This summer I wad given the opportunity to see Franklin trees in bloom. Considered among the rarest of America’s native plants, it is believed to be extinct in the wild. Franklinia alatamaha is not common in the nursery trade due to the fact that they are difficult to grow and usually only sought after by collectors. For me see fifty of theses beautiful trees blooming was a treat.
The Franklin tree was discovered in 1765 by botanists John and William Bartram along Georgia’s Altamaha River and has never been found anywhere else in the wild. It was named in honor the of Bartrams friend Benjamin Franklin. Today, all Franklinias are said to have descended from the original specimens the Bartrams planted in their Philadelphia garden.
Franklinia is a small, deciduous tree or shrub which grows 6′ – 15′. Blooming occurs mid to late summer, in July – August. Known as ‘the lost camellia’, large, showy flowers are a pure white with deep yellow center. Franklinia alatamaha is closely related to Stewartia and it shows. The blooms were full of very busy pollinators. Highly fragrant, they scented the entire area.
Summer produces large oblong leaves of a mid green, 4″ to 8″ long. They have a thick and sturdy feel to them much like an American fringe tree Chionanthus Virginicus.
Fall color is outstanding. The above photo was taken just as they started to change. Later the leaves would turn a very bright red, to deep red into then a show-stopping purple maroon. The plants held their leaves well and the color remained for a good portion of the season. I can imagine that larger specimens are quite striking in a landscape.
As far as their culture Franklinia alatamaha is known to be difficult to grow and the general consensus is that it is very picky about placement. Once you plant it, relocating it isn’t an option. They apparently don’t care for that one bit and have a sparse, fibrous root system that wants to stay put. They need to be grown in organically rich, moist but (and here is the kicker) very well-drained soil. It is prone to root rot so can not sit in water while at the same time does not handle drought well. I have been told that they do well when planted in an elevated location to allow for better drainage. Franklinia alatamaha requires an acidic to neutral pH and can be grown in full sun to part shade.
Eventually I will have a Franklin tree. Who knows – perhaps I will plant one and mine will seed elsewhere and the seedlings will mutate slightly, just enough to allow this tree to adapt and survive in the wild easier. Could happen.
If you are interested in this beautiful little tree they are not the easiest to locate but they can be found. The specimens photographed above were from Kinsey Family Farms in Gainesville, Georgia however they do not ship. Several mail order nurseries do carry them.
The origins of Franklinia alatamaha are the subject of debate. Some horticulturalist believe the it was brought over and cultivated by British colonists. There has been examinations, DNA testing, arguments, hybridizing and all of that. To the best of my knowledge Michale Dirr is maintaining that Franklinia alatamaha is a native American tree. These days planting anything ‘native’ has gotten so complicated that I feel I need DNA testing of everything in my yard lest I be outed as an alien gardener. In the case of Franklinia alatamaha I am simply going to thank Mr. Dirr for being far more educated and driven than I on the topic and just say, “What he said!”
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