by Lucy M. Rowland
Franklinia alatamaha sounds exotic, and it truly deserves to be. Known as the Franklin tree, the lost camellia, or the lost Gordonia, it has perhaps the most romantic, mysterious past of any native American plant species. John Bartram and his son William discovered a modest grove of this unusually beautiful small tree in Georgia in 1765. By 1803, and perhaps a decade earlier, it had disappeared completely from the wild. Framklinia only survived due to the Bartrams’ collecting plants and seeds as avid horticulturists and propagating them in their Philadelphia garden the last quarter of the 18th century. All cultivated plants today descend from one or more of their collected specimens.
John Bartram (1699-1777), a Pennsylvania Quaker farmer, earned fame in America and abroad as a botanist and horticulturist during the 18th century, when interest in colonial native flora and fauna was at its first early peak. He was educated at Darby (Friends) Meeting School and taught himself Latin to learn the plant classification system. He purchased land on the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia in 1728 and established what became America’s first botanical garden, still existing with a museum house as Bartram’s Garden. John Bartram had many well regarded European friends and correspondents in the natural sciences, and in 1765 King George III appointed him Royal Botanist for North America—allowing him to travel widely throughout the colonies to collect and preserve botanic specimens, seeds, and living examples, both to transplant at home and send to collectors in Europe. Dr. Benjamin Franklin was his close friend and together, along with other scholars, established the American Philosophical Society in 1743 “to cultivate the finer arts, and improve the common stock of knowledge."
William Bartram (1739-1823) was John’s third son and would eventually become known as America’s first native born natural history artist. He recorded Nature, not as a detached observer, but as someone with strong affection and admiration for his subject, seeing it as “sublime,” or majestic and noble rather than savage and uncivilized, and he held similar feelings towards native Americans, consistent with his Quaker roots. While he enjoyed an educated childhood in Pennsylvania, by the time he was 18 he had moved south to the Cape Fear River near an uncle’s home in North Carolina, and operated a trading post until 1765.
When King George selected John Bartram to serve as colonial botanist, it was not merely honorific. The position brought a substantial fifty pound annual stipend, and in 1765 he traveled to North Carolina and joined with William for a botanical expedition through Georgia and eastern Florida. On October 1, 1765, after crossing the Altamaha River near Fort Barrington, upriver from Darien, the Bartrams rode through a bottomland between two sand hills where they came across a group of small trees they had never encountered before.
John described them thusly in his journal: “This day we found several very curious shrubs, one bearing beautiful good fruite [seedpod].” This would be the beginning of a story where the ending remains a mystery, now more than 200 years later.
Today, the Altamaha (Al-ta-ma-HA) River is formed by the confluence of the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers at Lumber City, and downstream joins the Ohoopee River. The third largest watershed on the Atlantic coast—covering about 14,000 square miles—it winds through the coastal plain of Georgia for nearly 140 miles to Darien, and is considered to be one of the best preserved and most unspoiled rivers in the Southeastern United States.
The Altamaha River has no dams or impoundments, and in its considerable length is only crossed seven times, by five highways and two railroad lines. In 1991, The Nature Conservancy established the Altamaha River Bioreserve, encompassing 1.2 million acres, and the Conservancy has documented more than 120 rare or endangered species in the various habitats, which include longleaf pine, hardwood bottom, cypress swamp, freshwater marsh, and Spartina salt marsh on the coast. An economically important resource since colonial times, freshwater swamps extending from the Altamaha’s banks were cleared in the late 18th century to grow rice, cotton, and sugarcane. In the 19th century, the wide, deep river was a natural artery to float cypress, pine, and oak logs to saw mills in Darien.
From his second natural history excursion in 1773, William Bartram described the mighty Altamaha in his book Travels: “But, before I leave the Alatamaha [an alternative spelling], we will proceed to give a further and more particular account of it. It has its source in the Cherokee mountains, near the head of the Tugilo, the great west branch of the Savanna, and, before it leaves them, is joined and augmented by innumerable rivulets; thence it descends through the hilly country, with all its collateral branches, and winds rapidly amongst the hills two hundred and fifty miles, and then enters the flat plain country, by the name Oakmulge [Ocmulgee]; thence meandering an hundred and fifty miles, it is joined on the east side by the Ocone [Oconee], which likewise heads in the lower ridges of the mountains. After this confluence, having now gained a vast acquisition of waters, it assumes the name Alatamaha, which it becomes a large majestic river, flowing with gentle windings through a vast plain forest, near an hundred miles, and enters the Atlantic by several mouths.”
