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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Franklin Tree

Air Date: Week of December 26, 1997

The brilliant fall colors of the Franklin Tree inspired two naturalists to collect its seeds and send them to nurseries. Today the tree is extinct from the wild. Does collecting plants and seeds from the wild hasten their demise? Lou Anella comments.

Transcript

CURWOOD: In 1765, John and William Bartram were traveling on horseback through Georgia's Buffalo Swamp when they noticed a group of trees with brilliant burgundy red and orange colors. The father and son naturalist team was so impressed with the tree's fall display that they collected some seeds and sent them to nurseries in England and Philadelphia for commercial production. They called the plant the Franklin tree in honor of their good friend Ben Franklin. But each time they returned to collect more seeds they found fewer and fewer trees until there were no more. Today the Franklin tree lives only in private gardens and arboreta. One has to wonder if the explorers saved it from extinction or hastened its demise. Horticulturalist Lou Anella has some thoughts on that and some advice for gardeners.

ANELLA: The naturalists were the father and son team John and William Bartram. The plants became known as the Franklin Tree named for theBartram's good friend, Ben Franklin. For more than 200 years, the Franklin Tree has graced American and English gardens with its camelia-like white petals surrounding a crown of gold stamens. Yet for almost as long, the tree has been extinct from the wild. So what happened in that Georgia swmap? What caused the tree to disappear? I would hate to think that plant collectors finished off the wild population of Franklin trees. It is more likely the species lost its competitive edge. With its numbers falling, the Bartrams may have stumbled upon the last isolated population of Franklin trees. The forces of nature took it from there, and it is possible the Franklin tree was wiped out in a flood. The story comes with a moral for gardeners. When you buy native or rare plants for your garden, make sure they were propagated in the nursery and not collected from the wild. Although we do not know if wild collecting caused the demise of the Franklin tree, we do know that wild collecting threatens the existence of other native and rare plants.

But how do we know what plants are endangered, and how can we be sure that the plants we purchase are propagated in a nursery and not collected from the wild? One way is to look them up in Nina Marshall's excellent book The Gardener's Guide to Plant Conservation. In it she gives us the history behind plant exploration and collection, advice on how to avoid wild collected plants, and which species are particularly threatened. She also tells us to look for the term, "Grown from cultivated stock." This is especially important when buying bulbs, since bulbs are often collected from their native habitats.

Why should we be so concerned about collecting plants from the wild? There are probably more Franklin trees in the world now than there were when the Bartrams first discovered it. Haven't we improved its lot? Well, not exactly. Plants are integral members of ecosystems. The Franklin tree plucked from the wild no longer feeds the insect that chewed on its leaves, or shelters the bird that nested in its branches. That doesn't mean we can't have native or rare plants in our gardens. It just means we have to make sure the plants we buy were propagated in a way that respects the plant's continued survival in the wild. The Franklin tree can remind us of how delicate ecosystems are, and how permanent are the consequences of extinction.

CURWOOD: Lou Anella studies at Cornell University's Urban Horticulture Institute, and he's got some growing tips for gardeners.

ANELLA: If you want to plant a Franklin tree, it will flourish in USDA hardiness zone 6 through 8. For the best fall color and floral display, plant the tree where it will receive full sun in a moist but well drained slightly acid soil. The earliest flowers appear while the leaves are still green, but the tree will continue to flower as the foliage turns orange and burgundy red, making a striking background for the beautiful floral display.

 

 

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