Looking for Georgia's lost Franklinia: could he find this small, showy tree not seen in the wild for more than 200 years?
I walk on sandy soil, through an understory of palmetto beneath a canopy of live oak, loblolly pine, river birch, sweetgum, and baldcypress until I reach the Altamaha River. Here my path crosses that of John Bartram who was on a very similar quest with his son William in 1765. There are a couple differences in our respective quests. Bartram did not know exactly what he was looking for, but because of his earlier success, I do. And, well, he had been appointed by King George III of England as Royal Botanist for North America; no one had accorded me the same stature. And Carolus Linnaeus never mentioned me, let alone referred to me as "the greatest natural botanist in the world."
The Bartrams discovered, and I am searching for, what William called a "very curious tree," curious meaning unknown. He later described it as Franklinia alatamaha, a member of the tea family and close relative of the native loblolly-bay and stewartias, and the cultivated camellias. The Franklinia is named after the Bartrams' friend Benjamin, and the nearby river (with a different spelling). It is an understory shrub or small tree with large showy white flowers that bloom in late summer and deciduous leaves that turn orange, red, and purple in fall. Since I am here in late spring, I'll be looking closely at leaf shapes.
Many highlights of human history turn on a discovery: how to make fire; the existence of the New World; where you put your car keys. For a botanist, it's finding a species new to science. Unfortunately, discovery doesn't usually come with complete understanding. Ask Columbus.
The Bartrams discovered a new species of tree, but it took years before anyone fully appreciated its rarity and by then it would be too late. Franklinias were never found outside the two or three acres of the type locality (the site from which it was first described), and none have been seen in the wild at all since at least 1803.
The search for something lost or unknown is always powered by an engine of hope, based on a mixture of fact, faith, and fantasy, whether you are Sherlock Holmes or Ponce de Leon. When I first researched and considered this quest, Sherlock shook his head. But when I read, "Perhaps wild specimens will be rediscovered," in my field guide, Ponce pushed me out the door.
With a mental picture of the oblong, pointed, lightly serrated, and sessile leaves, I found myself dreaming of the headline, "Extinct Tree Rediscovered after 200 Years." I knew my search had little chance of success, but it wasn't completely without hope. There are a number of cases of socalled Lazarus species, plants or animals raised from the proverbial dead.
The birds New Caledonian owlet-nighjar, Damar flycatcher, and Pelzeln's tody-tyrant all were rediscovered over a century after they were last seen. The Wollemi pine of Australia was presumed to have disappeared forever more than 2 million years ago until a tiny population of about 100 trees was discovered in 1994 just 100 miles from Sydney. Through the efforts of The Nature Conservancy, at least 16 plant species feared extinct in the U.S. have been rediscovered. But these are obscure species that live in remote corners of the globe where qualified naturalists seldom visit. The Franklinia may not be familiar, but with its striking blossoms and fall foliage, it is no shrinking violet.
Still, the words "needle" and "haystack" kept popping into my head. Was I searching for a ghost? It was with a strange mixture of comfort and despair that I contemplated the smallness of my effort compared to the numerous, more intensive searches that others have undertaken before me. Comfort, because such concerted effort gives me hope that if the Franklinia can be found, it will be found, and despair, because each previously fruitless effort decreased the likelihood of my own success.
Among the intensive searches for Franklinia that took place along the lower Altamaha River were ones occurring in 1881, the 1920s, and the 1930s; one even included four of Bartram's descendants. In the 1990s The Nature Conservancy also failed to find any Franklinia and currently considers them extinct in the wild.
Toward the end of my own sweaty search, with Sherlock looking smug, I began to wonder not only why I was there, but why the Franklinia was not. What are the chances that the extinction was natural? After all, 99 percent of all species that have ever lived became extinct without our help. In North America, only one other tree species has become extinct since the peak of the last ice age 18,000 years ago. That was Critchfield's spruce, of the central Gulf states, which disappeared when the climate warmed and it failed to move back north with black and white spruces. Perhaps the Franklinia also was stranded by receding glaciers and just barely survived until the Bartrams found it.
The Franklinia may have already been a rare relict before Columbus, but the chance that the only North American tree to die out in over 10,000 years did so naturally right after the initial clearing of Eastern lowland forests seems minuscule. The great forests of the Altamaha were quickly replaced by cotton, rice, and sugarcane. On top of that, a soilborne fungus called cotton root rot, with the scary scientific name of Phymatotrichopsis omnivora, has added Franklinia to its hit list of some 2,000 species of plants. The last small groves of Franklinia may have succumbed to that or some other fungal disease introduced by agriculture.
