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On Gardening: Sweet Tea Mountain Gordlinia has made the landscape ‘oh so sweet’

July 18, 2016

Sweet Tea Mountain Gordlinia is cold hardy from zones 7-10.

Sweet Tea Mountain Gordlinia has been causing quite a stir not only because it is blooming in the garden, but we have been posting photos on Facebook and Twitter. Now, to be honest, it is the plant community, botanists, taxonomists, and horticulturists alike that are in a state of bliss.

The credit for this wonderful and rare hybrid really goes to North Carolina State University Mountain Crops Improvement Lab who did an incredible cross in 2002. To think that this was done 14 years ago and the resulting tree is already in the market place is nothing short of phenomenal.

But that is just one part of the story that makes this tree so special to a plant nerd like me. Botanically speaking, it is xGordlinia grandiflora "Sweet Tea.’ That would be confusing to most gardeners. But what this really means is this was a rare intergeneric cross by North Carolina State between two tea or camellia relatives, Franklinia alatamaha and Gordonia lasianthus.

You might be thinking what is so special about that? Well consider this, there are no other Franklinias and no other Gordonias. These are 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 stand 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 by the way they are named after non-other than Ben Franklin a good friend of the Bartrams. Franklinias are cold hardy from zone 5-8 produce fragrant three inch flowers on trees that can reach 10-20 feet plus and are deciduous.

The Gordonia, called loblolly bay on the other hand is still thriving in the Southeast from the Gulf Coast to North Carolina. It is evergreen typically reaching from 30 to 50 feet with 2 to 3 inch white fragrant camellia-like flowers.

In comparison Sweet Tea’s flowers are enormous. Ours at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah are just as stated, a-whopping 5-inches, white with brilliant golden stamens, and a light fragrance. This year ours has been blooming for about a month and the buds just seem to keep coming. They should bloom throughout the summer.

Sweet Tea Gordlinia is cold hardy from zones 7 through 10 and is expected to reach around 30 feet at maturity with a spread of 10-feet. In other words, this is just the right size for today’s urban landscape. It is semi-evergreen and will perform best in sun with moist soil. A little afternoon shade during the hottest part of the day will be tolerated if not appreciated.

Sweet Tea Mountain Gordlinia is rare in beauty, science, and history. Hopefully if you are in zone 7 and warmer it won’t be rare at your local garden center. If it is not there ask your nurseryman to get some for you. You’ll be glad you did.

 

 


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