Pa. effort preserves rare tree for Ga.

Franklinia going back to native habitat on Altamaha River

May 16, 2002|By Jingle Davis | Jingle Davis,COX NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA - A tree that was found in south Georgia centuries ago but later vanished in the wild is being restored to its native habitat on the Altamaha River in coastal McIntosh County.

The Franklinia alatamaha has never been reported growing naturally anywhere else in the world, said Nate Thomas, land steward of the Altamaha Bioreserve for the Nature Conservancy of Georgia.

Thomas is leading efforts to return a few of the still-rare trees to their ancestral home.

"This was a missing piece that rightfully belongs back there because it will improve the biodiversity along that part of the river," he said.

The Franklinia has not been seen in the wild since 1803, Thomas said.

The tree was discovered, and its seeds were preserved for posterity, by naturalists John Bartram and his son, William, during their travels through parts of Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas in the mid-to-late 1700s.

Bartram's Garden

Bill LeFevre, director of Historic Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia, now a public conservatory, said the Bartrams undoubtedly saved the Franklinia from extinction by propagating its seeds in John Bartram's extensive home garden of rare botanical species.

"All the Franklinias in existence now have ancestry in those seeds that were brought back here," LeFevre said.

In his journal, William Bartram described Franklinias for the first time as he headed south from Darien toward trading house on the St. Marys River in 1765: "To cross the Altamaha River's northeast side, toward a ferry at Fort Barrington,I passed through a well-inhabited district, mostly rice plantations, on the waters of Cat-head creek, a branch of the Alatamaha," Bartram wrote, using the river's original spelling. "On drawing near the fort, I was greatly delighted at the appearance of two new beautiful shrubs, in all their blooming graces."

10 years later

Revisiting the area 10 years later, the Bartrams collected the seeds that ultimately were destined to save the species. They named the tree for their good friend, Benjamin Franklin, and for the Altamaha River where it was found.

Nobody knows why it vanished from the wild, Thomas said.

"It's an ancient species, and it may have been a tree on its way out," he speculated. "This may have been a last little pocket where it was holding on. Or maybe it was just eliminated with the incredible forestry going on in this region during the 1800s."

Although Franklinias would not have been targeted by timber cutters, the small trees could have gotten in the way of loggers harvesting cypress and pines from the Altamaha's swamps.

Carol Helton, conservation coordinator of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, helped Thomas plant 10 Franklinias on state-owned property near Fort Barrington.

The trees were planted on gentle slopes for good drainage, Helton said. Every few days, Thomas checks on the transplants and waters them.

LeFevre said the circumstances leading to the salvation of the Franklinia are even rarer than the tree itself.

"Thousands of plant species have vanished without a trace," he said. "It was so unusual that the Bartrams happened to be there [in South Georgia], happened to see the tree and happened to be horticultural collectors."

Re-establishing the species in the wild may not be easy.

"It's quite a lovely little tree, but it isn't the easiest plant to grow," LeFevre said. "The climate, the landscape, the soil and air quality are all different than they were back then."

About 2,000 Franklinias are known to exist, many in private gardens, he said.

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