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On Gardening: Sweet Tea Mountain Gordlinia perfect for your Arbor Day celebration

March 26, 2018

                     

Sweet Tea Mounain gordlinia is a cross between the Franklinia alatamaha and the Gordonia lasianthus

Two years ago, I wrote about a small tree called Sweet Tea Mountain Gordlinia that was catching the eye of the industry. After watching it two more growing seasons, I am even more mesmerized by its elegant form and structure, its long period of bloom that culminates in stunning fall and winter color.

All of my experience in growing it was as Director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah Georgia. There this tree won the hearts of both employees and visitors. Now that I am in the hills (mountains to me) of West Georgia I am putting not one but three Sweet Tea Mountain Gordlinias on my landscape wish list. I can already picture the 5-inch wide white flowers glistening on the hillside overlooking Little Palmetto Creek.

Almost everything about this tree is amazing, its attributes, its history and then the science in its creation. The credit for this beautiful and rare hybrid goes to North Carolina State University Mountain Crops Improvement Lab who did an incredible cross in 2002.

Botanically speaking it is xGordlinia grandiflora "Sweet Tea’. That would be confusing to most gardeners. But what this means is this was a rare intergeneric cross by North Carolina State between two tea or camellia relatives, Franklinia alatamaha and Gordonia lasianthus.

I remember at Texas A & M I was taught in two separate classes, Nut Culture, and then in Plant Propagation that you could cross between species but it was next to impossible to cross two different genera. So, when the NC State Mountain Crops Improvement Lab made this cross, the impossible was conceived.

Then consider this, at the time there were no other Franklinias and no other Gordonias. These were classified as monotypic, one type or representative within the genus. Now perhaps you are saying to yourself that indeed is pretty rare, and you would be right. When it comes to the Franklinia however it goes one step further on the rarity scale in that the plants are extinct in the wild.

John and his son William Bartram, famous explorers and early American naturalists discovered the Franklinia atlatamaha in 1765 growing wild along the Altamaha River in Georgia. William carefully documented it through his writing and paintings. He collected seeds on return trips, but by 1790 the native had totally disappeared.

Today all growing Franklinias, aka Franklin trees, are from the same genetics of the seeds he collected on his journey while the U.S. was still the colonies. Oh yes, they are named after non-other than Ben Franklin a good friend of the Bartrams.

The Gordonia, called loblolly bay, on the other hand, is still thriving in the Southeast. We had one about 30-feet tall at the gardens in Savannah that bloomed with 2- to 3-inch white fragrant camellia-like flowers, in comparison Sweet Tea’s flowers are enormous reaching 5-inches with brilliant gold stamens.

Sweet Tea Mountain gordlinia is cold hardy from zones 7 through 10 and is expected to reach around 20-30 feet a maturity with a spread of 10 to 15-feet. In other words, this is just the right size for today’s smaller urban landscape. It is semi-evergreen, performing best in full sun with a little afternoon shade, the soil should be moist, fertile and well drained. Amazingly the tree colors up in shades of burgundy and orange during the fall and winter.

Sweet Tea Mountain Gordlinia is rare in beauty, science, and history. You’ll find it as part of the Southern Living Plant Collection. It would be perfect for your families Arbor Day Celebration April 27.

 

 


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