Our Franklinia tree opened its first, fragrant camellia-like flower this weekend, an event as eagerly anticipated at Hidden Hill as the first spring blooms of a witch hazel, if not a cold beer on the back porch after a long hot day weeding the iris bed and cactus patch.
The first thing to know about the Franklinia is there are no more growing in the wild; the last known one in the American wild died out about 1800, give or take a leap year – and no one is sure why.
The initial finding of the tree is a great story itself. It goes back to the legendary plant botanist John Bartram and his son, William, who were wandering the East Coast on Oct. 1, 1765 when they came across a patch of the Franklinia trees on a few scant acres of sandy bottomland along the Altamaha River in Georgia – the only place it has ever been spotted.
John Bartram, a Pennsylvania Quaker farmer, had only that year been appointed Royal Botanist for North America by King George III – this at a time when who really knew how much geography that would include, or how the colonists would really come to feel about King George III.
Bartram’s title also came with a 50-pound pay grade – pretty good wages in that day – and so Bartram and his son would saddle up to go collect all sorts of botanic specimens and seeds to ship back to England, and to collectors across Europe.
Indeed, one of the great myths of the horticulture world is that our early settlers brought a lot of garden treasures with them from the Old World. The truth is colonial America sent a lot more seeds and plants back to England and Europe than they ever sent to us.
According to a detailed history of the Franklinia tree written for terrain.org by one Lucy M. Rowland, John Bartram wrote in his log on the day of discovery: “This day we found several very curious shrubs, one bearing beautiful good fruite.”
It’s important to remember that back in 1765 practically everything in the fruite world was new to us. History did not record if the Bartrams took any Franklinia seed home from that 1765 journey, but the explorers did remark on its striking orange and red fall foliage.
The record does show that in 1773 William Bartram took off into the East Coast wilds for four years, including a return to the Altamaha River where he saw the Franklinia in bloom – initially recording it as a Gordonia lasianthus.
As often happens, a naming debate ensued, but it all ended agreeably as William hauled some seeds home to Philadelphia and planted a few in his father’s botanical garden, where it grew and blossomed in a few years.
In 1785, in tribute to Ben Franklin, an old family friend, the tree was officially dubbed Franklinia alatamaha to honor both the old postmaster, and the last place it had been seen in the wild more than 200 years ago.
And, yes, it is pretty darn cool having a hunk of that history growing out in our arboretum. It does require moist, acidic, well-drained soil; it is another of those plants that is either happy or dead. We have kept ours happily alive in semi-shade for about 25 years.
It offers those eagerly-anticipated white, circular fragrant flowers with yellow centers, and copious amounts of seed pods – which I have not yet been able to nurse to life.
It’s early-fall leaf color is soft red and orange. It’s a wonderful tree to have, to think about, to brag about. Have I mentioned ours began blooming this weekend?