In October 1765, pioneer American naturalists John Bartram (1699–1777) and his son William Bartram (1729–1833) discovered “severall very curious shrubs” on the banks of the Altamaha River in the modern state of Georgia, that were of a species then unknown to science. Unfortunately, the plants had already finished flowering when they were discovered, but the Bartrams collected seeds and returned with them to Philadelphia. The shape, size and color of the flower would not be revealed to them until they had patiently grown the plant in their nursery (Bartram’s Garden). Later, William named the species Franklinia alatamaha, in honor of their friend Benjamin Franklin.
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 John and 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 the Bartrams collected in Georgia in 1765. 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.