August in southeast Georgia. A team of naturalists and botanists from the Nature Conservancy paddle up river into the Altamaha River Wilderness Area in search of one of the rarest plants in North America. They are looking for William Bartram’s Franklinia alatamaha. Native to only a six-acre stretch of Georgia Altamaha River near Darien, the Franklin Tree (named for Benjamin Franklin) has been extinct in the wild for over two hundred years with the only remaining survivors being the descendants of William Bartram’s original specimens from 1773. No one knows what led to its extinction, its purpose in its environment, or why it only ever lived in that one small area, but we do know why it can’t survive there today.
In 2003, the Nature Conservancy in Georgia attempted to plant a new grove of Franklinia near the site upriver from Fort Barrington where the Bartrams originally located the plant. To their dismay, the planting failed, as did a second planting in 2004 due to a fungal disease called “root rot” caused by phytophthora, a microorganism imported with Asian camellias and azaleas. The invasive spread of phytophthora is attributed to the death of the American chestnut, dogwood, hemlock, and is suspected to be the fungus that caused the Irish Potato Famine. If these researchers are able to find a Franklin Tree, then it will be a survivor of their 2003 or 2004 test planting so there will be hope for the future of the species, but if not, that hope will have to come from the upstate. At the University of Georgia, doctoral candidate Heather Gladfelter has a bold plan. Heather plans to combat the invasive phytophthora with genes from Asian gordonia which are immune to the fungus. If her study is successful, the Franklin Tree could finally return from extinction, and she may have discovered the key to resurrecting other North American trees.
Our world faces an extinction crisis. As explorations reveal the most remote places on Earth and we discover new flora and fauna unlike anything we have ever seen, unique to a single habitat, countless more disappear every year without ever being discovered. In the story of the Franklin Tree, we see this narrative playing out in the 18th century as the United States was becoming a nation. When William Bartram found the Franklin Tree, he unknowingly caused both its destruction and salvation in the attention he brought to the species.
William Bartram saw a world of wonder and beauty around him. In his illustrations and travel journals, Bartram exudes an awe and reverence for all of creation, seeing “the immediate finger of God” at work in every plant and animal, and “a portion of universal intellect diffused in all life.” While the story will be told as a secular exploration of science and history, it is our intention to respect the beauty of Bartram’s vision of the world and of the specimens in his family’s garden that he held so dear. Through high quality cinematic field production in the Altamaha River Wilderness, Bartram’s Garden, and the University of Georgia Plant Sciences Lab, this film will guide audiences through the story of Franklinia from its origins in the wild, to its unintended salvation in captivity, and of its future through modern science. Each location offers a unique space so the beauty of each will be represented through each location’s unique relationship between man and nature.
Surviving Extinction: The Franklin Tree will be a one-hour documentary filmed in HD for television.