Far From Home

Your Tree Watch chair and his wife dropped by the Arnold Arboretum during a recent trip to Boston.

What a thrill.

I thought I’d tell you about two trees at the Arnold Arboretum. We made an effort to locate them, because we thought they’d like to hear some familiar voices.

On October 1, 1765, father-and-son naturalists John and William Bartram were traveling along the Altamaha River east of what is now Jesup, Georgia. They stumbled across a “very curious” tree they could not identify, growing plentifully across two or three acres of ground.

On revisiting the site in 1773 and 1776, William produced drawings of this new species, which he later described as “of the first order for beauty and fragrance,” and collected seeds from it. In the journal he published in 1791, he noted that “[w]e never saw it grow in any other place, nor have I ever since seen it growing wild, in all my travels …”

Nor in fact has anyone else seen a wild specimen of this tree, not since 1803, when an English nurseryman managed to find the grove first discovered by the Bartrams in McIntosh County.

The younger Bartram named the newly discovered species for his father’s good friend Benjamin Franklin: Franklinia alatamaha. Today, moreover, every existing Franklinia tree is a scion of the trees that he grew from seed in his own garden in Philadelphia.

Descendants of Bartram’s Philadelphia trees include the two Franklinia specimens growing side-by-side in the Arnold Arboretum. These date back to 1904 (grown from cuttings taken from a tree donated to Harvard University a decade earlier).

“Howdy, y’all!” we said to these remarkable 113-year-old survivors. They’re a long way from their ancestral home here in Georgia! They’re also the oldest Franklinia trees in the world of known, documented lineage — and among the largest, too. 

Though we didn’t see this tree in bloom, here it is. Lovely right?

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