October Plant of the Month: Franklinia alatamaha – Franklinia, Franklin tree

Is there a woody plant that impresses more in late summer/fall in the northeastern United States than Franklinia alatamaha, the Franklinia or Franklin tree?

The fragrant white, 5-petaled, cup shaped flowers with yellow stamens appear in the dead of the summer — late July/early August — bearing proudly above its glossy green foliage when few flowers dare to bloom.

Flowering sporadically into September and October, its real show occurs in October when the shiny dark green leaves turn spectacular shades of orange and red, persisting well into November.

This finicky small tree or multi-stem shrub can be difficult to establish so be sure to plant container ground specimens in well-drained, acid, yet moist soil (some say treat as one would a rhody) for best results.

Franklinia flower
The Franklinia flower

Don’t be surprised if winter dieback stunts its growth for several seasons before it ‘takes hold.’

Once established, Franklinia can range in size from 10-20’ tall, nearly as wide. Similar in habit to Magnolia virginiana, it tolerates light shade but blooms best in full sun.

Give it a prominent place in the landscape, as a specimen or as an accent in the back of a border.

Winter interest is provided by smooth gray, attractive bark with occasional irregular vertical fissures, and 5 –valved capsule fruits that persist all winter long. A legendary native, discovered by John Bartram in 1770, it hasn’t been found ‘in the wild’ since 1790. Therefore, all plants in cultivation are from Bartram’s plants: a true heirloom plant! Hardy zones 5-8