Franklinia alatamaha is the sole species in this genus, a member of the Theaceae. It’s another bucket list plant to flower for the serious gardener. It enjoys a long and mysterious history and a reputation for succumbing to one malady or another. I can’t recount the number I’ve planted and the number of failures endured at SFA Gardens. Many gardeners can say the same thing. I remember the very first time I caught the tree in flower. It was at Akin’s nursery in Sibley, Louisiana. Sherwood Akin had planted the tree near his house and near a faucet. He had created a nice berm. He told me that every time he sprayed fungicides in his nursery, he would clean out the tank near the tree and make sure he soaked the area down. The tree did flower but in a few years it was dead. That’s the general story. The tree lives a few years and then commits suicide. Good drainage is always recommended. “Needs even moisture” is another commandment. Too much sun or too little is often touted as a culprit. It’s thought to prefer sandy, high-acid soil, and compacted clay soil is general avoided. While it appears resistant to insect pests, it is subject to root rot and has a reputation for dealing poorly with drought. After a dozen or so deaths, I concluded this plant must be related to sheep. It’s born looking for a place to die.
All that changed three years ago when we flowered a young tree that we had planted in the Gayla Mize Garden. In a serendipitous spot that had some shade and some sun and fairly decent soil, we were going to try again. I actually planted the tree myself and yes, I did give it a few private magic words of encouragement. For no discernible reason, this particular tree thrived. I have no idea why. I do like the soil here, a loamy sand and the drainage is reasonable. The tree enjoyed a single drip emitter for the first three years of its life, endured some tough times (it’s hot in Texas) but came through with shining colors. Even though the whole garden is really a bottom land for Burroughs creek, I’ve never seen this particular spot go under water when it floods. It was obviously a blessed spot.
The tree grew well the first few years and flowered first in 2014. It flowered in 2015 and 2016 and has grown into a healthy specimen. A key feature are the flowers which emit a pleasant fragrance, not unlike Gordonia. In fact, the tree spent a good part of its early history being described as a Gordonia.
The tree was first discovered near Fort Barrington in the British colony of Georgia in October 1765. Philadelphia botanists John and William Bartram are given credit for the discovery of “several very curious shrubs”, as he noted in his journal entry for October 1, 1765. William Bartram collected F. alatamaha seeds during a long trip to the South from 1773 through 1776. He described this in his book Bartram’s Travels published in Philadelphia in 1791. He brought seed back to Philadelphia in 1777 at which time he reported to his father that he had relocated the plan and collected seeds. William planted the seed in Philadelphia and first flowered it there in 1781. William created the new genus Franklinia in honor of his father’s friend, Benjamin Franklin. The new plant name, Franklinia alatamaha, was first published in 1785 in the catalogue of North American trees and shrubs entitled Arbustrum Americanum. Credit must be given to William for recognizing the rarity of the species in its native range and described a place of only two or three acres where the tree survived. In spite of other expeditions to the region, it was never found elsewhere and the tree was last verified in the wild in 1803.
The cause of its extinction is unclear but causes such as fire, flood, over collection by plant collectors, and the fungal disease Phytophthora introduced with the cultivation of cotton have been given some responsibility. As a result, all the Franklin trees known to exist today are descended from seed collected by William Bartram and propagated at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia.
While there are over 1000 reported gardens in the world that Franklinia can call home, we believe that this is the first reported flowering in Texas. With three years of flowering at this writing (January 1, 2017), we’re encouraged. In fact, this last year we planted another half dozen small trees. Surely a grove of Franklinia trees here might be prudent. Who knows, in a hundred years, maybe two, this rare and wonderful plant may find this a fine place to settle in for a century or two.