Last week I alluded to a discussion some of us had about the plant Franklinia alatamaha, and the importance it has to the Bartrams and Marshalls. It was first found by John Bartram on a trip to Georgia on the banks of the Alatamaha River (hence the species name), however because of the season he was unable to bring back any seeds or plantings, and it took William Bartram using his father’s directions to collect seeds in the wild that were able to propagate successfully in their garden. William also named the plant after Benjamin Franklin, when William’s studies of the plant suggested it was a new genus. Humphry Marshall was the first to publish information about the plant in his groundbreaking book Arbustrum Americanum.
The particularly interesting thing about the Franklinia is that it is extinct in the wild, and has been so for a long time. In fact, William Bartram was apparently the one person to have successfully grown the plant, so any modern day specimens are descended from his collection trip. Though it looks rather like a Camellia or a Gordonia (it was thought to be a Gordonia for quite some time) it is the single member of the Franklinia genus, making it unique. Why Franklinia became extinct in the wild by the early 19th century is unclear but we can make some good guesses. It is likely this beautiful, small tree was already on the cusp of extinction considering it was only known to grow along the Alatamaha and is famously delicate. Compounding that factor is the possibility of pressures on the environment due to settlers and over collecting by interested gardeners.