Flower from the Franklin Tree at Arnold Arboretum

The Hunt for The Franklinia

An artist problem I have is I cannot draw “off-reference”. When I stare at a reference photo (or draw from life) and draw it exactly as it appears, my drawings are reasonably successful, one might even say, pretty good. However, as soon as I try to put away the references and draw my own version from a compilation of memory and imagination, everything goes to poo. 

No big deal as I have amassed some several thousand of my own floral reference images, each flower from multiple angles, handily sidestepping the whole issue. But then I got this idea. It’s for a pattern, inspired by Josephine Bonaparte’s Jardin de la Malmaison, where she created a magical landscape and filled it with plants and animals from all over the world (specifically, from all the places her husband Napoleon was out trying to conquer - awkward, but oh well). 

Josephine hired acclaimed botanical artist, Pierre Joseph Redouté to catalog, through gorgeous watercolor paintings, the plants in her garden. I found a copy of the collection on archive.org so I am now rolling in public domain reference images. Except, I’m not, because public domain or not, I can’t just copy Pierre’s work directly and try to stick it in a pattern. I mean I could try, but it wouldn’t be very satisfying artistically. 

The first flower I saw featured in Redouté’s book of flowers is labelled the Gordonia pubescens, a name that is slightly improved when it appears in flowery calligraphy, as it is written in the book, but only just barely. 

img 1. A page from Jardin de La Malmaison, Tome 1, E. P. Ventenat et P. J. Redouté, 1803


A quick Google search later, I had discovered several things. First, the plant is now referred to as Franklinia alatamaha or “The Franklin Tree.” If this makes you think of Benjamin Franklin, that is because the tree is named after him, as he was a family friend of the father and son duo who discovered the tree in the state of Georgia. 

Fortunately, the son, William Bartram, went back to the site where they had discovered the trees and collected some seeds. Less than 50 years later, the trees were completely extinct in the wild. William Bartram’s seed collection was fortunate for the world, but it was also fortunate for me. The Arnold Arboretum in Boston has the Franklin tree growing in its collection and I happen to live only an hour and a half away. I could go get my own reference images!

Knowing nothing except that the tree existed at the Arboretum, and that it was springtime when most things bloom, I packed up the entire family and we took a trip to Boston. 

It was early June, but the weather was not warm. It was, in fact, downright drizzly and cold. I learned from the very helpful staff at the Welcome Center the location of the tree and the disappointing fact that the tree was not in bloom, and that it actually blooms closer to early fall. Undeterred, we sallied forth.

By the time we got to the tree, half the party had turned back. It started to rain. Then pour. As promised, the tree was not flowering. There was a plaque in front of it, but otherwise it was just another unassuming leafy tree among many other trees all dripping with water. 

But I felt jubilant! I felt like I was an explorer (I even had a map!) and had successfully navigated the unknown (a carefully curated garden in the middle of a city I had previously lived in for five years) and had succeeded in finding the buried treasure archeological discovery tree!

Should I have just made a phone call, learned about the bloom situation and planned a later trip? Probably. But I didn’t care. I took a (terrible) selfie then raced back to the car as fast as my freezing fingers and toes would take me where my family and I all piled on top of each other in the front two seats of our car, blasting the heat and eating an early dinner of leftovers we’d brought in our cooler. I’m pretty sure this is the stuff memories are made from. 

img. 2 - Artistic rendering of the (terrible) selfie.

(Note to self: Learn digital painting and how to draw people)


We did return to the Arnold Arboretum in early September. The tree was in full bloom and I got all the reference photos I could want. Of one flower. For one motif. 

Who knew starting an art business would be so much fun?!

img. 3 - One (of 140) of the author's hard earned reference photos of the Gordonia pubescens Franklinia alatamaha and resulting sketches.

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