Many of you non gardening folks have never heard of the tree that I am about to mention. In fact in my various internet researching I hadn’t heard of it till about a year ago, it is the Franklin Tree. This ornamental tree has a very peculiar history that shows us just how fragile nature can be. The Franklin tree is one of the earliest environmental failures documented in the Americas.
To call the Franklinia alatamaha an environmental failure is a bit of an overstatement. This small shrubby tree was first documented along the flat lands of the Alatamaha river valley near Fort Barrington in 1765 in the then colony of Georgia by John Bartram. John Bartram himself was a unique individual who earned fame as a botanist and was selected as the Royal Botanist for North America by King George III himself. This allowed him to travel and thus discover the unique Franklin tree. The tree itself is a small tree or shrub that grows in sandy soil. It produces large highly fragrant flowers that are coveted by many gardeners. The leaves are long and point and turn an amazing purple or red color in fall which only leads to its desirability to gardens. Unfortunately this tree is notoriously hard to cultivate. Its preference for sandy soil as well as its preference for acidity has lead many gardeners to to give up. But you add the plants susceptibility to root rot and dislike of compacted clay soils and this only adds to its finickiness.
This tree historically was never numerous, even being so stated by John Bartram’s son William who accompanied his father on many of his travels. It was noted that the tree only occurred in a site about 2-3 acres in size and was never observed anywhere else. On a return trip in 1773 William collected some seeds from the plant. This trip lasted till 1776 and the seeds were planted in 1777 producing flowering plants in 1781, today’s plants are all descendant from these seeds.
At first the new plant was describe as Gordonia pubescens as it was believed that it was in the related genus of Gordonia which is a member of the Tea plant family. But this particular tree is not an evergreen unlike those members of the Gordonia and thus it was later awarded its own genus along with its new name from the close friend of the Bartrams, Benjamin Franklin.
For reasons unknown and still being investigated today this tree went into decline. The small grove where it was initially discovered was soon wiped out and the last purported findings of these plants occurred in 1803, though there could be a chance it was documented as late as the 1840’s from some unreliable claims. This made the cultivated examples the only known survivors of this species. The original seeds were propagated in the Bartrams Gardens in Philadelphia were examples still grow. Unfortunately this plant lives to a maximum age of 50 years often times much less, so the original examples have long since died. Even short lived this plant makes an attractive specimen for gardeners as it has beautiful striated bark and flowers up until the first frost with its large fragrant white flowers.
Many theories abound as to why this small tree went extinct at its small site. Some claim that it was in fact a tree more suited to northern climates but was pushed south by glaciers, the last grove being the last remnant of the species. Others have stated (most notably Dr. Gayther Plummer retired botanist as well as retired climatologist for the state of Georgia) that the tree is actually Asian in origins not American. This would mean that there is a similar tree in Asia that this tree was taken from and that the groves disappearance is not all that important to natural history. Others support a theory that the tree was in fact native and fell victim to the rise of cottons. This theory, put forward by Frank Galle, is that a disease, most likely fungal root rot associated with the cotton plant. Unfortunately what can be said is that this small tree is no longer found in the wild. The small isolated population produced a genetic bottleneck that could have effected the susceptibility to disease for the worse. Also with the trees documented love for sandy soil it would appear that this tree is destined to live next to rivers and thus could fall prey to floods. Add this fact to the plants narrow parameters for growth as well as the genetic bottleneck and you can see why this plant failed to survive in the wild.
The Franklin tree is an example as to how some organisms are not suited for survival in a particular environment. These small trees could still be out in the wild somewhere, but where no one knows and thus the only examples are the few trees grown from the Bartram’s seeds.
America’s First Rare Plant
New Georgia Encyclopedia