Franklinias -- In Honor Of Old Ben Franklin
There is a lot of merit in considering making your garden a sanctuary for growing trees and plants that are not only native to America, but also so rare that if successful, you’d be hopefully ensuring the survival of a species. As American as The Revolution, and in point of discovery almost as old, the Franklinia Tree (Franklinia Altamaha) is not only completely indigenous to this, our native land but actually a part of its history.
It was discovered by John Bartram, the Father of American botany, whom Linnaeus called “the greatest natural botanist in the world”, and is named for his dear friend and frequent visitor, Benjamin Franklin. Its history is both fascinating and mysterious.
It was on the banks of the Altamaha River in Georgia, in the year 1790, that John Bartram came upon the tree we now know as Franklinia, although it is included among the Gordonias. This species, however, has been found nowhere else in the world. Indeed, never again in the wild in this country. The tree Bartram grew in his garden, however, was of enduring quality and until around the 1930s flourished there.
Today the original tree is gone, but small trees have survived as offshoots of the original so that Franklinias still blossom in the Bartram garden. They flourish in other gardens too, and every one of them is directly descended from John Bartram’s tree. They are, however, not nearly so frequently planted or widely known as they deserve.
For the Franklinia is certainly a handsome tree. It grows quite shrubby at first, but in time will grow to thirty feet, and in excellent tree form if it has been so trained. All summer long the leaves are green and shining, but in the autumn they turn a glowing crimson.
It is in the blossom of the Franklinia, however, which so endears it to everyone wise enough to include this beauty in their garden. Not until September or October, do the golden-antlered satin cups unfold. They are as handsome then as the finest camellias.
The tree’s rarity has evidently been due to two factors — difficulties of propagation, now happily mastered, and a bad reputation for winter endurance. It is, indeed, true that the Franklinia is safely set out only in a limited part of the country. However, in protected areas even as far north as Massachusetts, it can be grown, while around New York, though not far inland, in Philadelphia and especially in the acid Pine Barrens of New Jersey it grows luxuriantly and flowers profusely each year.
Experiments have proved that successful culture includes an acid soil condition and that where this does not exist, leave lose color and the plants fail to thrive. Therefore, when a Franklinia is planted, it should go into naturally acid soil, or else in an area prepared for it with acid peat moss or rotted oak leaves, or soil treated with aluminum soleplate. A moist, peaty condition is ideal for this relative of the tea and camellia families, and some degree of shade is also acceptable.
The Franklinia is therefore well suited to the companionship of the rhododendrons, laurel, and azaleas — and usually thrives well when set among them. April and November are the ideal planting months.
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