(Cue spooky music.) Not actually a camellia but resembling one, it was discovered growing along the banks of Georgia's Altamaha River in 1765 by two of the New World's earliest plant explorers--John and William Bartram.
William later returned to gather seeds from the same stand of trees, probably in 1777. It's a good thing he did. Within 50 years of its discovery, the new find had disappeared from the face of the earth. Or from all of the earth except the Bartram garden!
Originally dubbed Gordonia pubescens, the tree apparently had only existed in that one location on Georgia's sandbanks. After it proved not to be a gordonia after all, William Bartram named it after his late father's friend Benjamin Franklin and the river where it was found instead.
In The Plant Hunters, Alice Coats speculates that the Franklin tree was "exterminated partly by the clearing of the land for agriculture . . .partly. . .by the rapacity of later collectors." But nobody knows why it existed only in that one limited area in the South when subsequent experiments have proved that it actually grows better farther north.
The deciduous tree can, in fact, survive as far north as USDA zone 5 with protection, and as far south as zone 9. It may reach 40 feet in height, as one of the Bartrams' specimens reportedly did after 60 years or so. However, it usually grows no taller than 25 feet, and prefers acidic, moist but well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. The 3-inch single white flowers with golden stamens appear from late summer through autumn, and may still be decorating the tips of the tree's branches after its 6-inch glossy green leaves have flushed scarlet or burgundy.
With striated gray bark in addition to its other attractions, the Franklin tree is striking at almost any season. However, it doesn't transplant well and is very prone to root rot, so it won't tolerate boggy conditions. In zones where the temperature frequently rises above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, it should be planted in light shade rather than sun.
In The Common But Less Frequent Loon and Other Essays, Keith Stewart Thomson mentions that only about 10% of the tree's seeds are viable, which could be one reason that it died out! Those seeds also take about 12 months to mature, so will probably be ready when the tree blooms the following year. If they are planted immediately after the 1/2 to 3/4-inch woody seed capsules open, they shouldn't require pre-treatment. Older seeds, however, should be stratified for two to four months before you sow them.
You can accomplish that by placing them, along with a handful of barely damp seed-starting mix, inside a zipper-type plastic bag in your refrigerator. After their chilling period, plant the 1/2-inch long seeds in a mix of peat and perlite, barely covering them with that mix as they require some light to germinate. As a seedling can take four or more years to bloom, you may want to try cuttings instead, provided you can find a tree from which to take the cuttings.
Speaking of finding, what happened to the tree sometimes now known as the lost camellia? Those of you who live near a certain river in Georgia might want to poke around a bit on the eastern bank--about four miles downstream from what was once Fort Barrington--and see if you can figure it out!
The first antique image is from Addisonia, Volume 18 by M. E. Eaton and the second from North American Wildflowers by Mary Vaux Walcott, both courtesy of plantillustrations.org. Other images are courtesy of PlantFiles