The rarest of the rare s probably the best description of this amazing tree whose history is only exceeded by its beauty. The Franklinia is a highly sought after and prized tree that makes a great specimen tree for any landscape.
In 1765, King George III appointed the Quaker John Bartram “Royal Botanist for North America” after many of his plants arrived and were promoted by Peter Collinson. In that same year, Collinson and fellow London Quaker, Dr. John Fothergill funded an expedition for John Bartram and his son, William, to the southern United States. On this expedition the Bartrams discovered Franklinia growing in a 2-3-acre tract along the banks of the Altamaha River below Savannah, Georgia. The odd part is that aside from this small plot of ground they could not find Franklinia growing in any other place than along the Altamaha River or region. John Bartram named the small tree after his close personal friend, Benjamin Franklin, and he scientific name derives from Franklin and the river it was found along although an extra ‘a’ was added.
In a return trip in 1773, William Bartram collected seed from this site and brought it back to their garden in Philadelphia where the tree was successfully grown and distributed. Another plant collector, Moses Marshall (of Philadelphia also), found and collected plants in 1790, but it is believed none survived. The trees were reported for the last verified time in 1803, by John Lyon, a Scotsman. This tree has been extinct in the wild since 1803. It has survived only through propagation by man as all plants derive from the seed collected by William Bartram.
The beauty of Franklinia comes from the amazing 3-inch in diameter creamy white flowers with a rich yellow center that bloom in the late summer and early fall. Blooms are short lived and only last a few days before falling yet the tree produces a profusion of blooms that will make the tree appear it is in continuous bloom for a month or so. The leaves are a glossy dark green about 5 inches in length that turn quality shades of orange, red, and purple in the fall. The tree is a slow grower. The tree is best grown in organically rich areas that are well drained. Often a raised flower bed or terrace serves the tree best, but be cautious as once planted you do not want to move it as its roots are sparse and fibrous.
A six-year-old tree in Carroll County, Ohio was observed in 2022 standing about 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide, and had flowers continuing to bloom well into the fall color and first couple of light frosts. From a historic perspective the tree is best paired with Dwarf Fothergilla shrubs, which not only play well off of the tree but was also discovered on the same trip which Franklinia was found and named after the trip’s one financier Dr. John Fothergill. ■