There is much history surrounding this small, deciduous tree that has beautiful camellia-like late summer blossoms and striking orange to red fall foliage. All plants in cultivation today can be traced back to the original collection of naturalist, botanist and plant explorer, John Bartram in 1770. According to the Arnold Arboretum, “the species was discovered in southeast Georgia, along the Altahama River near Fort Barrington, on October 1, 1765, by John Bartram and his son William.
“I set off early in the morning for the Indian trading house, in the river St. Mary, and took the road up the NE side of the Alatamaha to Fort Barrington. I passed through a well-inhabited district, mostly live plantations, on the waters of the Cathead creek, a branch of the Alatamaha. On drawing near the fort, I was delighted at the appearance of two new beautiful shrubs, in all their graces.”
-Travels of John Bartram
Illustration of John Bartram
Bartram's illustration of Franklinia tree from the British Museum, 1788
The Bartrams carried some of the plants and seeds back to Philadelphia where they propagated the plant. When they returned to Georgia after the American Revolution, they could find no surviving examples. Every Franklinia in cultivation today is a direct link to the specimen found by John Bartram and his son William in 1765. The first successfully grown tree was given to its future namesake Benjamin Franklin. Dependent on which piece of history you read, the species became extinct in the wild somewhere between 1790 and 1803 due to land clearing and over-collecting by plant enthusiasts. No other plants have been found in the wild since 1791!
Franklinia has also endured a name change. Originally the specimen was named to honor Bartram’s friend and fellow member of the Philosophical Society -- Benjamin Franklin and the location where they found the specimen (near the mouth of the Altamaha river). Somewhere along the way Franklinia alatamaha evolved into Gordonia pubescens, then Gordonia altamaha by European botonists, but in 1925 it reverted back its original nomenclature. Of even greater detail is that the genus portion of its name is a misspelling (an additional” a”) of the Altamaha River that stuck!
Other reasons for the disappearance of the species from it’s native habitat include the following suggestion…”The good cold-hardiness of the surviving plants suggests that Franklinia may have originally been native to the north, but was forced to migrate southward during the Ice Ages to escape the extreme cold and the repeated advances of the ice sheets. But conditions in the south might have become less suitable for it after the Ice Ages ended. If it got stranded there, it might have begun to die out as the climate warmed again. The plants discovered by the Bartrams could be the last survivors of what was once a much larger population.”
I have also read that it responds adversely to a chemical produced by the cotton plant, therefore that might have led to its demise in the native woodlands of the south.
There is much legacy with this plant, as it was even featured on two different U.S. postage stamps, one of which was from 1969 -- back when you could actually mail a letter for 6¢!
“Bartram’s Garden”, the website of the John Bartram Association maintains a census report of Franklinias, whereby you may register your tree or those which are growing in commercial properties or public gardens.
What does all this mean? From a personal perspective, when I visit my brother-in-law David’s house in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. and gaze upon his Franklinia Tree, I know it comes from the same exact seed that Ben Franklin’s tree did, just up the road, a descendant from almost 250 years ago.