I like plants with a backstory, a history, and there’s none better than Franklinia alatamaha. It all began with John Bartram (1699-1777), a botanist and nurseryman from Pennsylvania, who traveled extensively in colonial America collecting native plants for customers in the colonies as well as in Europe, including the English aristocracy.
As reported by Andrea Wulf in her fascinating, informative book, The Brother Gardeners, in England, ”a landscape garden filled with Bartram’s trees and shrubs had become the way to show one’s wealth and taste.” The Duke of Richmond, for example, planted 400 different American species at his estate. This “taste” for American plants led to a rash of plant thefts, which in turn, Wulf tells us, led to a Parliamentary Act providing that plant thieves could be sent to an American penal colony.
An American penal colony? Did Wulf confuse us with Australia? I decided to do a little research of my own and discovered that from 1620-1776 about 50,000 British criminals were transported to the colonies in North America to serve out their sentences, primarily as indentured servants. It wasn’t until 1787 or 1788 that convicts were sent to Australia. But I digress. Back to John Bartram.
On a plant-hunting expedition in 1765, Bartram and his son William discovered Franklinia along the Altamaha river in Georgia. The plants were not in flower, so they could not collect seed. William finally accomplished this task on a solo return trip in 1776, and successfully grew plants from the seed at the Bartram farm in Pennsylvania. A good thing too, since after 1803 Franklinia was never again seen in the wild.
John Bartram died in 1777 and, sadly, never saw the flowers of his wonderful discovery. The plant was named Franklinia alatamaha in honor of Bartram’s great friend, Benjamin Franklin, with whom he founded the American Philosophical Society. (To their discredit, European botanists called the plant Gordonia until 1925 when they finally recognized Franklinia alatamaha as the legitimate name).
In well drained acid soil and with adequate moisture, Franklinia will produce radiant, fragrant, snowy-white flowers in late summer-early fall. When the flowers fade, the rich green foliage takes on shades of vibrant red and orange.
Even without a history, the plant would be a worthy addition to a garden. I have two.