When looking for small trees to complete a woodland landscape, many opt for the wide varieties of Acer palmatum available in the nursery industry. While common and versatile, the Japanese maples’ lack of significant flowers leaves some folks looking for alternatives. The Franklin Tree( Franklinia alatamaha) would be an excellent addition to the landscape.
In 1765, plantsman John Bartram and his son William discovered the small tree growing in the woodlands along the Altamaha River in Georgia. They returned several times to collect plants and seed over the next decade while watching the 3 acre patch dwindle. Whether annual flooding or logging caused the permanent extinction of this plant in the wild, is not known. Fortunately, through zealous cultivation among growers, this plant thrives in many landscapes and nurseries from the original seeds collected by Bartram. It is named after Ben Franklin (Bartram’s friend) and the Altamaha River where it was found.
It is a tall shrubby member of the tea family; typically reaching 10-25 ft. tall with a light, open canopy. It commonly grows to around 20 foot tall in cultivation and may be trained to a single trunk or left to grow multiple stems. The flowers are 3 inches in diameter and are surrounded by yellowish stamens. They are slightly fragrant and are produced from early summer until mid fall. This species flowers best in full sun providing that there is ample soil moisture during dry periods in summer. They prefer moist and well drained acidic soil and are at home where Ericaceous plants flourish. A 6 year old specimen at Bernheim Arboretum has survived to -14F and grows magnificently in partial shade. Fall foliage can be quite spectacular against a backdrop of evergreens as leaves turn a vivid orange-red in color.
Although somewhat elusive in the trade, there are many nurseries that do stock Franklinia. Most growers are propagating from seed, which readily germinates if not left to dry out before sowing. Seedlings reach about 12-15 inches the first year and can be pushed to around 3 ft. by the end of the second growing season.
Perhaps some of the most appealing aspects of this tree are its’ rarity and history. Thanks to conservationists and nurseries Franklinia will remain a part of our landscapes. With thoughtful placement and care it can definitely become a showpiece in a collectors garden.