Franklinia is a monotypic genus in the family Theaceae. The sole species in this genus is a flowering tree, Franklinia alatamaha, commonly called the Franklin tree, and native to the Altamaha River valley in Georgia in the southeastern United States. It has been extinct in the wild since ca. 1803 but survives as a cultivated ornamental tree.
Some botanists have included Franklinia within the related genus Gordonia. The southeastern North American species Gordonia lasianthus differs in having evergreen foliage, flowers with longer stems, winged seeds, and conical seed capsules. (Franklinia was often known as Gordonia pubescens until the middle of the 20th c.)
Franklinia is now thought to be closer in relation to the Asian genus Schima. Recent DNA studies and examinations of floral ontogeny in the Theaceae place Franklinia together with Gordonia and Schima in a subtribe. (Tsou 1998). Hybrid crosses have been produced between Franklinia alatamaha and Gordonia lasianthus, and between Franklinia alatamaha and Schima argentea. (Orton 1977; Ranney et al. 2003).
The tree has a symmetrical, somewhat pyramidal shape, with different individuals of the species forming almost identical crowns. It forms several vertical trunks close to ground level. The bark is gray with vertical white striations and has a ridged texture. The alternate, obovate leaves are up to 6 inches (15 cm) in length and turn a bright orange-red in the fall. Although difficult to transplant, once established Franklinia can live a century or more.
Franklinia fruit develops slowly. The seed capsules require 12-14 months to mature. When ripe the 5-valved spherical capsules split above and below in a unique manner. Anecdotal evidence suggests viable seed production is enhanced where two or more plants are present in close proximity.
William Bartram was the first to report the extremely limited distribution of Franklinia. "We never saw it grow in any other place, nor have I ever since seen it growing wild, in all my travels, from Pennsylvania to Point Coupe, on the banks of the Mississippi, which must be allowed a very singular and unaccountable circumstance; at this place there are two or three acres of ground where it grows plentifully." (W. Bartram 1791: 468).
The tree was last verified in the wild in 1803 by the English plant collector John Lyon, (although there are hints it may have been present into at least the 1840s. See: Bozeman and Rogers 1986). The cause of its extinction in the wild is not known, but has been attributed to a number of causes including fire, flood, overcollection by plant collectors, and fungal disease introduced with the cultivation of cotton plants. (Dirr 1998: 390-391).
All the Franklin trees known to exist today are descended from seed collected by William Bartram and propagated at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia.
Bozeman, John R. and George A. Rogers. 1986. “‘This very curious tree’: Despite years of searching and research the enigma of Franklinia alatamaha endures,” Tipularia, (November), p. 9-15.
Dirr, Michael A. 1998. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses. Stipes Publishing L.L.C.: Champaign, IL.
Fry, Joel T. 2000. “Franklinia alatamaha, A History of that ‘Very Curious’ Shrub, Part 1: Discovery and Naming of the Franklinia,” Bartram Broadside, (Spring), p. 1-24.
Marshall, Humphry. 1785. Arbustrum Americanum. The American Grove, or an Alphabetical Catalogue of Forest Trees and Shrubs, Natives of the American United States, Arranged According to the Linnaean System…, Joseph Cruikshank: Philadelphia.
Orton, Elwin R., Jr. 1977. "Successful Hybridization of Gordonia lasianthus (L.) Ellis x Franklinia alatamaha Marshall," American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, vol. 11, no. 4 (October), p. 81-84.
Ranney, Thomas G. and Thomas A. Eaker, Paul R. Frantz, Clifford R. Parks. 2003 "xSchimlinia floridbunda (Theaceae): A New Intergeneric Hybrid between Franklinia alatamaha and Schima argentea," HortScience, vol. 38(6), October, p. 1198-1200.
Tsou, Chih-Hua. 1998. "Early Floral Development of Camellioideae (Theaceae)," American Journal of Botany, 85(11), p. 1531-1547.