Birthday Tree

Some years ago I stood on the muddy banks of the Schuykill River in southwest Philadelphia and gazed, not at the industrial ruins across the water, but up at the long, verdant slope behind me. Here were the remains of a cider press, and, just beyond them, the scruffy plantings of shrubs, trees and flowering plants that had been gathered 300 years ago to become John Bartram’s Garden, the oldest botanical garden in the United States.

Created in 1728 by an American born Quaker and self-taught botanist, the fifty acre farm was an incubator for what were then considered exotic “New World” plants. Bartram and his sons regularly explored the American colonies, bringing back seeds and cuttings fof the interesting and unusual for many international patrons. Among Bartram’s patrons was King George III, and Benjamin Franklin, who would eventually help take the colonies away from the king.

Franklin often visited the garden when he was in Philadelphia, arriving by boat close to where I stood. He would have long conversations with Bartram about the natural wonders Bartram discovered.

Among those found by Bartram and his sons was one of several “curious shrubs” growing on the banks of Georgia’s Altamaha River. With its ruddy red branches, delicate white blossoms with golden centers, the specimen was uniquely beautiful. Bartram planted it in his garden and named it Franklinia Altamaha in honor of his good friend.

During subsequent southern trips, Bartram’s sons failed to find the tree growing in the wild. Additional searches by botonists who literally followed in their footsteps also had no results. Franklinia no longer existed in the wild.

The trees in Bartram’s garden thrived and remain there to this day. While Franklinia is not popular among American “garden variety” plantings, it is prized by collectors, specialty gardeners and those who like to feel that by keeping a green thing alive, they are maintaining one more natural wonder for future generations to admire.

About a year ago, a neighbor told me that, for the past 25 years, he bought and planted a different tree for his birthday. I told him the story of Franklinia. He looked at his oaks, pines, cedars, maples and cherry trees and frowned. “Don’t have that one. They’re supposed to be tough to grow.”

Last year my wife Jan got me a green Japanese maple for my birthday. I was nervous about it because, my mother was the gardener in our family. I used to have a black them but I had learned a tiny bit from Jan and had graduated to the put-it-in-the-ground-and-see-what-happens school of horticulture.

So, thanks to my Jan’s care, the tree thrived. When this year’s birthday came around, I told her the Franklinia story. I e-mailed Bartram’s Garden to find out if they shipped Franklinia saplings. Bartram’s had sold out. Our local garden supply shops didn’t have it, and didn’t want to order it. “That plant is too fussy.”

Jan made some calls and found a nursery in New Jersey that could ship us a tree in a pot. My birthday came and went and then, the tree arrived in a box.

It was in perfect health. We’re going to put it in a large pot outside and we’ll give it as much love, and fussin’, as we can.

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