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Sitting under the Franklin tree
On nature
on nature franklin tree
The author smells a blossom on the Franklin tree in Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia. - photo by Photo provided.
I would like to tell you that I took a walk in the woods and saw the Franklin tree.
But the tree no longer lives in the woods.
On Oct. 1, 1765, John Bartram, a Quaker botanist traveling with his son William on a plant collecting expedition in the South, crossed the Altamaha River at Fort Barrington (above Darien) and rode through a bottomland.
“This day we found several very curious shrubs,” John wrote in his journal. “One bearing beautiful good fruite (seedpods).”
Eight years later, William returned to the same location and found the tree in bloom. He wrote in his book, Travels, “We never saw it grow in any other place, nor have I ever seen it growing wild in all my travels.”
The younger Bartram collected seeds from the plant, which was named Franklinia alatamaha, after Ben Franklin, family friend, and in honor of the river on which the small tree grew.
The last sighting of the Franklin tree in the wild was in 1803. Many subsequent searches turned up nothing. Now the plant is thought to be extinct in the wild. Nobody knows exactly why, although climate and a fungus are proposed as two possibilities.
Last week, traveling south from a conference, my husband and I paused in Philadelphia to visit Bartram’s Garden, where the tree is cultivated. We arrived just in time to join the day’s last tour of the stone house.
From a study window, a guide pointed out to me the Franklin tree. It was growing in Bartram’s upper garden, near the house, a beautiful tree about 20 feet tall with lance-shaped, bright-green leaves and a striped trunk.
The tree was spotted with white flowers. It was in bloom! How lucky could I get?
Later, outside, I would stroll through America’s first botanical garden, where, at its peak, more than 2,000 native and exotic plants grew, including bitternut hickory, hop hornbeam, Carolina silverbell and the oldest ginkgo tree in North America.
I came to sit for a while beneath the Franklin tree, which had its origins where I had mine.
I examined the three-inch-wide blooms. Each consisted of five petals that lead to a cluster of stamens orange as an oriole. They smelled like roses. Some of them had already fallen to the ground and they lay wilted around me.
I had a wonderful rest beneath the Franklin tree.

Ray is the author of three books of nature writing, including Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home. She lives near the Altamaha River.
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