Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

To commemorate the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Bartram (1699-1777), Historic Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia launched a national survey of the Franklinia alatamaha, the most famous discovery made by the famous naturalist and his son, William Bartram (1739-1823). The census drew the participation of both botanical gardens and home gardeners while it recorded the location and growing conditions of the rare plant. The tree is now extinct in the wild – last being seen in 1803 – and historians and horticulturists have long wondered exactly how widespread the Franklinia alatamaha population had become.

The Historic Bartram’s Garden census gathered useful information contributing to a horticultural understanding of the Franklinia alatamaha. Nearly nineteen hundred living trees have been located at resi­dential properties, commercial sites, and public gardens in thirty-five states and eight countries. The Keystone State claimed the greatest number of trees – five hundred and fifty-seven – followed by North Carolina with one hundred and eighty-one, and by New Jersey with one hundred and fifty-seven. Pennsylvania’s Franklinia alatamaha are concentrated in its southeastern region, near Longwood Gardens in Chester County and the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in Delaware County. The Franklinia alatamaha is prized because it is a hardy shrub (or small tree) with large flowers similar to single camellias and with a fragrance reminiscent of the distinctive scent of orange blossoms.

The Bartrams discovered the “rare and elegant flowering shrub” on October 1, 1765, after losing their way to the crossing of the Altamaha River at Fort Barrington in southeastern Georgia. Since the discovery, this rare plant has continued to fascinate gardener and botanist alike. Much has been written about the Franklinia alatamaha – often ill informed or factually incorrect. The celebrity and scientific credibility of John Bartram and, more importantly, William Bartram, have been inextricably tied to the fate of the Franklinia alatamaha (see “Like Father, Like Son: The Extraordinary Bartrams” by L. Wilbur Zimmerman, Summer 1995).

In 1776, William Bartram revisited the Altamaha River expressly to collect seeds of the shrub, which he planted the following year. The elder Bartram was on hand to supervise the planting and witness the first growth of the shrub, but he did not live to see it in bloom in his own garden. The first flowering of the Franklinia alatamaha at Historic Bartram’s Garden most likely occurred in 1781. It was at this point that the rare and curious plant entered cultivation, and it is likely most – if not all – Franklinia alatamaha growing today can be traced to the specimens William Bartram sprouted in his father’s garden overlooking the Schuylkill River. The Bartrams are credited with saving it from extinction. The plant – “honored with the name of the illustrious Dr. Benjamin Franklin,” wrote William Bartram – first appeared in a handwritten catalogue of a large ship­ment of plants and seeds sent to Europe, in 1784, by he and his brother John Bar­tram Jr. (1743-1812).

Before 1900, the Franklinia alatamaha was exceptionally rare in gardens and could have easily been lost altogether. Surprisingly, there is little record of significant efforts to ensure its survival after 1850, when the last of the Bartram heirs were forced to sell the family botanic garden. The speci­men’s current resurgence is largely due to its natural tenacity – and good fortune. For information about the ongoing census or the specimens growing at the Bar­tram family’s garden, write: Historic Bartram’s Garden, 54th St. and Lindbergh Blvd., Philadelphia, PA 19143; telephone (215) 729-5281.