This would be a sad tale indeed if the story stopped there, but there is a happy, if not completely satisfying, ending. In perhaps the closest call in the ongoing, human-caused extinction crisis, the Franklinia was unwittingly saved by William Bartram himself. In 1773 he returned to the Altamaha but this time he collected seeds, those tiny little bundles of potential and hope. He didn't know he held the fate of an entire species in his hand. He returned to his home to Philadelphia where he planted them in his father's garden.
John Bartram built his pre-Revolutionary hand-hewn stone home to last centuries and created such a beautiful botanical garden, North America's first, that others have ensured that it last just as long. The Bartrams propagated more than 4,000 species of plants but none was more important than the Franklinia. John Bartram died a few months after he and William planted the first Franklinia seeds but William stayed on to manage the gardens and tend the Franklinias. Only one of the seedlings survived, but within a few years he had a new crop of Franklinia seeds, some of which he shipped off to botanical gardens in Europe.
Fortunately, the Bartrams turned their botanical passion into a thriving business and with each new sale, the species was eased one more step away from oblivion. A few years ago Bartram's Garden began a volunteer census of Franklinia trees under cultivation. Over 2,000 trees were reported from 36 states and eight other countries, and this surely is an underestimate. It is a sobering fact that every one is descended from one tree grown in Bartram's Garden.
During my own visit to the garden, I sat on the polished steps of the Bartram home and contemplated a Franklinia growing nearby. The flower buds were tight and small, the foliage blended in with the verdant garden. Trunks and limbs were striped with light lines contrasting with gray bark. A spot-winged glider dragonfly rested on a twig and an eastern tiger swallowtail sailed and flitted among the branches. I could not imagine a more peaceful and beautiful sanctuary for the beautiful tree. Ben and William would be glad to know the tree named by the latter after the former has persisted over two centuries in cultivation.
But what will become of the Franklinia under domestication? How much wolf do you see in a Chihuahua or wild cabbage in a cauliflower? Will the Franklinia be rendered incapable of surviving in the wild? Not any time soon say biologists who note that most reproduction of Franklinia in cultivation is asexual so the modern plants differ little from their wild ancestors.
William Bartram may have been the first person in history to save another species from extinction. But the goal of conservation is not merely the survival of plants in gardens. Currently, Franklinia is on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as extinct in the wild but not on the Endangered Species List, and there is no recovery plan. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Pete Pattavina, no one has proposed listing it in part because so little is known about its original habitat, plant associates, or population structure. Since Franklinia grows better in cultivation farther north, it's possible its preferred habitat is no longer in Georgia. Many botanists and conservation managers are leery of introducing a plant where it may not belong. However, Franklinia is not easy to grow even in cultivation and unlikely to become invasive anywhere.
A few years ago The Nature Conservancy tried to reintroduce Franklinia near the Altamaha but the seedlings suffered from a major drought and were failing when last observed. If the cotton root rot is the problem, it is a pretty intractable one. Low-lying areas along the Altamaha and other Southeast waterways are highly polluted by the cotton root rot sclerotia, which can lay dormant for decades and have been found in soils up to a depth of 12 feet.
The extant Franklinias in cultivation survive where the fungi cannot, in cooler climates. Since they are all descended from one individual tree they have passed through an extreme genetic bottleneck. With such low genetic variability there is little to work with in any attempt to develop a fungus-resistant strain. Hybrids with Gordonia or other closely related plants may improve resistance but then you no longer have true native Franklinia. Barring a scientific breakthrough in the pathology, the Franklinia may have to live in exile in artificial landscapes far from its true home.
As you have probably guessed, I was not successful in my search for Franklinia in the wild. The discovery of a natural population would change everything but so far, reported sightings always turn out to be something not as "curious" as originally thought. I am grateful for the efforts of William Bartram and subsequent horticul-turalists to propagate the species and snatch it out of the extinction abyss. But whether by some miracle of undetected survival, or a concerted reintroduction effort, I look forward to the day when a stroll along the Altamaha River will once again turn up some "very curious trees."
Whit Bronaugh writes, photographs, and hunts trees from Eugene, Oregon.
--STORY & PHOTOS BY WHIT BRONAUGH
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