In October 1765, pioneer American naturalists John Bartram (1699–1777) and his son William Bartram (1729–1833) discovered a curious plant growing on the banks of the Altamaha River in the modern state of Georgia, that were of a species then unknown to science. However, they apparently did not gather any viable seeds.
Years later, when William traveled solo to the same region (1773–76), he visited the site several times and collected seeds and live plants, which he shipped to England. According to Joel Fry, curator of Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, the plants that were shipped to Europe most likely perished not long after, and never produced viable seeds.
However, William returned to Philadelphia in early January 1777 with seeds of the “very curious [shrub]”, which he presumably planted or stratified (J. Fry, pers. comm.). The first cultivated plants, reared by William, bloomed in August 1782. John Bartram Sr. had died in September 1777, and so never saw the new shrub in flower. William named the species Franklinia alatamaha, in honor of Benjamin Franklin, and wrote in a letter to the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, signed by William and John Bartram, Jr. and dated August 16, 1783:
This very beautifull Shrub I discovered growing in Florida about 5 years ago & brought the ripe seed to Philadelphia, from these seed grew 5 plants, two of which were taken to France by Monsr. Gerard Embasedor [Conrad Alexandre Gerard de Rayneval] to these States & were to be planted in the Royal garden at Versailes. Two plants are here now finely in Flower in the open ground, & perfectly resist our hardest Winters.
The seed are above a year ripening. When I collected the ripe seed in Florid the Tree which yielded the seed was then fully in Flower And the Trees in Jno. Bartram’s Garden near Philadelphia now in its gayity of flowering is full of seed nearly ripe.
Can you imagine the anticipation, the thrill of watching the seeds germinate and grow for the first time in cultivation? Can you imagine yourself there with William, as the flower buds first began to appear? Can you picture the morning the first white flowers opened into view, releasing their sweet fragrance into the air at Bartram’s Garden?
William pointed out in his famous book Travels… (1791), that the Franklinia tree had a severely restricted distribution, and that he had not encountered it at any other location during his extensive travels. It is thought to have gone extinct in the wild during the early 19th century. Remarkably, of the thousands of Franklinia trees that now adorn gardens throughout North America, all are descended from the seeds that William collected in 1776. One such tree, a survivor of the bottleneck, grows in the front yard at the Wyck House in Germantown. It is flowering as I write this, and its sweet and subtle fragrance brings to mind the flowering of those first Franklinia trees across the river.
From the point of view of the plant, its entire long evolutionary history all boiled down to whether or not it could convince two Quaker naturalists, who just so happened to pass through the small area in which it grew, to disperse its seeds beyond its natural range. That is what biologists would call some serious selective pressure! In that one moment, our two species entered a symbiotic relationship that has now lasted a quarter-millenium, and will never be reversed. Even if Franklinia someday escapes the confines of our gardens, it has been forever shaped by the hand of cultivation.