Franklinia Series: Franklinia alatamaha’s near relation – The Loblolly Bay

Mark Catesby, “Althea Floridana,” in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands…, vol. 1 tab 44 (London: Printed at the Expense of the Author, 1730). Catesby named Loblolly Bay, modern Gordonia lasianthus, as “Althea Floridana” on the plate — apparently a typo or mistake. In Catesby’s text for this plate the plant is called “Alcea Floridana”, and “The Loblolly Bay”. Catesby also illustrated a colorful bird, “Avis Tricolor. The Painted Finch.” The modern painted bunting.

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 Franklinia has long been shadowed by a closely related plant of the southern coastal plain, the Loblolly Bay or Gordonia lasianthus. The Loblolly Bay is locally common in the low wetlands of the southeastern coast of North America. It remains evergreen, and is not hardy much north of eastern North Carolina. Franklinia is still often confused with the more common Loblolly Bay. John Bartram was well aware of Loblolly Bay. It was in fact a plant he long desired. The English traveler, Mark Catesby had described and illustrated the plant in the first volume of his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published in London in 1730, as plate 44. And Bartram had a copy of this book, a gift from Catesby, in his library. Catesby’s book established the common name “Loblolly Bay.” He described the plant as “Alcea floridana quinque capsularis…” creating the pre-Linnaean scientific name of “Alcea floridana.”[1]

By 1765, the year he found Franklinia, John Bartram had experimented with the cultivation of the “Alcea” or Loblolly Bay in his garden for at least five years. He may have even been successful in getting it to flower prior to his trip to Georgia and Florida as King’s Botanist. John Bartram had first seen Loblolly Bay in the wild in the spring of 1760 when visiting his brother, Col. William Bartram at his plantation Ashwood, in Bladen Co., North Carolina. Bartram also traveled to Charleston, South Carolina at the same time to visit Alexander Garden. He probably first received plants of the “Alcea floridana” from either Garden or the Lambolls in

Charleston, latter in the fall of 1760. These first plants did not survive.

The next year John sent his son William to North Carolina to set up store as a merchant on his uncle’s Ashwood plantation. William Bartram lived at Ashwood from the spring of 1761 until the summer of 1765, and certainly became quite familiar with the plants of the local environment. His father wrote often requesting rare plants, especially the Loblolly Bay. In his first letter to William in the summer of 1761 Bartram reminded him, “the lobloly Bay or alcea

floridiana… grows up A little creek at ashwood….” In the fall he repeated “lobloly bay I cant have too much,” and again in December “the Alcea & the horse sugar I want much thay are very dificult to transplant I had them from Charlstown but thay are gone off perhaps your northern one may do better.”[2]

Through the early spring of 1762, John Bartram was still unsure if he had the “Alcea” or not. Writing Peter Collinson in May:

I am apt to think I have not yet got the true loblolly bay or alcea tho several say thay have sent it but I believe thay are species of sweet bay…[3]

By August of 1762, Bartram was positive he had Loblolly Bay growing in his garden and even locates its approximate position in a border of the upper garden.

some plants that grows naturally in or near water bears the dry weather as well as any I have I have one lobloly bay that came over in hot dry weather that grows the best of any of the Carolina evergreens sent this year notwithstanding I planted it in the highest border of my upper garden not knowing it was the Alcea so that now I am in hopes it will do well with me if the hard frosts dont kill & disrobe it as the other evergreens.[4]

The winter of 1762-1763 was particularly destructive to Bartram’s southern plants, as recorded in letters to Daniel Solander and Collinson in April and May:

my lobloly bay tho growed prodigiously in the summer is intirely killed last winter tho in A warm place it is in vain for us to expect to have the broad leaved evergreens of Carolina to flourish in the winter unless in A green house.[5]

Bartram’s friends in Charleston were quick to replace many of his southern evergreens, including the Loblolly Bay. In the spring and fall of 1763, he received several boxes with plants from Thomas Lamboll and Martha Logan.[6]

Bartram’s Loblolly Bay survived the winter of 1763-1764 and in May he could report to Collinson that his “lobloly bay …hath some green leaves.”[7] That summer it produced flower buds, but again the disappointed Bartram wrote in mid-August “my lobloly bay hath 4 fine buds for blosoms but this stormy day broke of the branch that produced them.”[8]

John Bartram could not help but observe the Loblolly Bay on his trip south to St. Augustine in 1765. Along their route south from North Carolina from July through September 1765, and again on leaving Savannah September 30th for Florida, John and William Bartram passed through many bay or cypress swamps where the major growth was often Loblolly Bay. John recorded “alcea” in the vicinity of Charleston in swamps on the Santee in his journal for July and August. October 1st, the day the Franklinia was found, the day’s riding was “very bad thro bay swamps.” Bartram also recorded Loblolly Bay on the banks of the Altamaha south of Fort Barrington following the encounter with the Franklinia.[9]

The Loblolly Bay remained an equally prized, but elusive plant in England at this time. Collinson also received the “Charming Plant” from Thomas Lamboll, but complained it did “not shoot away for want of Sun & Moisture.”[10] Bartram sent other plants, probably from some of the stock sent from Charleston. These did well, but were stolen from Collinson’s Mill Hill garden in December of 1765. Collinson reported “my no small Mortification, having been again robbed of my Most Curious plants What I most regret was thy kind present of Loblolly Bays which throve finely…”[11]

Because of the difficulty in growing and flowering the Loblolly Bay, it remained a puzzle to European botanists. Linnaeus gave it the name Hypericum Lasianthus in his first major work, the Hortus Cliffortianus of 1737. This placed it in the genus of St. John’s-worts. In the Gardener’s Dictionary, Phillip Miller recorded it was difficult or impossible to grow and placed it under the genus Hibiscus. Plants that could not be easily grown or forced to flower in Europe were routinely mis-classed and poorly described by European botanists. The same European scientists often discounted first-hand accounts of these same difficult subjects from skilled observers describing the plant in its native environment. The Loblolly Bay and its relation Franklinia would both suffer this fate.

