Tales of Our Trees

Georgia, Oh Georgia

Thanks to King George III’s stipend, for service as Royal Botanist in North America, Philadelphia Quaker John Bartram and son William, in 1765, undertook a botanical expedition through Georgia.

John’s journal mentions coming upon “severall curious shrubs, one bearing beautiful good fruite” on the banks of the Altamaha River. Twenty years later, Humphrey Marshall, another Quaker botanist, listed that newly discovered species in his Arbustrum Americanum: The American Grove, the first published compendium of North American trees. William had asked cousin Humphrey to name the tree after his father’s friend, Benjamin Franklin. This was four years after William played the key role in the survival of that species. He had returned to Georgia, located the same grove of trees—none had been seen elsewhere—gathered seeds, planted them at his father’s farm (now Bartram’s Garden, in Philadelphia, near the University of Pennsylvania), and enjoyed the first flowering of his young trees.

Thanks to George, John, William, and Humphrey (who distributed seeds to colonial and European botanists), the species survives. But not in Georgia; Humphrey’s nephew Moses confirmed in 1790 that the Franklinia alatamaha (a later spelling of the river’s name) had become extinct in Georgia.

It’s still rare. In 1998, Bartram’s Garden worked to record all existing Franklinia. Less than 2,000 were reported, one-quarter of them in Pennsylvania. Sharpen your pencils! Our arboretum has .0025% of them. In the context of the world’s 3.4 trillion trees—newly calculated this year at Yale—having even one Franklinia is a blessing.

Dress warmly and head for cottage #162. Instead of visiting BJ and Dave walk to the center of the courtyard. This month you’ll be able to see both new buds and old seed pods on and under Kendal’s five Fanklinia. Notice how they opened, in a zig-zag way. Come back often between August and October to enjoy other standout features: size and length of bloom (3 inches wide, into the fall); fragrance (orange-like, some say); and autumn color (deep oranges and reds). Notice too—the tag tells you so—that one was planted in memory of Ted Reinke’s dad.

To experience a bit of what challenged the Bartrams, order Franklinia seeds from the Schumacher Tree and Shrub Seed Company (1,000 for $142). Eve Thyrum knows how to propagate them. The shortcut to having a personal Franklinia tree is to buy one at Media’s Redbud Nursery. For sixty bucks it’s yours, and it’ll be small enough to easily plant. Give it adequate drainage, afternoon shade, and water during dry spells. While watering, sing Georgia On My Mind. With luck, the Franklinia will thank you with dazzling white, camellia-like blooms.

by Harry Hammond and Judy Czeiner, Photographer


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