Plant 293

Franklinia alatamaha Marshall (Theaceae)

Franklin tree

Franklinia alatamaha is a small, deciduous tree or shrub that can reach ten metres tall. It has glossy, dark green, simple leaves up to 18 cm long and oblong in shape. The crimson autumn colour can develop when the plant is still in flower. The tree has flowers like those of camellias, that is, they are large, snowy-white and cup shaped with a large boss of yellow stamens. The seeds can take 12 to 14 months to mature. It can be a difficult tree to grow in cultivation and prefers sandy, acidic soil. Franklinia alatamaha is the only species of in genus and is also classified by the IUCN as being extinct in the wild; it only exists in cultivation.

This plant was first observed in 1765 by the Philadelphia plant collectors John and William Bartram, alongside the Altamaha River in Georgia, USA; the river after which the species in named. On an extended collecting trip to the southern states of the American colonies, between 1773 and 1776, which was funded by the English physician and gardener John Fothergill, William Bartram collected seed of Franklinia alatamaha. The seeds were returned to Philadelphia in 1777, and grown in Bartram's Garden; today, it is the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America. All Franklinia specimens alive today are descendants of the individuals originally collected by Bartram himself.

The plant was assigned to a new monotypic genus, Franklinia, by William Bartram, in order to honour Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, who was a close friend of his father, John. As well as being the first to observe and collect the species, William also first described its very limited distribution. In 1803, the English plant collector John Lyon was the last person to verify the tree's existence in the wild. Numerous expeditions to relocate the plant since the early nineteenth century have proven fruitless.

One theory about the species demise in the wild is the clearance of land along the Altamaha River for the cotton plantations in the early nineteenth century. Other potential causes are the introduction of fungal pathogens, to the area of the river, with the arrival of cotton, or simply over collection by people eager to sell specimens into a horticultural trade eager for novelties.

One of the descendants of Bartram's original collection can be seen at the Harcourt Arboretum, along the Threatened Tree Trail.

Further reading

Bean WJ 1976. Trees and shrubs hardy in the British Isles. John Murray.

Owens SJ and Rix M 2007. 595. Franklinia alatamaha. Curtis's Botanical Magazine 24: 186-189.

Luke Rowland