The ultimate naming of the genus Gordonia was the result of a trans-Atlantic discussion that took over a decade. A series of letters regarding the Loblolly Bay passed between Alexander Garden, an Edinburgh trained physician recently immigrated to Charleston, South Carolina and John Ellis in London from 1756-1770. Garden recognized Linnaeus’ error in classifying the Loblolly Bay under Hypericum. In 1756, he suggested a new genus to be named “Gordonia”—“in honour of my old master, Dr. James Gordon, at Aberdeen.” Garden sent Ellis repeated shipments of plants and seed of the Loblolly Bay but apparently few if any were successful. The next spring, 1757, Garden retracted his name “Gordonia”, probably because he had been informed of the death of Dr. Gordon. Once suggested, however, the name Gordonia appears to have stuck. Ellis continued to use Gordonia in his correspondence with Garden in spite of Garden’s repeated statements to the counter: “you need not call the Loblolly Bay Gordonia,” and “this must not be called the Gordonia.” In 1760, Ellis suggested retaining the name Gordonia in honor of the London nurseryman, James Gordon (1708?- 1780). Once gardener to Lord Petre, John Bartram’s first patron, Gordon had succeeded in germinating seeds of the Loblolly Bay at his Mile-End nurseries. Over the next ten years, Alexander Garden wavered between his own desires to publish on the Loblolly Bay and frequent reminders to Ellis to officialize the name of Gordonia.[12]

            It was not until 1770 that John Ellis was finally able to sufficiently describe the plant from flowering specimens produced near London. Ellis named the plant in a letter to Linnaeus that was published by the Royal Society. Reporting, “that we have lately got into a method of cultivating that elegant evergreen-tree, called in South Carolina and the Floridas, the Loblollybay, or Alcea Floridana,” Ellis correctly placed the plant in the Linnaean class of Monadelphia Polyandria and announced the new genus Gordonia in honor of “that eminent gardener Mr. James Gordon.”[13] Garden received only slight credit in the published description by Ellis, but from December of 1770, the Loblolly Bay was officially known as Gordonia lasianthus.[14]

The Bartram family continued to experiment with the cultivation of Loblolly Bay in their Philadelphia garden, although without great success, except under glass. Through the first half of the 19th century they continued to list Gordonia lasianthus or Loblolly Bay in their catalogues. From the 1828 catalogue onward it was marked as a greenhouse plant. To this day the Loblolly Bay, although beautiful in its native environment, is rarely successful in cultivation to the north. A hardy plant similar in flower to the Loblolly Bay was a certain prize for both American and European gardens.

Read the full paper here:

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

Read Part One and Two here:

Franklinkia Series: Finding Franklinia alatamaha (Part One)

Franklinia Series: Finding Franklinia alatamaha (Part Two)


[1] Mark Catesby, Natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, vol. 1 (London, 1731-1743), 44, tab.44.

[2] John Bartram letters to William Bartram, 1761, The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734-1777, eds. Edmund Berkeley and Dorothy Smith Berkeley (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1992), 518, 536, 543.

[3] John Bartram Letter to Peter Collinson, May 10, 1762, The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734-1777, 559.

[4] John Bartram letter to Peter Collinson, August 15, 1762, The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734-1777, 567.

[5] John Bartram letter to Daniel Solander and Peter Collinson, April and May 1763, The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734-1777, 590.

[6] The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734-1777, 590, 614, 617.

[7] John Bartram letter to Peter Collinson, May 10, 1764, The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734-1777, 628.

[8] John Bartram letter to Peter Collinson, August 19, 1764, The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734-1777, 636.

[9] John Bartram, “Diary of a Journey through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida from July 1, 1765 to April 10, 1766,” ed. & annotated by Francis Harper, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, N.S. vol. 33, part 1 (1942), 14, 19, 31, 32, 49.

[10] Peter Collinson letter to John Bartram, September 15, 1760, The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734-1777, 493.

[11] Peter Collinson letter to John Bartram, December 28, 1765, The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734-1777, 657.

[12] Peter Collinson letter to John Bartram, winter 1737/1738, The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734-1777, 75-79.

[13] John Ellis, “A Copy of a Letter from John Ellis, Esq, F.R.S. to Dr. Linnæus, F.R.S. &c. with the Figure and Characters of that elegant American Evergreen-tree, called by the Gardiners the Loblolly-Bay…,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vol. 60 (December 1770), 519-520.

[14] Ellis previewed his intentions to name the Loblolly Bay Gordonia lasianthus in a letter to Linnaeus in September 1770. Apparently Linnaeus was not happy in the change in nomenclature and preferred “Lasianthus” as the new generic name. Ellis wrote December 28, 1770: “I am sorry I cannot oblige you in changing the name of Gordonia to Lasianthus as it has been presented to the Royal Society, and my worthy friend James Gordon has accepted this compliment.” James Edward Smith, A Selection of the Correspondence of Linnaeus and Other Naturalists, vol. 1 (London, 1821), 250-251, 254.

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