It was a rare sight last week, just off the paved path at Seiberling Nature Realm in Akron: the clear white flowers of the Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha) in bloom.
The Franklin tree is rare as native trees go. It exists only in cultivation, not having been seen in its native Georgia since the early 1800s. Nature Realm has one mature and two younger specimens of this hard-to-find tree. Blooms can appear into late fall, in some years dusted with snow from the first snowfall.
Plant explorer John Bartram and his son William first discovered the species growing along the banks of the Altamaha River in Georgia in 1765. The Bartrams brought plants and seeds back to Philadelphia, where the tree was propagated and grown throughout the region.
After 1840, Franklin tree (also known as franklinia) was no longer seen in nature. All known franklinias grown today are descendants of those original trees brought to Pennsylvania by the Bartrams (named to honor Benjamin Franklin).
In September and October, the Franklin tree produces large, fragrant white flowers with yellow centers. Leaves turn shades of red and orange — a spectacular sight when branch tips still bear flowers. This tree is hard to find in the trade and tricky to grow, performing best in rich, moist, well-drained garden soil.
Besides the Franklin tree, many other plants are putting on a fall show this month at the Nature Realm. In 2009, the park was reworked, a project led by Metro Parks landscape architect Lisa King and local landscape architect John Vittum. According to King, Vittum was responsible for the majority of the plant selection, while the two “worked together to create areas with different texture, color and interest.”
While some longtime park visitors were dismayed when the renovation project was announced, most were won over as they saw the results: a natural landscape that transitions from wetland to meadow to forest, providing beauty as well as food and shelter for wildlife.
“The renovation brought the unique opportunity to re-imagine the landscape,” King said.
“We were able to create something that’s relevant, educational and beautiful.”
Nowhere is this better observed than in the new wetland area just off the Nature Realm parking lot. Goldfinches fly from one purple coneflower plant to the next, feasting on ripe seeds. Fragrant sumac fruit ripens, a promise of food for hungry birds with miles to fly. Native grasses sway in the gentle autumn breeze next to bumblebees foraging on purple and white asters, while visitors of all ages stroll along the winding paths.
The Nature Realm herb garden is bursting with white fruit on shrub dogwoods, purple flowers of giant hyssop and catmint, and the sounds of frogs plunking into the small pond. Standing guard around the herb garden is a striking planting of winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata). This deciduous holly will soon shed its golden leaves, fully exposing the profusion of bright red berries that persist into the winter (if the birds allow it).
My own garden is finally full of winterberry fruit this fall, after several years of trying to get my boy and girl plants in sync. Like other hollies, winterberries are dioecious, meaning there are male and female plants. One male plant is sufficient to provide pollen for several female plants.
Since the male plants don’t produce berries (and therefore aren’t showy), they can be located away from the girls. Bees will do the work of bringing male pollen to the female flowers, allowing for the formation of berries.
Bluebirds will be happy to learn about this year’s bumper crop of winterberry fruit. One of our brightest memories from a sunny day last winter was watching bluebirds devouring winterberry fruit on cut stems my husband and I used in the garden for winter decoration.
As the winterberries change into their fall garb, so will many other native plants at the Nature Realm, from the bright red of sassafras and tupelo to the clear yellow of bottlebrush buckeye. As if they couldn’t decide on just one color, fragrant sumac and fothergilla are clothed in mixed hues of red, orange and yellow along the paved paths.
Of all the beautiful places at the Nature Realm, Lisa King’s favorite spot is in the woods along the Seneca Trail.
“The minimal understory lets you see the rolling topography,” she said, “and soon the ground will be covered with vibrant leaves.“ It’s the perfect place to relax and unwind.
As Lisa puts it, “It’s the perfect ‘recharge’ hike.”
Don’t miss these and many other spectacular fall plants (including the flowers of Jerusalem artichoke, goldenrod, glossy abelia), on display now at F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm, 1828 Smith Road in Akron.
Denise Ellsworth directs the honeybee and native pollinator education program for the Ohio State University. If you have questions about caring for your garden, contact her at 330-263-3700 or click on the Ask Denise link on her blog at www.osugarden.com.