The Plant Native

Franklin Tree

Highlights

This is a rare and special tree, and an excellent example of the jaw-dropping beauty of North American native plants. Franklin trees were spotted in the wild in the 1700s and have never been seen in nature again. We have Franklin trees today because the early American botanists who found the tree 300 years ago thankfully grabbed some seeds. Every single Franklin tree today can be traced back to that fateful encounter. Plant one (or a few!) today and bring your landscape within one degree of separation from early American history.

Part Sun – Part Shade
10′-20′ tall
Late summer flowers
Franklinia alatamaha

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native Franklin trees

Table of Contents

A Fringe Tree looks ethereal (and smells amazing) when in bloom

Franklin Trees were once VERY rare—they are now extinct in nature

The story behind the Franklin tree is similar to those about secret pirate treasure, or a mythical lost city. 300 years ago, early American botanists discovered this tree while exploring forests in Georgia.

One of them had the good sense to go back for seeds. Which is good—because the tree has never been seen in the wild since.

In her excellent book, Easy Care Native Plants, writer and native plant lover Patricia A. Taylor writes:

“Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha) is perhaps the most extreme example of a plant existing in one specific locality. It was found growing in Georgia in 1765 by the Philadelphia botanist John Bartram and his son, William. Had William not returned later to collect seed and introduce it to ornamental gardens it would have disappeared, because this lovely tree, with its glossy leaves and lustrous white summer flowers, has never been found again in the wild.”

Because all Franklin trees come from this single source, “the current genetic base of this plant is quite narrow in large part because all plants currently in existence in the world come from the materials collected by the Bartrams.” (Source: Missouri Botanic Garden)

In other words: every single Franklin tree can tie its existence back to William Bartram’s hand-picked seeds from the 1700s. It’s an extraordinary connection to early American history if you think about it!

Why is it called a ‘Franklin tree’?

John Bartram named the plant after his close friend and fellow Philadelphian: Benjamin Franklin. 

Its Latin nameFranklinia Alatamaha—puts all this history together. Franklinia refers to Ben Franklin, and Alatamaha is the name of the river in Georgia where they spotted it.

Franklin trees can be tricky to grow—IF they are not planted in their favorite environment

Franklin trees thrive in a specific environment—they like to be in consistently moist areas, with good drainage, along with soil that is loamy—or soil that has lots of organic matter in it. This environment mimics their original home in nature, which was along the Altamaha River in Georgia. 

Sometimes, landscapers and gardeners can be dissuaded from planting Franklin trees, because they are said to be ‘challenging.’ The Plant Native wants to reset this fear!

Do NOT be scared to plant a native Franklin tree

Remember: native plants have planted themselves—with no human intervention!—for millions of years. They don’t need fancy irrigation systems or imported fertilizer. Franklin trees happily lived with rain and grew themselves for thousands of years in North America. All you need to do is mimic nature for native trees like the Franklin tree to thrive in your landscape or yard.

You can successfully plant a Franklin tree by picking the right spot and paying attention to soil and water. Make sure the spot is:

  • Consistently moist. This can mean being regularly watered (via a hose or irrigation) or an area that’s near a natural water source—like a stream, pond, or lake.
  • Well-drained. I know, you’re thinking—”wait, didn’t you just say Franklin trees like water?” And they do—they just don’t like sitting in it for days on end. Well-draining spots can include hills, or ensuring that the soil nearby has ways for water to dissipate (French drains count, too!)
  • Loamy, rich soil. Loam is a gardening term for soil that has organic matter in it. You can tell if the soil is loamy if it’s dark brown/black. If your soil is more light brown due to clay or sand, you’ll need to add compost, humus, and perhaps peat (or peat alternatives) to make sure your Franklin tree is happy.
  • Acidic soil. In nature, the most common reason for acidic soil is pine trees. When the needles drop and decompose in the soil, they make the soil acidic. In our modern times, you can just add acidic fertilizer or add other acidic nutrients.

    Or, you can take a great tip from master gardener Carolyn Harstad, and fertilize your Franklin tree with the branches from your Christmas tree! Yep, just cut the branches off and lay them around the Franklin tree to mimic nature.

The University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center (UMDHGIC) has a great overview video filled with planting tips:

When do Franklin trees bloom?

Franklin trees are in bloom in mid-July or August—and keep blooming until the fall! (This is a big difference between other flowering trees like native dogwoods or redbuds, which bloom for 2-4 weeks.) This flowering time is true when it’s planted in Midwest, Southern, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast gardens.

Once they start blooming, they bloom for a long time—4-6 weeks of flowers, on average. Some gardeners say they keep blooming into the fall, especially on mature trees.

Where should I plant a Franklin tree?

Franklin trees are perfect statement trees, very useful for front yards or as garden anchors. They are great for front yards because they don’t get too tall—normally topping out around 20 feet—so they don’t block houses.

Again—having a well-drained spot is important. This is one reason why hills are great spots to plant Franklin trees.

What do Franklin trees look like in the fall and winter?

Franklin trees’ leaves turn bright reddish in the fall before falling to reveal gray, sculptural branches. According to master gardener Carolyn Harstad in her excellent book, Go Native!, “It has fiery orange-red fall foliage, and interesting gray bark.” 

Even in the fall, Franklin Trees put out flowers alongside beautiful foliage

Do Franklin tree flowers have a smell?

Yes! Franklin tree flowers have a light, sweet fragrance when in bloom.

What are good pairings for Franklin trees?

Franklin trees do wonderfully alongside other native shrubs and flowers that thrive in a similar environment—well-drained, consistently moist, loamy soil that’s acidic. Some great pairings include:

flame-azalea-native-plant-shrub

Azalea

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False Blue Indigo

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Highbush Blueberry

mountain-laurel-native-shrub-flower

Mountain Laurel

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Red Columbine

rosebay-rhododendron-native-shrub-flowering

Rhododendron

To sum it all up and paraphrase native plant guru Carolyn Harstad

Franklin Trees are living proof that a single person can make a difference in our natural world. Without John Bartram’s act hundreds of years ago, we would be without this tree. Our actions in the garden have power and are a delight to our landscapes.

Franklin trees are incredible native trees that are perfect for high-profile landscaping. Their four-season beauty offers glossy green leaves in the spring, creamy flowers in the late summer into fall, and gorgeous fiery-colored fall foilage as the temperatures drop. Don’t be dissuaded by its reputation for being finicky and challenging to grow! With some careful planning of the spot you pick, extra water during dry times, and some potential soil amending, you can grow this tree and enjoy its beauty for decades. They are a beautiful tree for Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, or Southern gardens. Happy planting!

UPDATED —
04/01/2024
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