Franklinia Series: Finding Franklinia alatamaha (Part Two)

Passages taken from “Franklinia alatamaha, A History of That “Very Curious” Shrub” by Joel T. Fry, in Bartram Broadside, Special Franklinia Edition, published by the John Bartram Association for the ‘noble & curious friends’ of Historic Bartram’s Garden (Winter 2000).

The story of Franklinia continues roughly eight years later when William Bartram returned to Charleston, SC with a stipend of £50 per year to collect for Dr. John Fothergill. The events of William Bartram’s explorations can be largely reconstructed from two sources, his interim journals sent to Fothergill[1] and his volume of Travels… published in Philadelphia in 1791. William Bartram left Philadelphia March 20th and arrived in Charleston by April 1, 1773. His first expedition was a tour through the Georgia low country and Sea Islands. In the course of this collecting trip he crossed the Altamaha River at Fort Barrington, after traveling along the north bank from Darien. He recorded the crossing in the first volume of his manuscript journal, which was sent to Fothergill:

[April 24 or 25, 1773] Cross’t this famous River at Barrington about 30 miles above the Inlet & continued down the other side o’ the River keeping a Path through the Pine Forests generally in sight of the low lands of the River.[2]

Although Bartram probably passed the site of Franklinia on this journey, there is no mention of it in the surviving manuscript journal. In the final printed version of his Travels…, a re-encounter with the two curious shrubs, Franklinia and Pinckneya, does occur at this point in his trip.

I set off early in the morning for the Indian trading-house, in the river St. Mary, and took the road up the N.E. side of the Alatamaha to Fort-Barrington. I passed through a wellinhabited district, mostly rice plantations, on the water of Cathead creek, a branch of the Alatamaha. On drawing near the fort, I was greatly delighted at the appearance of two new beautiful shrubs, in all their blooming graces. One of them appeared to be a species of Gordonia,* [*Franklinia Alatamaha.] but the flowers are larger, and more fragrant than those of the Gordonia Lascanthus, and are sessile; the seed vessel is also very different. The other was equally distinguished for beauty and singularity…[3]

Francis Harper theorized William Bartram combined several discrete explorations into a single narrative here in the final text of Travels… The exploration of the St. Mary’s River, which follows the encounter with Franklinia at Fort Barrington in particular, probably did not occur until the late summer or fall of 1773 or the late spring-early summer of 1776.[4] This calls into question William Bartram’s account of Franklinia and Pinckneya in bloom together in late April. However, Bartram is even more specific on the initial sight of the flowers in the materials he sent Robert Barclay in 1788. Describing his illustration of Pinckneya he wrote:

…about 15 years ago when on discoveries in the employ of Doctor Fothergill I revisited the same place, in the Spring Season, when I had the pleasure and satisfaction of seeing it in perfection, in full flower, together with the Franklinia which then flourishe’d in sight of it.[5]

While “flourishe’d” may not be the same as flowering, the text accompanying William Bartram’s specimen of Franklinia sent to Barclay included dates for the flowering range:

very large white fragrant flowers… from April until the Autumn when it ceases flowering, whilst the seed of the flowers of the preceding Year are ripening.[6]

The original native time of flowering remains another of the mysteries surrounding Franklinia. William Bartram was exceptionally lax in regard to dates, and the published dates that appear in his Travels… are virtually all incorrect. Still Bartram does remain consistent in his record of flowers on Franklinia in April. [Latter third person accounts suggest Franklinia bloomed at least a month if not two months later in Pennsylvania than in its original location. Currently Franklinia begins blooming in mid to late July in Philadelphia.]

From the text of Travels… it is clear that the spring of 1773 was not William Bartram’s only visit to the unique location of Franklinia on the Altamaha. Bartram revisited the site in the summer of 1776, prior to his return home to Philadelphia. But it is also likely that he paid one or more additional visits to the site in 1773 or early 1774. A large block of his travels from July 1773 to March 1774 is recorded with only a brief overview:

I spent the remaining part of this season in botanical excursions to the low countries, between Carolina and East Florida, and collected seeds, roots, and specimens, making drawings of such curious subjects as could not be preserved in their native state of excellence.[7]

William Bartram could have collected seeds and specimens of Franklinia during this period for shipment to Fothergill. He would likely have timed a visit to collect ripe seed. He may have also prepared the earliest known drawing of Franklinia alatamaha in flower during this same period. It is even possible he gathered plants, which might have been cared for in Charleston by the Lamboll family or Dr. Lionel Chalmers, or in Darien, prior to shipment to London.

