The Franklin Tree

Add a bit of history to your landscape with this native American tree.

Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha), courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha), courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

The Franklin Tree is prized for its lovely, Camilla-like flowers.

Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha) is a beautiful American native tree surrounded in mystery. For anyone considering adding a unique specimen as well as a great story-piece to their landscape, this may very well be just the thing.

General Description

Franklin tree is a small symmetrical (pyramidal) tree or large shrub, slowly attaining twenty feet tall and a bit wider. It naturally develops multiple vertical stems, but can be trained to a single trunk by judicious pruning and pinching suckers as they develop. The oblong leaves are shiny, dark green above, fuzzy below. It is deciduous, with fall leaves turning brilliant orange, red or purple. It is a late Summer until Fall bloomer, occasionally still blooming during peak fall color. The perfect white flowers are fragrant, and reminiscent of camellia flowers in appearance.

Short History

The Philadelphia father and son botanists John and William Bartram first documented this species in October of 1765, along the Altamaha River in Georgia while on a collecting trip in the South. After several return visits to the area, William collected seeds from this “curious shrub” and brought them back to Philadelphia in 1777. Initially the Bartrams called this plant Gordonia pubescens because of its similarities to the evergreen native of the area Gordonia lasianthus (to which it may be loosely related). By 1791, John Bartram had passed but William finally had achieved flowering plants. After much study, observation and deliberation with colleagues, he recognized this as a previously undocumented genus. William named it Franklinia for his late father’s close friend Benjamin Franklin.

Interestingly, Franklin tree has only been documented in the wild in this small two or three-acre area along the banks of the Altamaha River. The most recent scientific documentation was by the English horticulturist John Lyon in 1803, at which time the stand seemed to be already in decline. It has been considered extinct in the wild since the mid-1840s, at the latest. Theories for the cause of its demise include disease, flood, fire, over harvest, and even climate change as a holdout from the retreat of the last ice age. It seems that Franklin Tree performs much better where it has been planted in the North than in its former native area. All existing Franklin trees are descendants of John and William Bartram’s seedlings.

Planting

Franklin tree is notoriously difficult to transplant because the roots are typically sparse. Coming from such a small gene pool, it seems that this will be a difficulty in promoting the tree to greater prominence. Buying container-grown stock assures a greater degree of success than balled-in-burlap. A young, small tree with well formed branches is an ideal candidate. Provide moist, well drained soil in full to partial sunlight.

Another option for planting is to do as Mr. Bartram did, and plant seeds (available from several web based sources). Cold stratify for 30 days by placing in a container of moist sand and refrigerating. Then soak in water overnight. Lastly, plant just below the soil surface in a well prepared seed bed with acidic, sandy soil. In three to five years you may have several flowering Franklin trees.

Maintenance

This slow grower requires minimal routine maintenance. Pinch suckers as they appear to maintain a single trunk. No pruning is needed for branch structure as Franklin tree has a naturally occurring pyramidal shape.

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