The Lost Franklinia is apparently extinct in the wild. All known living specimens are cultivated plants probably descended from a few trees (or possibly just one tree) grown in the garden of the eighteenth-century botanists John and William Bartram.
The Bartrams discovered the species in 1765, when they found a small stand of the trees growing on a sand hill beside the Altamaha River in coastal Georgia. These trees disappeared within the next few decades, possibly destroyed by land clearing activities in the area. Despite numerous searches, no other wild specimens have ever been found.
The Franklinia is also called Ben Franklin Tree, or Franklin Tree, a name given to it by the Bartrams in honor of their friend Benjamin Franklin. The species name "alatamaha" is an old spelling for the name of the river on which the plant was discovered.
Cultivated specimens of Franklinia are usually bushy plants less than 20 feet tall, often with multiple trunks. The tree doesn't bloom until late summer, when it bears attractive three-inch flowers with white petals and orange stamens. Individual blossoms can open over a long period, even into mid-autumn. The fruit is a small round capsule containing a number of flat seeds. Leaves turn vivid orange-red before dropping in late autumn.
Although the only known wild trees grew in Georgia, cultivated specimens generally do best in northern regions. The poorly-drained clay soil found in much of the South increases susceptibility to root-rot diseases, and there is evidence that current (or former) cotton-growing areas may harbor a pathogen that can kill the plant. The species can be successfully grown in the South, but it's difficult to know beforehand whether a particular planting site has the right conditions.
The good cold-hardiness of the surviving plants suggests that Franklinia may have originally been native to the north, but was forced to migrate southward during the Ice Ages to escape the extreme cold and the repeated advances of the ice sheets. But conditions in the south might have become less suitable for it after the Ice Ages ended. If it got stranded there, it might have begun to die out as the climate warmed again. The plants discovered by the Bartrams could be the last survivors of what was once a much larger population.
Conceivably this species could escape from cultivation and re-establish itself in the wild. Deliberate attempts to re-establish it might also be undertaken. But it is doubtful that the species could survive on its own for an extended time period. Because the existing plants are so closely related, as a group they may not have the genetic diversity needed to resist new diseases or adapt to a changing climate.
Scientific Name: Franklinia alatamaha
Common Names: Franklinia, Ben Franklin Tree, Franklin Tree
Plant Type: Small deciduous tree
Height: 15 to 20 feet
Cultivation Zones: 5 - 8
Cultivation Give Franklinia humus-rich acid soil, and water it during dry spells, especially when young. Good drainage is essential, so consider putting it on an elevated spot or artificial mound. It blooms most profusely in full sun, but in hot dry climates partial or dappled shade might give the best overall results. Sometimes this plant will try to grow as a shrub, but it can usually be trained into tree form.
Franklinia is easy to grow from seed, and such a plant will often reach blooming size by the sixth year.
Note: This plant may not do well in the South.
Go to Cultivation and Seeds for more information.
Related Species: There are no other species in this genus. The plant is distantly related to Loblolly-bay (Gordonia lasianthus), and to the Camellias and Stewartias (such as Stewartia ovata).
Plant Sources: Franklinia alatamaha is usually easy to find. Woodlanders, Meadowbrook Nurseries, Nearly Native Nursery, Forest Farm, GroWild, Lazy S's Farm, and Wayside Gardens often have it. A vigorous form called "Wintonbury" is sometimes available. For links to the mentioned suppliers, go to Sources of Plants.