Franklinia alatamaha, commonly called the Franklin tree, typically grows as a single-trunk tree with a rounded crown or as a multi-stemmed shrub. As a single trunk tree, it can grow to 20’ tall or more, but is more often seen growing much shorter. The camellia-like, cup-shaped, 5-petaled, sweetly-fragrant, white flowers (to 3” diameter) bloom in late summer to early fall. Each magnolia-like flower has orange-yellow center stamens. Narrow, oblong-obovate, glossy dark green leaves (to 5” long) turn quality shades of orange, red and purple in autumn. John Bartram was appointed Royal Botanist for North America by King George III in 1765. In that same year, John Bartram and his son William discovered franklinia growing in a 2-3 acre tract along the banks of the Altamaha River in southeastern Georgia. Franklinia has never been observed growing in any other place than along the Altamaha River. In a return trip in 1773, William Bartram collected seed from this site and brought it back to the Bartram's garden in Philadelphia where the tree was successfully grown. This tree has been extinct in the wild since 1803. It has been perpetuated in cultivation (all plants derive from the seed collected by Bartram) not only because of its rarity but also because of its attractive flowers and foliage. The current genetic base of this plant is quite narrow in large part because all plants currently in existence in the world come from the materials collected by the Bartrams. Franklinia belongs to the tea family and is closely related to Stewartia and Gordonia (loblolly bay). It is not known why this tree disappeared in the wild. Land along the Altamaha River was cleared for cotton plantations leading to one theory that a cotton pathogen found in the soil (carried downstream through erosion) was the main cause of the extinction of the colony. Other extinction theories include decline from climate change, destruction by man, a single colony of plants was not genetically diverse enough to withstand pathogens or changing conditions, or a local disaster (flood or fire).
The plant is best grown in organically rich, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. It must have good soil drainage. Consider raised plantings in poorly-drained heavy clay soils such as those present in much of the southeastern US. It is perhaps best in full sun in northern climates, but appreciates some afternoon shade in hot summer areas. It may not be reliably winter hardy in the northern parts of USDA Zone 5 where it should be planted in a protected location. It can be sometimes difficult to transplant because of its sparsely fibrous root system, and is best left undisturbed once planted in the landscape. It is best palnted as a smaller speciman.
To enhance planting success (especially in clay soils), we recommend ammending the planting field with sand and organic matter and creating a slightly elevated, but broad mound, so that roots can grow outward, as well as down. Water well at first, but not excessively, and once or twice during the winter if it is excessively cold and dry.
The genus name honors Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), American printer, scientist, philosopher and statesman.
The species name has an extra "a" in it (apparently because of an alternate spelling for the river when the tree was named).
Adapted from: Missouri Botanic Garden