British gardening records suggest Franklinia was introduced to cultivation in 1774. William Aiton’s large catalogue of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew records Gordonia pubescens was introduced in 1774 by Mr. William Malcolm.[8] William Malcolm (d. 1798) was active as a nurseryman in Kennington, in south London, beginning in the 1750s. He may have been acting as an agent for Fothergill. Accepting that this date is correct (which is far from certain—many of Aiton’s dates are now known to be inaccurate), and that the plant described as “Gordonia pubescens” was indeed Franklinia, William Bartram is the only likely source of the plant.

illustration of Franklinia flower with buds and leaves
William Bartram illustration of Franklinia alatamaha.

William Bartram sent Fothergill drawings of plants and animals on several occasions, as well as a large number of dried specimens from his explorations. Bartram probably sent seeds and plants as well to Fothergill, but these are poorly documented. The drawings and specimens passed into the hands of Joseph Banks after the death of Fothergill in 1780 and are housed today in the Natural History Museum in London. This collection of drawings was reprinted in large folio format by the American Philosophical Society in 1968 in an edition by Joseph Ewan. Most attention has been drawn to the large colored drawing of the Franklinia alatamaha dating to 1788, which forms the frontispiece of Ewan’s book. This drawing was part of a set of illustrations of four plants sent to Robert Barclay in London by William Bartram in November 1788 in something of a last effort to validate the names and descriptions for some of Bartram’s most important new plants from the South. This drawing and a pressed specimen of Franklinia (the specimen is now the type specimen for the species) were made from a garden grown plant of Franklinia growing at Bartram’s Garden.

A second illustration of Franklinia in the collections of the London Natural History Museum is actually more important as an historic document. It is the earliest known illustration of the plant. Ewan’s Plate 23 is a pen and ink drawing of Franklinia alatamaha that must have been completed in either 1774 or 1776, and sent to Fothergill as an illustration of the as yet unnamed shrub.[9] The original drawing was untitled and labeled “No. I”. It shows a flowering branch of Franklinia with a single perfect flower and an immature seed capsule. A detail comprising a single seed, a cross-section of the seed capsule, and the anther is given at the lower right. At a later date someone scrawled “Franklinia” on the bottom of the drawing, and traced or copied the sections of the mature seed capsule from William’s 1788 drawing for Barclay.

Drawings William Bartram sent to Fothergill can be divided into several different sets, probably sent at different times. Descriptive text or at least a key, now lost, probably once accompanied the figures. Each set of drawings had a slightly different numbering system, beginning with either “Tab.,” “Fig.,” or in the case of the Franklinia drawing “No.” Franklinia was “No. I” from a series of six drawings including the Soft-shelled Tortoise, an Ipomoea from the St. John’s River, a Canna, the Physic Nut, and Calycanthus florida. This set would seem to date after Bartram’s trip to Augusta, Georgia in June-July 1773 and after his several explorations of the St. John’s River in the summer of 1774. According to Harper, William Bartram may have prepared volume one of his journal, as well as some of his collections and illustrations in the vicinity of Spaulding’s Lower Store in Florida the fall of 1774. These materials were all sent to Fothergill from Sunbury, Georgia, via Liverpool, at the end of 1774.[10] This first Franklinia drawing might have been sent with this shipment, especially as it was grouped with several illustrations from the St. John’ s. Seeds or even plants of Franklinia could also have been sent by the same route. For Fothergill’s part he complained in a letter to John Bartram in July of 1774 that to date he had received about a hundred dried specimens of plants, and “a very few drawings, but neither a seed nor a plant.”[11]

Sometime during the late spring or summer of 1776 William Bartram revisited the Altamaha River. He returned to the remnant natural population of Franklinia, east of Fort Barrington, expressly to collect seed. As Harper has pointed out, it is again difficult to detail where William Bartram was in the spring and summer of 1776.[12] There is no documentation when his commission from Fothergill exactly ended. But with the outbreak of the war, presumably at some point he was informed or aware he could act on his own. Gathering “seed of two new and very curious shrubs” forms the entire substance of a short chapter in his Travels…—the only major event chronicled after his return from the west. Here William Bartram inserted the longest and most effusive account of the new shrub:

