What is a Franklin Tree?

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Alex Tree
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Man mowing the grass

A franklin tree is a flowering deciduous plant from the monotypic genus of Franklinia under the Theaceae, or tea plant, family. The trees can be grown as small trees or low-lying shrubs in gardens. Wild franklin trees no longer exist today; however, garden- and farm-cultivated ones can still be found commonly in the United States cities of Philadelphia and Boston and the state of Pennsylvania. Fraklinia altamaha, its scientific name, is a combination of Benjamin Franklin’s last name and the plant’s place of discovery, the Altamaha River.

This plant mainly serves as an ornamental tree for gardens. It can grow to a maximum height of around 20 to 25 feet (6 to 8 m), with a width of 30 to 50 feet (30 to 15 m), including its multiple trunks. Dense, dark green foliage composed of oval-shaped leaves that shed every fall and camellia-like white blossoms with fragrant scents are the tree’s main decorative features. During August, pale green buds will start to sprout from the tip of the twigs. Come summer, small to medium-sized blooms with rounded petals and bright yellow stamens emerge. The franklin tree will continuously bear flowers until the first frost arrives.

When cultivated as bushy shrubs, the franklin tree grows only to an optimum height of 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 m). Franklin shrubs will also exhibit the same set of fragrant white flowers and color-changing foliage. The glossy deep brown or red leaves of the franklin tree and shrub measure about 6 inches (15 cm) in length. These leaves contrast sharply with the plants’ white flowers, which remain intact throughout the fall.

One characteristic that makes propagation of franklin trees difficult is the long maturation period of the seed pod, which lasts for 13 to 15 months; however, warmer climates can shorten the waiting time by one to two months. The growth pattern of this tree is due to the damp and cold riverside environment it was originally discovered in. Such observations have led to speculations that Franklinia may have originated from Asia, where tropical weather is most dominant, much like the regions of origin of the rest of the tea plant family.

The lifespan of a franklin tree is relatively short compared to most members of Theaceae, which usually exceed 80 years. A monopodial or multi-trunked tree lasts for about 50 years or less. Drought and rotting of its roots are the most common reasons for the tree’s early expiration.

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