Friday, September 6, 2013

Franklinia alatamaha: A Rare And Beautiful Find

In my heart more than any other aspect of my professional work, I love plants.  Plants are the center from which everything else radiates -- they are my true passion.

Beautiful, fragrant flowers in September. ©2013 BDG
This summer while working on a significant project, there was a tree along the driveway that had been lollipop pruned by the previous maintenance contractor.  In mid to late summer each year the contractor would come and prune all the shrubs and small trees, resulting in poor flowering or non flowering  plants the following season.  I may have to rant on this topic in a subsequent post.

The related Stewartia flower.
Upon initial inspection, this poor tree appeared to be a Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana).  I knew the contractor who installed the initial landscape and knew that it was one of his favorites, and with the hard pruning there were no flower buds or old seed heads to help in identifying.  The leaf seemed to be close and, with the cessation of  summer pruning, I would wait until later in the year for flower buds develop to confirm the plant's identification.

Nice 10' plant that is starting to grow out of
its heavily pruned form.  ©2013 BDG
As we were finishing the installation of the job, I started to notice clusters of round flower buds forming at the ends of the branches.  This was no Magnolia.  After going back to my books, I believed that it may be a Franklinia (Ben Franklin Tree), a rare tree often not seen in the trade.  Two weeks ago it was confirmed as the first flowers opened to reveal beautifully fragrant white flowers with a bright yellow center.

I have seen a few small specimens over the years and I have seen even fewer for sale at local nurseries.  A neighbor, who is a plant collector,  had a poor specimen for that finally passed a few years ago.  Typically a collectors plant like this is for sale online in small sizes (Rare Find Nursery).    Because it is a hard plant to establish and can succumb to root diseases it is rarely found in retail or wholesale nurseries. The final nail in the coffin for this plant is that it is believed to be extinct in the wild, with the last confirmed sighting of the plant in Georgia in the late 1700's.

The flower is very similar to the Stewartia flower, a close relative that flowers in late spring, and both are reminiscent of Camellia flowers.  These similarities exist because they are all part of the Tea family of plants:  Theaceae.

Interesting bark coloration and
fissuring that will improve with
age.  ©2013 BDG
The tree was first found by John Bartram, a botanist and horticulturist from Philadelphia, who while trekking through Georgia found a grove of plants in 1765 by the Altamaha River.  They are the only plants to have been found in the wild and it is believed that all plants today descend from these original plants.  He named it Franklinia after his good friend in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, and the species name of alatamaha after the river by which it was found.  Bartram's Garden is a National Landmark Historic House and Garden just outside of Philadelphia and the Franklinia is its signature tree. For more details read this article on the history of Bartram and the Franklinia Tree.

Michael Dirr states that the tree in maturity can get to 30', though often they tend to succumb to disease before that time.  He also says it is hardy from zones 5-9, but it seems to do best in the cooler, northern zones. The fragrant flowers come in late summer and can continue into the fall, which makes it valuable for providing color in a typically quiet season.  Like its relative, Stewartia, it has wonderful orange/red fall color, and requires moist, low pH(acid) soil with lots of organic matter.  The bark has white striations or fissures that add to its interest.

Fall color. ©Lucy M Rowland
This specimen has been mechanically pruned over recent years and may take a season or two to open up with some proper pruning, but I am hoping this client will get many years of enjoyment from a one of a kind plant.  In the garden in back, I just installed a Stewartia, so they now can enjoy two of the finest ornamental trees, that happen to be from the same botanical family.

While doing some research, I found that there have been attempts to make longer lived hybrids of Franklinia.  With no native distribution and a narrow gene pool, attempts have been made to cross it with other related plants.  One such by plant is a new hybrid tree called Schimilinia floribunda, a cross of Franklinia and Schimia argentea, but I am unable to find any recent mention of the plant other than a passing reference by Michael Dirr.

Who knows why this 'hard to grow' plant has thrived while being attacked each year with gas pruners, but I am glad to have found it and hope it will continue to thrive for many years.  

©2013 BDG

Large clusters of flower buds. ©2013 BDG

Pollinator checking out this unusual find. ©2013 BDG


  1. Thanks for the education on a very intriguing plant.

  2. I also thought it was a Magnolia when I first looked at your photos. It is obviously something much more rare and precious ! It is a wonder it has not been killed off by the type of pruning it has had to undergo before you came to its rescue !

  3. What an exciting discovery! Love it how alleged 'hard to grow' plants manage it all by themselves when you put them in the right place. But to think of all that pruned propagating material going to waste - are you planning on having a go at it yourself?

  4. It's a beautiful plant. Did you tell the owners what it was and how to prune it?