After my return from the Creek nation, I employed myself during the spring and fore part of summer, in revisiting the several districts in Georgia and the East borders of Florida, where I had noted the most curious subjects; collecting them together, and shipping them off to England. In the course of these excursions and researches, I had the opportunity of observing the new flowering shrub, resembling the Gordonia, in perfect bloom, as well as bearing ripe fruit. It is a flowering tree, of the first order for beauty and fragrance of blossoms: the tree grows fifteen or twenty feet high, branching alternately; the leaves are oblong, broadest towards their extremities and terminate with an acute point, which is generally a little reflexed; they are lightly serrated, attenuate downwards and sessile, or have very short petioles; they are places in alternate order, and towards the extremities of the twigs are crouded together, but stand more sparsedly below; the flowers are very large, expand themselves perfectly, are of a snowwhite colour, and ornamented with a crown or tassel of gold coloured refulgent stamina in their center; the inferior petal or segment of the corolla is hollow, formed like a cap or helmet, and entirely included the other four, until the moment of expansion; its exterior surface is covered with a short silky hair; the borders of the petals are crisped or plicated: these large white flowers stand single and sessile in the bosom of the leaves, which being near together towards the extremities of the twigs, and usually many expanded at the same time, make a gay appearance; the fruit is a large, round, dry, woody apple or pericarp, opening at each end oppositely by five alternate fissures, containing ten cells,[13] each replete with dry woody cuniform seed. This very curious tree was first taken notice of, about ten or twelve years ago, at this place, when I attended my father (John Bartram) on a botanical excursion; but, it being then late in the autumn, we could form no opinion to what class or tribe it belonged.

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.[14]

This detailed depiction was the result of long and close observation, and is still probably the best single description of Franklinia alatamaha.

The seed that William Bartram gathered on this last visit in 1776 became the source of every Franklinia that later grew at Bartram’s Garden. He again had the opportunity to ship seed to Fothergill in England with his final collections from Savannah (or Charleston), in early November 1776, but no documents remain to specify what might have been in those collections. William definitely brought seed back to his father’s garden when he returned to Philadelphia in January 1777. From here the plant entered cultivation and it is likely most (if not all) Franklinia alatamaha growing today can be traced back to the plants William Bartram sprouted in his father’s garden.

Read the full paper here:

“Franklinia alatamaha, A History of That “Very Curious” Shrub”

Read part one here:

Franklinia Series: Finding Franklinia alatamaha (Part One)



[1] William Bartram, “Travels in Georgia and Florida, 1773-1774 A Report to Dr. John Fothergill,” ed. & annotated by Francis Harper Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, N.S. vol. 33, part 2 (1943), p.121-242.

[2] Ibid., 135, 174.

[3] William Bartram, Travels… (Philadelphia: James & Johnson, 1791), 16.

[4] The Travels of William Bartram: Naturalist’s Edition, ed. with commentary and an annotated index by Francis Harper (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958), 337-338, 345-346.

[5] William Bartram letter to Robert Barclay, November 1788, William Bartram, The Search for Nature’s Design: Selected Art, Letters, and Unpublished Writings. Edited by Thomas Hallock and Nancy E. Hoffmann, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2010), 148.

[6] William Bartram to Robert Barclay, November 1788, William Bartram Botanical and Zoological Drawings,1756-1788…, ed. with commentary by Joseph Ewan (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1968), 164.

[7] William Bartram, Travels… (Philadelphia: James & Johnson, 1791), 48.

[8] William Aiton, Hortus Kewensis, or, A catalogue of the plants cultivated in the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, vol. 2, printed for George Nicol (London, 1789), 231.

[9] William Bartram letter to Robert Barclay, November 1788, William Bartram Botanical and Zoological Drawings, ed. Joseph Ewan, 62-63, Plate 23.

[10] William Bartram, Travels… (Philadelphia: James & Johnson, 1791), 304-306; William Bartram, “A Report to Dr. John Fothergill,” ed. Harper, 124.

[11] John Fothergill letter to William Bartram, July 8, 1772, The Correspondence of John Bartram 1734-1777, ed. by Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley, (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1992), 764

[12] The Travels of William Bartram: Naturalist’s Edition, ed. Harper, 416-417.

[13] There are actually only five cells in the seed capsule of the Franlinia alatamaha.

[14] William Bartram, Travels… (Philadelphia: James & Johnson, 1791), 467-468.

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