Posts Tagged With: naturalists

The Lost Franklin Tree


William Bartram, Franklinia alatamaha (1782)

As naturalist William Bartram traveled through the eastern woods and swamps of southern Georgia near Fort Barrington in 1773, he found many plants of interest to his pen, which he collected for study and propagation—both at home in Philadelphia and specimens sent to England for collaborative observation by naturalists there. One blooming shrub caught his attention: “I passed through a well-inhabited district, mostly rice plantations, on the waters of Cat-head creek, a branch of the Alatamaha,” he wrote in Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, “On drawing near the fort, I was greatly delighted at the appearance of two beautiful shrubs in all their blooming graces. One of them appeared to be a species of Gordonia, but the flowers are larger, and ore fragrant than those of the Gordonia lasianthus” (native loblolly bay). He shipped seeds to his father, John, in Philadelphia and sent a second specimen to London.

Although Bartram had travelled through this region with his father eight years earlier, and remembers the plant, they had not collected seeds. They observed a few “very curious shrubs,” one with “beautiful good fruite” (seedpods), but their notes do not hold specific mention of the species.

On August 16, 1783, Bartram wrote Linnaeus, Chair of Botany at Uppsala University, with a description and sketch asking for a new genus designation, but Linnaeus died before replying. In 1788, Bartram sent another request to England but he received a reply that the “botanists in England will not…allow it to be properly named.” Sir Joseph Banks, new president of Royal Society, placed it in Gordonia.
That would seem to be the end of the story. But the curator of the Historic Collections at Bartram’s Garden, Joel Fry, suggests otherwise. He thinks the exchange lacks scientific discourse and was a move to “enforce European supremacy in botanical nomenclature.” Moreover, it may not have sat well with British botanists to name a species after Ben Franklin—a revolutionary leader—so soon after the Revolution.

Bartram remarks: “I have travelled by land from Pennsylvania to the banks of the Mississippi, over almost all the Territory in that distance between the Sea shore & the first mountains, cross-d all the Rivers, and assended them from their capes a many miles; & search’d their various branches Yet never saw This beautiful Tree growing wild but in one spot on the Alatamaha about 30 miles from the Sea Coast.” (to Barclay 1788)

The description of Franklinia does not appear in his journal sent to John Fothergill, so his account of it in Travels, while not suspect, is difficult to measure for accuracy of location and date—both of interest to the subsequent search for the plant throughout the nineteenth century. We know he collected specimens, for one flowered for the first time in the Bartram garden in 1781. It was still known in the wild in Georgia, reported by plant collectors Moses Marshall and Luigi Castiglioni both in 1790.

The last reported sighting in the wild was in 1803 by John Lyon, a Scottish plant collector. When he found Franklinia he located only 6 or 8 trees and remarked how strange it was that the plant should not be found in other locales in the U.S. Franklinia alatamaha is now extinct in the wild. Though The Nature Conservancy, which has purchased large tracks of former forestry land along the Altamaha River, has tried reintroductions from propagated plants (available from Bartram’s original collections), those attempts have failed. (More on this in a future essay.)


Franklinia alatamaha, International Botanical Congress (1969).

In much of my research about extinction, memory, and memorialization, I have found cautionary tales. Monuments to the passenger pigeon, for example, talk about the loss as a tragedy brought on by humans. But Franklinia is a different kind of loss. It was lost not at the end of the nineteenth century when naturalists had become more aware of the power of human exploitation to drive species decline, but at the start of that century when the nation was still being cataloged, discovered, and explored.

While no one at the time seems to have mourned its loss, on August 23, 1969, the International Botanical Congress issued four stamps to commemorate plants associated with four regions of the U.S. to mark the 11th annual meeting of the organization in Seattle. Franklinia alatamaha was chosen to represent the South. The showy flower is in the foreground with a sprig of leaves and in the background stands a plantation house. This is the only one of the four stamps that includes a human element. Franklinia is conflated with the loss of human institutions and therefore is associated with domestic life. The only Franklinia trees remaining today are those propagated from the ones collected at the end of the eighteenth century. The memorial stamp then, is commenting upon the loss of the species’ wildness in its original home. At the same time, the Botanical Congress may have viewed this species as a success story–one which their field had saved from complete extinction.

In a later essay, I will explore and unpack the plantation house imagery, as well the local history and identity connected to both plant and plantation.

Resources & References

Braund, Kathryn E. Holland and Charlotte Porter, eds. Fields of Vision: Essays on the Travels of William Bartram. The University of Alabama Press, 2010.

Bartram, William. Travels of William Bartram. Dover Publications, 1955.

Magee, Judith. The Art and Science of William Bartram. Penn State University Press, 2007.

Slaughter, Thomas P. The Natures of John and William Bartram. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Wulf, Andrea. The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession. New York: Vintage, 2010.

__ Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the         American Nation. New York: Knopf, 2011.

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