Sunny-side up

by Terry Huang, Living Collections Fellow

August 29, 2018

Franklinia alatamaha

Sunny-side up

Franklinia alatamaha

A bee visits a Franklina alatamaha flower with its bright golden boss of stamens.

As we continue on through the dog days of summer, a botanical event is underway in the Explorers Garden on Bussey Hill: the flowering of our Franklin trees (Franklinia alatamaha). Two sprawling accessions of the species, 2428-3*A and 2428-3*B, date to 1905 and are among the largest specimens of Franklin tree in North America. Both are covered in silky, tight, green buds giving way to large palm-sized flowers of linen-white petals and a golden boss of stamens, reminiscent of a good fried egg. These large flowers exude a gentle rose fragrance and are loved by honeybees and bumblebees alike. Once pollinated, these flowers will give way to hard green fruit, but not immediately. While a flower may be pollinated today, it sits dormant through winter and finally ripens the following summer—look closely to find fruit lower on the stem, below this year’s blossoms. Arboretum Director William (Ned) Friedman and graduate student Kristel Schoonderwoerd published a study in 2016 about the phenomenon using these very accessions.

Franklinia alatamaha flower and fruit

The swelling seedpod beneath the flower is a result of a successful pollination last summer. This winter it will turn brown and woody.

Residing in the Theaceae or tea family, Franklinia is related to Camellia, Stewartia, and Gordonia, hence the familiar floral form. Unlike its cousins however, Franklinia alatamaha is the sole species in its genus and is extinct in the wild. In the late 1700s, a small population was found growing in the wild in Georgia near the Altamaha River, but since the early 1800s it has never been found again. All the Franklin trees growing in gardens today are descended from seeds collected from the original population nearly 250 years ago by father and son botanists John and William Bartram for their garden in Philadelphia.

Though individual flowers are short-lived, flowering will continue well into autumn. The sight will be even more spectacular as its grass-green leaves take on scarlet hues accentuating the pristine flowers. While visiting the evanescing spectacle of Fog x FLO: Fujiko Nakaya on the Emerald Necklace, why not pay a visit to the oldest documented Franklina trees on Earth? If its death-defying story doesn’t inspire you, perhaps its fabulous flowers will.

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