Franklinia: The Lost Tree

The story of the franklinia tree (Franklinia alatamaha) runs through the lives of many men. Its thread may be traced for nearly two hundred years in a rhyme or a pencil line; in a water-color drawing or a faded manuscript note; in a diary, a book of travel, or a forgotten name. Yet it is a story that has no end.

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No one living has seen the franklinia growing wild. Still, it survives in cultivation as one of America’s most lovely flowering shrubs — perhaps, more accurately, a tree of shrub-like growth since it attains a height of some thirty feet. But tree or shrub, the franklinia is of year-round beauty.

In winter, the thin, smooth branches ascend from the gray-striped lower trunk: in spring, the narrow, magnolia-like leaves unfold glossy green; in autumn, these turn a vivid scarlet, flaunting one of the most brilliant color notes in the eastern fall.

Blooms In August

In July, the satin-smooth buds form in close clusters. Growing whiter day by day, from early August until frost, they break one after another into a ten days profusion of successive flowers.

Each flower unfolds from a gorgeous central boss of stamens into a three-inch wide saucer of white, fragrant bloom.

The fascination of the franklinia lies not only in its beauty but also in the mystery which surrounds its disappearance in the wild. Its story has become a horticultural legend, and, as with most legends, there are many versions of the history of its discovery.

Three men only have ever seen it growing in its native Georgia: John Bartram, the eighteenth-century botanist; William, his son; and Moses Marshall, his nephew. Therefore, some of the stories of their own lives also belong to the level of the Franklinia alatamaha.

John Bartram: First Great Plant Collectors

One of America’s first great plant collectors, John Bartram, traveled up and down the eastern seaboard, usually alone and sometimes accompanied by William.

No one quite knows how many native plants he introduced into cultivation. However, it is generally considered he contributed something.

Like 150 to 200 new species, the franklinia among them, for a long time, the tree he raised in his garden was supposed to be the only franklinia in cultivation, and all growing today are believed to be the descendants of this tree.

William Bartram

William Bartram, somewhat overshadowed by his father’s fame, was hardly less remarkable as a naturalist-artist and author of a famous book of travels. Even before he left school, he had begun to make drawings of American birds for the English ornithologist George Edwards.

Although William was not the great artist that Audubon became, these early drawings give him first place in time in the American tradition of Wilson and Audubon.

Last Long Exploration

Today, he is best remembered for his book “Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida.” It was widely read and had a marked influence on the writings of the English Lake Poets, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Coleridge, and on present-day botanists.

It was on John Bartram’s last long exploration when, nearly seventy years old and accompanied by William, they discovered the tree growing along the banks of the Altamaha River in Georgia on October 1, 1765.

But “it being then late in the autumn” as William wrote in his “Travels,” “we could form no opinion as to what class or tribe it belonged.”

John Bartram named the tree Franklinia alatamaha; for his friend Benjamin Franklin and the river by which it was found.

Subsequently, it was called Gordonia alatamaha or Gordonia pubescent, for it closely resembles Gordonia lasianthus, although both are distinct and entirely separate species. But by that first name, franklinia, it is still most commonly known.

William Bartram returned alone to the same place along the Alatamaha River and found the tree again in 1770, 1773, and 1777. He wrote that he “had the opportunity to observe the new flowering shrub (franklinia), resembling the Gordonia, in perfect bloom, and bearing ripe fruit.”

Bartram’s Description

His testimony to the beauty of the franklinia and its discovery is not to be found in his “Travels” but the Museum of Natural History in London. There, together with his water-color drawing and the now dry spray he once picked from the living tree, is his manuscript note:

This fine flowering tree was first observed grooving wild near the River Alatamaha in Georgia . . . it’s very large white fragrant Flowers embellished with a large tassel or crown of golden Stamens.

Food need from the blossoms of the leaves towards their extremities of its branches. Yet never saw This beautiful Tree growing wild but in one spot on the Alatamaha about 30 miles from the Seacoast neither has any other person that I know of ever seen or heard of it.

That note was written in 1788. Two years later, in 1790, his cousin found the tree again. Humphrey Marshall, a cousin to John Bartram, owned a nursery business in Pennsylvania in partnership with his nephew Moses Marshall.

From Humphrey Marshall, the London firm of Grimwood, Hudson, and Barrit ordered in 1787 and 1789 considerable quantities of franklinia. Moses Marshall went to collect a fresh supply and, no doubt following William’s exact directions, found the franklinia for the last time.

Nearly a century passed before any further search was recorded. Since that time, many men have continually sought the tree without success.

Was it the last stand of the franklinia that the Bartrams discovered in Georgia? Did William Bartram and Moses Marshall between them strip it entirely? Or did it perish in the “Yazoo freshet” of 1796 — or the cold Saturday of February 1835 — or by fire? No one knows.

But the franklinia lives — in private gardens and botanical collections and the work of such artists as Michaux, the son of another famous plant collector, Andre Michaux. He brought the first camellias to America.

The Most Beautiful Southern Flowers

In 1834, Audubon set his Bachman’s Warbler among its branches, naming it “one of the most beautiful of our southern flowers.”

It lives  also in the “wonderful kind of floundering eloquence” of Bartram’s “Travels” — as such, Thomas Carlyle, the English historian, described it to Emerson, adding that it was a book “All American libraries ought to provide themselves with . . . and keep as a future biblical article.”

For gardeners, only a note on the Gordonias is of interest. The genus named after James Gordon, an English nurseryman who died in 1780, consists of ten or more species.

All are from the warmer parts of Asia except Gordonia lasianthus, the loblolly bay, and Gordonia alatamaha or Gordonia fmbescens, the franklinia, both native to the southern states of North America and both discovered by John and William Bartram.

Their relationship to the tea tribe (to which the camellias and stevvartias belong) is traceable in the leaf fragrance, and at times the leaves have been used as a substitute for tea.

49001 by Joan Parry