Sunday, November 1, 2015

Plant Story--Franklinia, the extinct American camellia

On a tour of gardens in Philadelphia, the local guide stopped and said proudly " this is our franklinia." It was the third different franklinia tree pointed out to us. 

Being from Colorado, my reaction was "so?" No franklinias in Colorado.
Franklinia alatamaha
Franklinia alatamaha franklinia or the Franklin tree

Actually, I had read about franklinia. It is the tree Franklinia alatamaha (camellia family Theaceae), native to the U.S. southeast. In The Founding Gardeners author Andrea Wulf described John Bartram finding this tree in the forests along the Alatamaha River in Georgia in 1765. Seeds were planted in the Bartram's gardens in Philadelphia and shared with gardeners such as George Washington.

In the 1750 and 1760s lots of American trees were new and exciting--eastern hemlock, tulip poplar, sugar maple. The trees of the Americas are different from the trees of Europe and settlers from Europe, their sense of independence increasing, were planting these new trees. Franklinia might have been just another of those, except that, although it was very attractive, it was rare and hard to grow. Today it is treasured because it is apparently extinct in the wild, having not been found since 1790. 

And if people gave it a common name different from its scientific name, they'd likely call it the American camellia. 

Franklinia alatamaha
franklinia leaves in the rain
It is an tree with large white flowers. In fall the foliage turns a handsome scarlet to maroon color. Impressed, gardeners beginning with John Bartram put it in their gardens. Despite its Georgia origins, it has been grown successfully north to USDA zone 5 (link to zone map). However, often the trees grew poorly, became infected with root rot and, even if apparently healthy, didn't live long. That explains part of the pride of the gardens of the Philadelphia area in having franklinia trees. 

The Bartrams, early and critically important commercial gardeners located in Philadelphia, recognized franklinia's uniqueness. Only three other members of the tea family, Theaceae, have been found in North America. In Asia trees in the tea family are beloved: for their beautiful flowers, known here as camellias (at least 3 species, Camellia japonica, C. reticulata, and C. sasanqua) but also for the essential traditional drink, tea, made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, a close relative with tiny flowers. Franklinia is distinctive enough that it is classified in a genus with only the one species Thus,franklinia is a unique, attractive American tree now extinct in the wild. Definitely worth trying to grow!

Franklinia alatamaha
a bigger franklinia tree, with flower buds
John Bartram's son William named this American camellia. Professionally. Giving a plant its scientific name in the Linnaean system is challenging because up until 2011 it had to be done in Latin (link). And not just in Latin but in technical botanical Latin. You could probably read all of Caesar's Gallic Wars without encountering the words needed to describe franklinia, for example "sepals deciduous, connate proximally, concave, thickened proximally, margins ciliate, apex rounded sericeous..." (see Flora of North America online link). But William Bartram did. He wrote up the technical names in Latin and published it. You can tell that when the author of the name is given. Botanists don't include the author of the name, except in technical taxonomic publications where it is needed for clarity. Then plant names appear as, for example, Salix alba Linnaeus, which says Salix alba, the white willow, was named by Linnaeus. For franklinia, it is Franklinia alatamaha W. Bartram ex Marshall: W. Bartram gave the plant described by Marshall its current name Franklinia alatamaha.

In  the 1780s, Linnaeus was still working, so Americans John and William Bartram, using his system and writing to him, were state-of-the-art in the European-American botanical community.

However what the Philadelphian gardeners, now and in the past, particularly liked was the name Franklinia. William Bartram named the tree for Benjamin Franklin.

I have an awkward relationship to Benjamin Franklin. We share a birthday, January 17. I started school in upstate New York. There, colonial and Revolutionary War history was very important. As a child, I was unimpressed by Franklin: an old  man with a depressing 18th century hairstyle, famous for improving quotes such as 

"Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

"If time be of all things the most precious, wasting time must be the greatest prodigality." 

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." 


Franklinia alatamaha
Sometime during my teen years I discovered Franklin was quite the ladies' man. Furthermore he had an illegitimate son whom he acknowledged. I was at the wrong age for that: I felt disillusioned that the prosy old bore was in fact a dirty old man. Franklin also wrote an essay on farting, entitled Fart Proudly (link), a concept to make a teenage girl cringe. 

Reading histories of the Revolutionary War period more recently, I find many places where Franklin's input was invaluable to the early development of the United States. Modern writers put his recognition of his illegitimate son in a positive light and Fart Proudly was satire. In addition he was a very successful businessman, a fine inventor (his credits include bifocals, swim fins and the Franklin stove) and a careful scientist, receiving lasting international fame for proving that lightning is electricity. (online biography

Franklinia alatamaha

On balance, Benjamin Franklin probably more than deserves a fine tree named after him and Philadelphia is right to be proud of it and him. 

Franklinia alatamaha

Franklinia alatamaha

Several of my books listing the trees of North America did not list franklinia at all. No wonder I had never heard of it before reading about the Bartrams.  I guess plants that are extinct in the wild are easy to omit from books on American trees. (Authors are always under pressure to keep their works short and so cheaper to produce.) 

However, franklinia is available from nurseries and can be found growing across the U.S. (see Flora of North America) The Missouri Botanic Garden page describes how to grow it (link). 

Comments and corrections welcome.

Prince, L. A. Franklinia alatamaha in Flora of North America link
Wulf, A. The Founding Gardeners. Vintage Press 2012.

Kathy Keeler


  1. Hi My names Francis I knew about this plant, and found this searching after Discovering your posts , and BLOG searching camellia Online

    Found this Link to be useful, (also has some seeds listed )
    , and I you have the best pictures I've seen online so far !!! (why does every one just show the Flowers
    I Liked the Wiry look of the tree

    (By the way I was planing on starting seeds , but seeing your pictures I may Buy a plant (the cheapest I've seen was $8, so it's not that bad but these things can be expensive)

    I think you should of mentioned (briefly) others native to the US though (Franklinia, Gordonia and Stewartia)
    and a Intergeneric Hybrid X gordonia (a crossing of two different genus in the same family (like a Shipova (pear, and mountain ash for instance)

    1. Didn't want to post a site, that may not be allowed
      (the vendor Link takes you to native seed network )
      Thanks for the good Blog (i'm In Chicago("LAND") If your ever there check out the morton arboretum

  2. Oops I forgot I know this is a Blog where others read
    A Intergeneric Hybrid X gordonia is not a GMO A shipova a pyrus X sorbus was found over a 100 years ago (plants can cross if the chromosomes are the same (and the chance seedling grows or is found , and not destroyed or crossed by breeders )