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GSU Botanical Gardens by Stephanie Tames

Franklinia - A special fragrant summer tree

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    July isn’t usually the month for flowering trees, but one native waits until the heat of the summer to make its biggest impression. Franklinia altamaha boasts one of the most beautiful, and fragrant, flowers of the garden, and has one of the most interesting stories. The flower resembles a camellia in form, with its cupped, five-petaled flower. Almost 240 years ago, the famous naturalists John and William Bartram stumbled across a beautiful tree growing along the Altamaha River in south Georgia. They collected the seed from the tree on a subsequent trip and named it Franklinia altamaha in honor of John Bartram’s good friend, Benjamin Franklin.  Unfortunately, by the early 1800s, the tree had disappeared and no wild populations have been seen since.   
    “The flower is beautiful,” said Bob Randolph, Georgia Southern Botanical Garden’s assistant director. “When it flowers it has a sweet and almost fruity fragrance,” he explained.  With no known wild populations of the plant, all Franklinas growing today are from the original seeds collected by the Bartrams.  Ironically, however, Franklinia is very difficult to grow in its native range of south Georgia.  “You see it in the piedmont area and farther north,” Randolph said. But Randolph said it’s not impossible to grow, especially if you pay careful attention to soil conditions and placement. 
    First, amend the soil with plenty of ground pine bark. The planting hole should be at least 8 ft. in diameter. The tree doesn’t like a lot of water – it doesn’t like its roots wet, Randolph said. The tree does best in morning or late afternoon sun and should be planted where it will be out of the tough afternoon summer sun. 
    The biggest draw of the Franklinia is it’s white fragrant flowers which are  about three-inches in diameter with striking bushy bright yellow stamens. But the tree’s form is also very interesting. It usually grows from 10 feet to 25 feet high and spreads from 6 feet to 15 feet. Once established the tree is a delight, from its summer flowers, to its maroon fall color, to its winter bare-limb silhouette. 
    Despite its reputation as difficult to grow, or maybe because of it, Franklinia, is gaining in popularity among gardeners. Georgia Southern Botanical Garden has a beautiful, large specimen in the Native Plant Landscape Garden. The Garden sells Franklinia at its plant sales in the spring and fall.
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