What do tea, camellias, Franklinia, and Loblolly Bay have in common? They all belong to the Tea Family, and their saucer-shaped flowers look the same. In the Southeastern U.S. we have (oops, had) three stunning native Camellia relatives. Stewartia malacodendron, Silky-Camellia, in Florida is restricted to the Panhandle. Stewartia ovata, Mountain-Camellia, is in the Southeast although probably not naturally in Florida except for minor cultivation. Franklinia is long gone, since 1803 from its sole known natural site in Georgia, and the fascinating story of this species is unfortunately beyond the scope of our mission. (CLICK) Its discoverer, William Bartram called the shrub Gordonia pubescens due to its resemblance to today’s Gordonia, and even some modern taxonomists have upheld classifying Gordonia and Franklinia together in Gordonia, a contention supported by their willingness to hybridize, although the progeny may be sterile like a mule. There are multiple border disputes around the genus Gordonia. The resemblance connecting Franklinia and Loblolly Bay extends to the names: pubescens means hairy, and lasianthus means shaggy-flower. Franklinia and Gordonia have shaggy flowers.
Loblolly Bay (Gordonia lasianthus) is an exquisite shrub or tree in wet habitats from North Carolina to Mississippi to Florida. The southern limit, at least near the Florida eastern coast, is pretty sharp. In Palm Beach County Loblolly Bay is scarce and spotty at best, but hop in a car and drive 20 minutes to Stuart, and the species is robust and plentiful. We hopped in the car last Friday and went to Stuart.
Billy Cunningham, a charter member of our flower-peeping posse, was away in North Carolina for several months and has now returned. He, John, George, and a gregarious white cat marched across Billy’s land near Stuart and gawked at the Crinum Lilies, Yellow Bidens, millions of Elliott’s Xyris, Carolina Redroot, and Loblolly Bay all in competition for “best in show.”
Why is Loblolly Bay abundant north of a line between Stuart and Jupiter, and rare below that line? I do not know. It prefers acid soil, but that doesn’t seem at first blush to be the key. More intriguingly the Loblolly line resembles the ill-defined border between horticultural hardiness zones 9 and 10, although the mixed opinion in a sampler of horticultural write-ups fails to show a strict need to chill the seeds. We have grown it south of the border at Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens, although the specimen was not enthusiastic.
The Loblolly Bays are blooming now with white blossoms the size of teacup saucers, having a yellow center. You could mistake them for a Camellia, but, unlike those garden favorites, the Loblolly Bay belongs right here. The flowers are wide open, fragrant, and inviting. For pollination they seem to welcome everybody. Beetles and/or bees are probably the main pollinators, and additional recorded floral visitors include hummingbirds, flies, and thrips (anyone with a microscope knows thrips often say peek-a-boo from flowers under dissection). (Common exclamation in Botany class: “there’s a bug in my flower!”)
Being so splendid, why is the species not cultivated more? It is cultivated but has a reputation as challenging, probably due to its fussy preference for wet fertile acid soils and for protection from excessive exposure. Moreover the tree has shallow roots and (just guessing) perhaps favorite mycorrhizae. Growth is slow. Nematodes, borers, and other insects attack stressed specimens. But don’t let me throw cold water on it. My problem is merely living too far south. Early Florida horticultural honcho Henry Nehrling extolled at length the charms and successes of Loblolly Bay transplanted from the wild into his garden near Orlando. Exceptional specimens can exceed 80 feet tall. Fifty feet is a more realistic, and those around Stuart within my experience are mostly about 20 feet. A columnar silhouette is common. Fires knock it back, and the tree resurrects via basal suckers.
The good looks are not limited to the flowers. The fruit is a handsome capsule, opening to release winged seeds. The foliage reddens as autumn sets in, bringing fall color to places otherwise deprived.