John and William Bartram’s 1765 encounter with the “curious shrubs” near Fort Barrington in 1765 did not include any record that they collected plants or seeds at the time, but the foliage turned striking orange, red, or purple in the fall, which likely caught their attention and laid the path for William’s return a few years later.
Young William Bartram showed early artistic talent, and his drawings of North American flora and fauna were well regarded and collected by a host of patrons in England, thanks to his father’s ample connections. The most influential was Dr. John Fothergill, a London physician who was also owner of the largest botanical garden in England. Recognizing William’s knowledge and talent, Fothergill became his patron in 1772, funding him for at least two years to travel in the southern colonies to collect and send botanical specimens and drawings of flora and fauna to him in London. With promise of financial support, William struck out for Georgia in 1773 and did not return to Philadelphia until 1777.
Franklinia alatamaha was not the first name assigned to the plants described by the Bartrams. Unable to classify it during the fall 1765 sighting, they left it unnamed for several years. When William returned to the location in 1773, he referred to it as Gordonia pubescens ('pubescent' for the hairy fruit), as it closely resembled the native evergreen loblolly bay Gordonia lasianthus, which also has large, showy flowers and a similar range, but is evergreen. William later learned from Dr. Daniel Solander, a botanist associated with his patron Dr. Fothergill, that in fact the specimen William had sent to England was a unique genus. In 1785, in honor of the Bartrams’ great family friend Benjamin Franklin, they named the genus Franklinia with F. alatamaha, in honor of the majestic river, the sole species. Humphry Marshall, who was a Philadelphia botanist and William’s cousin, recorded the change in Arbustum Americanum: The American Grove, and it became official. In England, however, botanists followed convention and continued to refer to it by the original name.
Franklinia and Gordonia are members of the tea family (Theaceae), which also includes the camellias, most often seen in cultivation in the United States as Camellia japonica and C. sasanqua, although there are about 80 species, including C. sinensis, which is the source of tea leaves. Camellias are native to Japan, Korea, and China.
In 1773, William Bartram wrote in his Travels, “On drawing near the fort I was greatly delighted at the appearance of two beautiful shrubs in all their blooming graces. One of them appeared to be a species of Gordonia, but the flowers are larger, and more fragrant than those of the Gordonia lasianthus.” Later, he noted that he had first seen the trees, in the same location on the previous trip with his father, and “we never saw it grow in any other place, nor have I ever seen it growing wild in all my travels.”
Remembering that William Bartram spent many years documenting flora and fauna as he later wrote in his Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, which were the named colonies, he actually worked his way to the Gulf Coast and Louisiana. Apparently William recognized the significance that, as perplexing as it seemed, Franklinia only grew in a two- to three-acre bottomland along the Altamaha River, and that no one else he encountered had ever located another grove or individual in the wild.
Moses Marshall, son of the botanist Humphry Marshall, again located the grove near Fort Barrington in 1790 while on a collecting expedition, the last confirmed sighting of Franklinia in the wild.
John Lyon, an English nurseryman, claimed to have found six to eight specimens in 1803, but there is some doubt as to the validity of the report. Still, Lyon was a knowledgeable horticulturist and his commentary indicated that the species was likely in severe decline by then. Many searches thereafter turned up empty, and Franklinia, the beautiful and elusive tree from the Altamaha River, was likely extinct in the wild not long after 1803.
William returned to Philadelphia in 1777 and successfully planted Franklinia, cultivating it in his father’s botanical gardens where it grew and blossomed within a matter of a few years. He settled on the farm and remained there the rest of his life. He did not continue his scientific or artistic endeavors to any great degree, although he published Travels in 1791 (republished in London in 1792) and it quickly became popular and remained so for decades (Inman, the Civil War deserter and protagonist in Charles Frazier’s recent Civil War novel Cold Mountain, carried and referred to it).
Franklinia produces large, white, fragrant symmetrical flowers with a flurry of bright, egg-yellow stamens starting in late summer, contrasting with the bright green foliage. It continues to flower until frost, even while the foliage turns red to purple, creating a stunning color combination. It grows either as a shrub or a small tree, usually less than 20 feet tall. It rarely lives longer than 50 years, and often much less. It has attractive striated bark and frequently grows multiple trunks, although single (monopodial) trunk trees occur.
