar to a camellia blossom. The tree flowers from late summer until frost. It can take partial shade, needs some protection from the winter winds and is happy in acidic, well-drained, moist soil. This native works perfectly as a specimen, lawn or patio tree.

In 1969 a set of four U.S. postal stamps was issued, each bearing a plant associated with one of the four regions of the country; the Franklinia was chosen to represent the South. A postage stamp tree for a postage stamp sized space; this rare beauty is a piece of American history and perfect for any yard.