Horticulture Supervisor, Kyle Cheesborough
One of the more curious plants at Bellefontaine is the Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha). With a storied history, the Franklin tree has confounded the botanical world since its discovery in the late 18th century. John and William Bartram, father-and-son botanists, first described Franklinia during their travels through the southeastern United States. During a trip along the Altamaha River in southeast Georgia, the two noticed a ‘curious shrub…bearing beautiful good fruit’, and initially classified it as a species of Gordonia. After closer examination, William Bartram distinguished this new plant with its own genus, which he named in honor of his family’s close friend, Benjamin Franklin.
The Franklin tree has only been observed as a very small population along the Altamaha River in Georgia, by the Bartrams, and disappeared from the wild in the early 1800s. All existing Franklinia descend directly from seed originally collected by John and William Bartram. There are a number of theories explaining the extinction of the Franklin tree, but none fully explain how this small tree vanished from nature. Typically grown as a small, multi-trunked tree, Franklinia alatamaha can grow to 20 feet, though it is more often seen between 10-15 feet tall. The flower buds swell in mid-summer, bursting into pure-white, scented, five-petal flowers with a yolk-yellow center, resembling a freshly fried egg. Franklinia falls into the tea family, and the flowers are very similar to those of Camellia sinensis, the shrub from which most of our commercial tea production is derived. In fall, the Franklin tree leaves displays dazzling mixtures of scarlet and plum. Gardeners beware, Franklinia is notoriously difficult to transplant, and is susceptible to root rot. Good drainage is essential, so avoid heavy clay sites and plant high in areas where clay soils are prevalent.
The very similar mountain gordlinia, XGordlinia grandiflora, is a hardier, more disease-resistant genetic cross between Franklinia alatamaha and the evergreen Gordonia lasianthus (the ‘X’ preceding the genus name ‘Gordlinia’ denotes the crossing of two genus). Featuring larger flowers (6-7” diameter) that have a star shape, the mountain gordlinia is an excellent small tree for the home landscape. Blooming in late summer and into fall, the flowers are sweetly fragrant and very showy. Also preferring good drainage, the mountain gordlinia should be sited in lighter soils, with regular watering, especially during dry spells. Expect the gordlinia to resemble the Franklin tree in size and habit and a similarly spectacular show of fall color.
The crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia spp) has been a staple in the southern landscape for decades and has made its way into the St. Louis garden in recent years. Crape myrtles come in a number of shapes, sizes, and colors and can be pruned as multi-trunked trees, large shrubs, pollarded, or cut back to the ground annually. The blooms appear mid-summer, and last into fall, followed by interesting round seed pods, typically with a reddish tint. Hardiness can be an issue in St. Louis, with crape myrtle dying back to the ground in a harsh winter – though they will return with gusto the following spring. Crape myrtle is very fast growing, so for the smaller landscape, dwarf varieties are best. Lagerstroemia is drought tolerant, heat tolerant, and disease resistant, requiring little more than occasional pruning once established.
compiled by Cara L. Crocker