by Jim Atwater

John Bartram, a Philadelphia Quaker who became the New World’s leading naturalist and plant hunter, had more than one encounter with serendipity during an active career pursuing rare and hitherto unknown indigenous North American flora. For 30 years he scoured the Atlantic seaboard from Virginia to Florida and westward to the very banks of the Mississippi river seeking unusual native plants for his sponsors in England. In 1765 he was appointed George III’s royal botanist near the end of his plant-hunting career. In the autumn of that year he embarked on what was to be his last expedition, accompanied by his 26-year-old son William. On the evening of October 1st they arrived at the Altamaha River some 50 miles south of Savannah, Georgia and as darkness descended made camp about four miles from what was then Ft. Barrington. Upon rising in the morning they noticed a number of unfamiliar – very curious shrubs, but as the season was late were unable to collect any seeds. Little did John realize that after introducing more than 200 new species to the horticultural world the capstone of his career was at hand, but it would be his son William’s persistence that brought it to public attention.

Franklin Tree at the Strong Museum

This was John’s last field trip, but William on a subsequent trip in 1774 visited the site again and was able to collect seeds which he forwarded to sponsors in England. Returning home in 1777 he planted seeds in his father’s garden. John Bartram would never see his mystery plant in bloom for he died later in 1777, but enjoyed his son’s description upon first seeing it in glorious flower during his second visit to the river in 1774. As the news spread of this rare and unusual plant and its location, subsequent plant hunters descended upon the area to harvest seeds for profit and to enhance their reputations. On later expeditions William sought other colonies of the tree, searching as far as the Mississippi, but with no success. A contemporary, one John Lyons, claimed to have seen six of seven plants on a half acre in 1803, but it would never be seen in the wild again. At the end of the 19th century Dr. C. S. Sargent, director of the Arnold Arboretum, encouraged an intense exploration of the general area, but to no avail and the tree was assumed to have become extinct in the wild.

At Bartram’s request the plant was named after their great friend Benjamin Franklin. Direct descendants of the original seeds planted in Bartram’s garden (which is now a 45-acre botanical collection within Philadelphia’s city limits) still grow in the Philadelphia area as well as several fine specimens on the south-east slope of Bussey Hill in Boston’s Arnold Arboretum. The franklinia is not commonly found in our area, but with the changing weather patterns we could see more of them. I know of only one in the park system, a fairly recent addition to Durand-Eastman Park’s Rhododendron Valley. There was a fine specimen located in front of the Rundel Library to the right of the front steps, protected from the weather and perhaps warmed by heat from the building, but it expired several years ago. According to Dr. M. Dirr some of the best examples are found at the Arnold Arboretum and Longwood Gardens. One of the last ornamental plants to flower in late summer, the magnolia-like blossoms will continue until a hard frost. The foliage in autumn can be a magnificent orange-red-burgundy combination and the grey vertically-striped bark adds charm to the winter landscape. Curiously, it has not proven particularly adaptable in the British Isles, possibly due to their mild summers. It seems to do best in full sun and prefers robust summer heat.

I read recently that the Nature Conservancy has acquired a parcel of land on the Altamaha river in the area where the plants were believed to have been last seen two centuries ago and that they plan to reintroduce the franklinia to nature. Let’s hope it turns out to be a success.

Photos copyright Kimbery Burkard, 2009.