Franklinia has a notorious reputation for being finicky to establish once transplanted, even though it can readily be propagated by woody or soft cuttings, or from prepared seed. It is sensitive to root rot and, due to its limited gene pool—all plants descend from one or a few that were planted in Bartram’s gardens—it is not a particularly vigorous plant. It requires enriched, well-drained, acidic soil with ample watering during dry periods. It is at best moderately drought- and heat-tolerant, yet amazingly it tolerates cold and subzero temperatures fairly well.
Franklinia actually appears to be better adapted to northern climates than to the location where it was found by the Bartrams in Georgia. While it disappeared more or less by the late 18th century from its native habitat, it was successfully propagated in Philadelphia, and the oldest documented specimens today are at Arnold Arboretum in Boston. These two plants were propagated in 1905 from cuttings from a tree received by the Arboretum in 1884. The larger plant is 21 feet tall and 53 feet wide with eight vertical trunks greater than five inches diameter. The smaller is 21 feet by 30 feet with six stems greater than five inches, undoubtedly two of the largest, and likely the oldest, Franklinia trees in the world.
In 1998, Bartram’s Garden undertook a census where botanical gardens and individuals voluntarily reported living examples. In this nonscientific census, the top five states were Pennsylvania (559), North Carolina (181), New Jersey (157), Virginia (120), and New York (116). Georgia, where Franklinia has been assumed to be a native, reported only 58 locations.
While it is unlikely that botanists will ever definitively know why the small isolated grove of Franklinia alatamaha disappeared in Georgia, there have been several theories put forward. One is that the plant declined due to climate change, possibly after “moving” south during a previous ice age, and then suffered from a hotter climate as the ice sheet receded. Another is that man destroyed the trees or habitat. It is possible that the grove the Bartrams discovered was no longer genetically diverse enough to withstand pathogens or changing conditions. A fourth theory is that there was a local disaster such as a tidal flood or fire, but this seems very unlikely given the documentation of the site from 1765 to 1803. None of these theories, however, explains why in their extensive travels neither the Bartrams nor their fellow botanists ever saw another Franklinia tree elsewhere.
In addition to its cold tolerance and sensitivity to drought (certainly a common event in Georgia), Franklinia has other characteristics that are incompatible. For example, the plants flower far later in the year than most trees in the eastern deciduous forest biome, with the flowers being pollinated in September and later, yet the seed pod does not mature for 13-15 months, requiring a second season. This would be more consistent if the plant were native to a more northern or generally colder climate.
Franklinia is a member of the tea family (Theaceae), and during colonial times, tea was a highly prized commodity in England as well as the colonies. In 1977, Dr. Gayther Plummer, now retired botanist and Georgia state climatologist, proposed in a research paper published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society that Franklinia was not a native plant at all, but was introduced to America, perhaps in the mid 1700s when the British were importing plants to England and America from all over the globe. He concluded—by evaluating circumstantial evidence and through a process of elimination—that Franklinia most likely originated in Asia. Soil, water, and climate conditions that seem to be optimal for Franklinia exist at high altitudes in tropical and subtropical climates, with long mild days, strong sunlight from October through March, and cool nights, and Plummer opined that Franklinia behaves more like an Asiatic camellia than a native plant.
On the other hand, Michael Dirr—author of multiple horticulture books and the acknowledged expert on woody trees and shrubs—believes that Franklinia is indeed a native American plant and was not introduced. He supports Frank Galle’s theory that the rise of cotton farming in the South ultimately caused the ruination of the species. Several botanists have identified an unknown cotton pathogen found in soil, perhaps a fungus, that is fatal to Franklinia and would have spread widely as it was carried downstream through erosion.
If the grove found by the Bartrams was indeed the last to have evaded the pathogen, a small local disaster or suboptimal habitat or climatological event would have led to its eradication from the wild. Dirr points out that this is presently the case with the newly discovered Wollemi pine population in Australia, where fewer than 100 individuals are known to exist. Even though the location was carefully guarded from all but a few scientists, outsiders have since accessed them, introducing a potentially deadly pathogenic fungus. Without modern scientific preventive measures, the Wollemi pine could go the way of the American Franklinia.
Hybridization between Franklinia and other genera have been successful, and may yield one or more cultivars that perform better and are longer lived than F. alatamaha. Hybridization also introduces new genes and increases diversity and vigor, including resistance to pathogens. The time may come when attractive, easily grown hybrids will be commercially available, although the Franklinia will likely never go out of favor with discerning horticulturists who relish the challenge of growing it.
In spite of the difficulty in propagating and maintaining Franklinia as a cultivar, its sheer beauty and mysterious origins makes it a highly sought after and desirable landscape addition. This year—the 300th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth—would be a good time to plant one.