A Curious Shrub

This very hot, dry weather we have had lately has been taxing not just for us, but for our gardens. I went out today with a hose to drip water at the base of my small, rather wilted looking Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha). I count myself lucky to have succeeded so far in growing this plant. It’s not the easiest tree to transplant and maintain, and many a plant in hardiness zones 6 or 7 can become “permanently dormant” without rich but well-drained soil. This tree is only moderately drought tolerant.

In contrast to the hot, humid weather today, it was a clear, cool day in October 1765 when Philadelphia botanists John Bartram and his son William discovered a new tree growing along the bottomlands next to the Altamaha River, not far from Fort Barrington in the British colony of Georgia. This is now near where I-95 crosses over the river. In his journal entry for the first day of October that year, John recorded: “This day we found severral very curious shrubs, one bearing beautiful good fruite [seedpod].” John, newly appointed Royal Botanist by King George III, traveled with William throughout the south and east collecting plants and seeds to send to England. They also used their collection to establish the first botanic garden in the colonies. William returned several times from 1773 to 1776 for a collecting expedition sponsored by John Fothergill, the owner of the largest botanic garden in London at that time.

The original stand of Franklinia trees were found growing near the banks of the Altamaha River in southeastern Georgia. Photo by Bubba73 (Jud McCranie) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4

William Bartram relocated the “very curious shrubs” and collected seeds during these trips, which he described in his book Bartram’s Travels, published in 1791. He brought his seeds to Philadelphia in 1777 (the year of John Bartram’s death), and four years later successfully flowered some of the plants he had collected. William later learned that one specimen in particular that he had sent to England was a unique genus. William assigned the plant to the genus Franklinia, in honor of the Bartrams’ family friend Benjamin Franklin. The species name “alatamaha” is an alternate spelling for the Altamaha River, where they had discovered the tree.

The Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha) flowers late in late summer and early fall, with fragrant flowers making a nice contrast to the reddish fall foliage. Photo by Wendy Cutler from Vancouver, Canada / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

William was the first to notice that Franklinia was a rare plant with very limited distribution. “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 [1.2 hectares] of ground where it grows plentifully.” (Bartram’s Travels, page 468).

Franklinia is the monotypic genus (a genus with only one species) in the family Theaceae. This is the tea family, which includes both the plant used to make tea (Camellia sinensis) and Camellia (Camellia japonica), the plant popular in the southern United States. This plant has a lovely five-petaled white flower with a center of yellow stamens and a sweet scent reminiscent of Gardenia. A small tree that grows only 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 meters) high, it has upright, spreading branches, often leafless in their lower reaches, that give the plant an airy appearance. The Franklin Tree flowers late in the summer and the white petals make a striking contrast with its red fall foliage.

William Bartram was one of the country’s first natural history illustrators. Here is an illustration of Franklinia he did in 1788. From https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3f/William_Bartram01.jpg

There are two nice specimens of Franklinia growing in the courtyard of Yale’s new Benjamin Franklin College in New Haven. You can thank Nobel laureate and Harvard professor emeritus Dudley Herschbach. On the board of Yale’s Franklin Papers, he has been fascinated with Franklin his whole life. When the new college was being built, Herschbach suggested that the courtyard should have a Franklinia, and sent Ellen Cohn, Editor in Chief of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, the name of a local nursery. The landscape architects were able to incorporate a Franklin tree into their design, and today you can see where a stone carver included its blossoms above the college’s main gate.

The mature, smooth, striped bark is very similar to Stewartia, a related tree in the same family. Photo (c)2006 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)

Imagine if you could collect seeds that would be treasured more than 200 years into the future! The last time this tree was spotted in the wild was in 1803. It has been extinct in nature since then. We don’t know why Franklinia disappeared in the wild. The clearing of land along the Altamaha River led to the theory that a cotton pathogen in the soil carried downstream by erosion was the main cause of the extinction of the Franklinia colony found by the Bartrams. Other theories include climate change, over-collecting, the lack of genetical diversity to withstand pathogens or changing conditions, and flooding. But, it’s good to know that this tree survives in cultivation. You can thank William Bartram for this unique species—all Franklinia trees today are descended from his seeds.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

4 thoughts on “A Curious Shrub

  1. Jim, Thanks so much for doing this blog! I really look forward to it and have gone back and re-read earlier ones.  Linda

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    1. Dear Linda,
      Thanks a bunch for your kind words! It was great to find out that William B was one of the first natural history illustrators in the country. A talented person just like yourself, Dody and the CNSI group.
      All the best,
      Jim

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  2. Hey Jim, I very much enjoyed your article on the Franklinia tree and printed it out. I knew about it from my earlier research on Mark Catesby, but had no idea that a specimen was growing in your yard and also in the Yale college courtyard. Stay well and cheers, Dody Gall

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