Extinct in the wild, this unique species is conserved in arboreta and botanical gardens around the world.
The earliest mention of what would come to be called the Franklin tree appears in a journal entry in 1765. A father and son were on a trip through the southeastern part of the then British colony of Georgia when they noticed a striking tree growing along the banks of a river. The father, John Bartram, wrote that he’d seen “several very curious shrubs” in his journal.
Born into a Quaker family in Pennsylvania in 1699, Bartram had developed a keen interest in botany. He travelled throughout the American colonies and what is today Florida, collecting seeds of interesting plants to grow in a corner of his farm.
He also sent seeds abroad. Through his correspondence with botanists in Europe, Bartram was responsible for the introduction of many North American species into Europe. In 1765, King George III named Bartram “King’s Botanist in North America,” a position which came with £50 a year.
Bartram’s son, William, returned to the area in Georgia to collect seed of the Franklin tree several years later. In 1791, he wrote, “We never saw it any other place, nor have I ever seen it growing wild, in all my travels, from Pennsylvania to Point Coupe, on the banks of the Mississippi.” He brought the seeds back to Philadelphia. His collection of the species was timely; within 50 years, the tree was extinct in the wild. All living Franklin trees—which Bartram named for family friend Benjamin Franklin—are descended from the seeds Bartram collected.
Without William Bartram’s initial collection of Franklin tree in 1776 and subsequent conservation work at institutions like the Arnold Arboretum, the species would no longer exist—and may have never been discovered before becoming extinct in the wild. Every Franklin tree alive today descends from the seed gathered and sown by Bartram. Ex situ conservation Ex situ conservation: The process of protecting a species outside of its natural habitat. efforts of botanical gardens and arboreta around the world are crucial to this species’ survival.
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About Our Collection
Naturalist William Bartram named this species to honor Benjamin Franklin, a good friend of his father, the early American botanist John Bartram.
A relative of Stewartia and Camellia, the Franklin tree is a member of the tea family (Theaceae), and is the sole member of its genus.
In temperate climates, the Franklin tree blooms through late summer and early fall—unusually late for a woody plant—and displays its showy blossoms alongside brilliant autumn foliage.
The seed of the Franklin tree develops over two growing seasons. Following pollination in late summer, the fertilized egg (zygote) within the immature seed overwinters in a dormant state, before continuing its development in spring. By autumn, you can observe flowers and ripening fruit capsules on the tree at the same time.
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