Every once in a while, I stumble across something that sparks my love of myth and mystery, something that roots in my soul and makes me behave like an O.C.D. gerbil, going round and round on my little rodent wheel.
Five years back, that something was Franklinia alatamaha, the Franklin Tree, the Lost Camellia.
Philadelphia is not a particularly mysterious city. It lacks those gated, stone walled-courtyards that tease the outsider with hints of jasmine and gardenia or twisting alleyways that smell of roasting coffee and croissants in the hours just after dawn.
What Philadelphia does have is the Franklinia, The Lost Camellia.
Extinct in the wild since the late 1700s, the Franklinia is a member of the Tea family (Theaceae), the same family as the camellia, which is a native of Asia. The last confirmed sighting of the Franklinia in the wild was in 1790.
This elusive tree is the unicorn of the plant world and I now have one growing in my backyard.
Philadelphia botanist John Bartram collected the seeds of the Franklinia on a trip to Georgia in the eighteenth century. He brought them back to Philadelphia where he successfully propagated the Franklinia tree from which all modern trees are descended.
And there aren’t that many: a loosely conducted census of the trees on the East Coast put the number around 1,000.
When I first learned of the Franklinia, my love of the curious, the mysterious, and the elusive kicked into high gear. I searched nurseries and online sources. At a native plant sale, I arrived after the only one had been sold. For a few years, the Franklinia became my personal Holy Grail.
Then we moved and my garden changed. I forgot about the Franklinia and focused on painting the living room.
Last week, touring the New York Botanical Gardens with my mother-in-law, we came across a strange little tree. It looked like a cross between an azalea and a camellia. Beautiful, glossy leaves framed five petaled white flowers, even though it was autumn and late for blooming.
We debated what it was, never suspecting it could be the ever elusive Lost Camellia.
Five days later, I was in my local nursery and came across an unusual looking tree. I circled it a few times, trying to identify the oddity before checking the tag. Franklinia.
I often think about the ways in which our culture reveres the obscure and the hidden, as if somehow we ourselves become rare and precious by proximity or ownership.
And yet we so often overlook the beauty that surrounds us everyday in search of this thing that we are sure must be better for being touched by mystery.
I’m not gonna lie: having a reminder of the fleeting and elusive nature of life, having a living bit of our botanical history growing in my garden, is a gift that I will be charmed by as long as I live here.
But in the time when my Franklinia obsession had faded, I remembered the joy of peonies and cone flowers. I smiled at the thyme creeping in a dense blanket and was soothed by the gentle rustle of the birch trees.
Oftentimes clients have read about an herb from India or Korea, something so obscure that we don’t even have an English name for it, and they wonder if maybe I could find it for them, if maybe it would be better than the easily accessible dandelion or nettle, or more potent than oregano, or a better winter heal-all than elderberry.
There is a thrill to finding the rare, to knowing very few others have tasted it or felt its effects. And yet, the true art, the deeper wisdom, is finding the mystery in the everyday and the healing in our own backyards.
Appreciation sometimes seems to be the rarest elixir of all.
When I remember to notice the world around me, there is so much mystery to savor.