Late summer can see a dearth of blooms, often leaving the gardener to rely on those few perennials that blossom before the fall, or those that have a long-lasting bloom period stretching into September. Blooming trees and shrubs are nearly absent this time of year, with a few exceptions, the most curious being the Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha). This small tree or large shrub typically grows as a low-branching woody plant to 20 feet tall, though 10-15 feet is more common. Camellia-like blossoms of pure-white with a brilliant yellow center emerge in August and continue well into September.
The flowers are very fragrant and attractive to many bees and are quite striking in a time when few other garden plants are blooming. In fall, the long, oblanceolate leaves morph from a true glossy-green to a rich red, often dotted with deep purple. In the landscape, Franklinia alatamaha is a stunning addition providing focal interest in multiple seasons. What makes the Franklin tree truly interesting is its odd history. In the late 1700s, the American botanist John Bartram was appointed Royal Botanist for North America by King George III. Shortly thereafter, he and his son William began extensive travels through much of the eastern United States, especially the Southeast. Observing, sketching, describing, and collecting plants of interest, the Bartrams came upon ‘several very curious shrubs’, as described by John Bartram in his journal entry for October 1st, 1765. They were growing along the Altamaha River in the southeastern region of the British colony of Georgia when John and William Bartram quickly recognized this woody plant as a uniquely new genus. William Bartram returned to this spot along the Altamaha River many times (funded by John Fothergill, remembered by the popular fothergilla shrub named in his honor), returning only once with viable seed that he proceeded to grow at his Philadelphia estate. William Bartram later noted,
‘We never saw it grow in any other place, nor have I ever since seen it growing wild, in all my travels, from Pennsylvania to Point Coupe, on the banks of the Mississippi, which must be allowed a very singular and unaccountable circumstance; at this place there are two or three acres of ground where it grows plentifully’.
Unfortunately, the Franklin tree has disappeared from the wild, being last described by botanist John Lyon in 1803. There are a number of theories for why Franklinia alatamaha went extinct, but the prevailing idea is a combination of fungal root rot introduced by nearby cotton farming and the lack of genetic diversity to withstand a disease infestation. Today, the Franklin tree survives in cultivated settings, with every tree originating from those grown in William Bartrams Philadelphia garden. A stately Franklinia grows at Bellefontaine Cemetery near the Busch mausoleum, and is a sight to behold in full bloom and again in fall. A more hardy, intergeneric cross of Franklinia alatamaha and Gordonia lasianthus (loblolly bay) is available with very similar traits to the Franklin tree. The resulting tree, mountain gordlinia (xGordlinia grandiflora), features larger blossoms and greater disease resistance.
Blooming in our cutting gardens south of the Franklin tree, along Woodbine Avenue, visitors will find the lovely tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata). Preferring rocky, poor soils in full sun to part shade, tickseed is easily grown in the garden as a short-lived perennial with a very extensive bloom period from spring to late summer.
Towering over the lower-growing Coreopsis is the wild blue sage (Salvia azurea). Growing to five feet, wild blue sage is best grown in sunny, dry sites, and will seed itself in the immediate area to create small colonies. Bumblebees adore the beautiful blue flowers blooming late summer into fall, and a few other long-tongued bees are occasional visitors.
compiled by Cara L. Crocker