Franklinia: a tree with his­tory and beauty

The Oneida Daily Dispatch (Oneida, NY) - - News - By Lee Re­ich

If you have the ears to listen, this tree has a story to tell.

Let’s go back to 1765 and travel along with Amer­i­can nat­u­ral­ists John Bar­tram and his son Wil­liam, from Philadel­phia to Florida. On a clear, cool day in Oc­to­ber, the Bar­trams hap­pened upon a stand of beau­ti­ful trees that they didn’t rec­og­nize along the banks of the Al­tamaha River in Ge­or­gia.

So taken were they by these trees that Wil­liam even­tu­ally made a re­turn trip to bring seeds and cut­tings back home to Philadel­phia, thus es­tab­lish­ing in their botan­i­cal gar­den a plant­ing of Franklinia. They named the genus af­ter their friend, Ben­jamin Franklin. Botan­i­cally, the plant is Franklinia alatamaha.

The plot thick­ens

Now for the strange thing: Franklinia trees have never been sighted in the wild any­where ex­cept in the vicin­ity of Bar­tram’s orig­i­nal sight­ing. And that stand of plants even­tu­ally died out; the last wild Franklinia was sighted there in 1803.

No one knows why those wild plants dis­ap­peared, or why Franklinia never spread be­yond its orig­i­nal sight­ing.

The tree is ac­tu­ally quite cos­mopoli­tan in its needs, and now grows from Mas­sachusetts down to Florida and points West. A cen­sus in 1999 tal­lied up 1,896 Franklinia trees planted in the U.S. They’ve also been planted in other coun­tries.

This time of year, when the tree’s leaves are a daz­zling mix of or­ange, red and ma­hogany, is a good time to think about plant­ing a Franklinia. A few of the large, white blos­soms might even be dress­ing up the branches still.

En­joy a late show of blos­soms

Yes, Franklinia is one of those rare, late-flow­er­ing trees. Al­though the main show opens in late summer, new flow­ers con­tinue toopen spo­rad­i­cally over a long pe­riod. The blos­soms are fra­grant, with petals rem­i­nis­cent of mag­no­lia and camel­lia. They are soon fol­lowed by dis­tinc­tive seed cap­sules that split open into 10 seg­ments and dot the branches through the win­ter.

The tree is fur­ther dressed up in win­ter by an at­trac­tive bark, smooth, gray and bro­ken up by lon­gi­tu­di­nal fis­sures some­times high­lighted chalky white. The sinewy sur­face re­sem­bles the bark of our na­tive horn­beam trees.

Pro­vide for the tree and it’s easy to grow

All that Franklinia needs to grow is an acidic soil rich in or­ganic mat­ter. De­spite the swampy land that was home to Franklinia’s last stand, the tree does need well-drained soil. Maybe that’s why that stand died out.

Full sun­light or light shade suits the tree well.

De­spite its Deep South­ern home, Franklinia usu­ally does bet­ter in the North than in the South. That’s be­cause many South­ern soils hosted cot­ton, which it­self hosted root rot, a dis­ease that can per­sist in soil and at­tacks Franklinia. A well-drained soil lessens the chance of dis­ease. Aside fromthis fun­gus, Franklinia has no se­ri­ous pest trou­bles.

Be­cause they lack fi­brous roots, Franklinias are a lit­tle finicky about be­ing moved. Trans­plant only pot­ted or balled-and-burlapped trees, whose roots hardly get dis­turbed.

Oth­er­wise, Franklinias are easy trees to prop­a­gate. The fresh seeds, col­lected now, sprout read­ily; if dried, they need a month in cool, moist soil be­fore they can sprout. Stem cut­tings root eas­ily al­most any time of year.

How for­tu­nate it is that Franklin ia is so easy to prop­a­gate, and that Wil­liam Bart ram prop­a­gated some plants for his Philadel­phia gar­den. Un­less some­one dis­cov­ers an­other wild Franklinia, all Franklinia trees in ex­is­tence to­day are descen­dants of trees in Bar­tram’s col­lec­tion, the last tree of which

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