Franklinia Leaves against Red Oak background by Beth Thompson
The crisp scent of fall air mingled with the scent of sunshine pricking salty sweat on my forehead as I climbed the hill towards her. Her blossoms’ fragrance drifted through the air to me at the same time as the musty oder of dry leaves crunching underfoot. The blooms glowed on her surrounded by fall glory. Her leaves shone as red as a candied apple yet I wouldn’t think of biting into them, as her red leaves were as flat as paper, drying in the autumn sun. Juicy green leaves still hung from the tree framing each improbable blossom like paw paws, yet I wouldn’t taste those either, for her medicinal value is lost in the echelons of time.
Fall Franklinia Flower by Beth Thompson
Wearing candied apple red…
She was dressed up in those red candied apple leaves, green juicy leaves, with her crowning joy of white blossoms with yellow pistils. Flowers where bees tumbled happily rejoicing in her nectar as if Winter wasn’t coming at all. Deeper into her bosom I could see where lichen dressed her limbs, all grey blue and ruffly. However her true nature was revealed at the base of her trunk, where the striation upon her bark identified her to me for once and for all as a Franklinia alatmaha.
Lichen dressing the Franklinia
Speaking in sunlight and breezes…
She spoke to me with the sunlight dancing off her shining green leaves. She rustled at me in the breeze as her marauding bees buzzed in the late fall sunshine. Her song was gentle and soft, abiding where she had been planted. Yet how powerful this tree’s desire to survive—despite being extinct in the wild—that her beauty had beckoned the Bartram’s to collect and cultivate her all these centuries gone by?
Franklinia in Autumn Possible Perception by Beth Thompson
She loves the bees, they flock to her bosom along with ants, monarchs, and pollinators of all sorts, for she will continue to make seed, seeds that still today attract scientists and naturalists of all types.
Scientist Heather G. collecting seeds by Beth Thompson
She is as extraordinary and rare as a tree playing a symphony.
Red Franklinia Blossom Possible Perception by Beth Thompson
In support of the exhibit Ocean Bound I have prepared a talk about water, and put it to video. In addition, I have created a series of 16 notecards encapsulating the exhibit, called Ocean Bound in Miniature. Please enjoy:
My exhibition of works describing the waters of Bartram, from clouds over Scaly Mountain to “billows of the ocean” on Jekyll Island, will be on view until November 27th.
Ocean Bound Exhibit is located at the Foyer Gallery of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Athens, 780 Timothy Rd, Athens GA 30606.
Ocean Bound in Miniature:
Design for Dry Falls in Miniature
16 Unique Ocean Bound Notecards
A2 envelope-sized (5.5″ x 4.25″ notecards)
Possible Perceptions on the front
Original photograph, quote, and title on back
Blank inside, allowing personalization
Ocean Bound notecards are not linked to any particular holiday or event, thus you can use them for get well, sympathy, birthday, seasons greetings, and just because I love you. Ocean Bound in miniature will be available for a limited time.
Design for Daughters of the Sun in Miniature
Because I believe that art can change the world, that using my gifts to make the world more beautiful because I have lived here on Earth is the best use of my time and energy here, you have my deepest gratitude.
Design for Savannah in Miniature
Ocean Bound in miniature is no longer available at this time. Thank you all for your business!
Take a moment, take a breath, take 46 seconds to listen…
Don’t Squeeze Peaches by Beth Thompson
Beside a piece of Americana, outside of Clayton, GA, there’s this other amazing piece of Americana, but not the type we all think about. Nope, this is the real deal, the only in America, the can’t see it, can’t get it anywhere else sort of thing.
Look around you…
But first, you have to turn your back on the retail extravaganza, clammer down a steep slope, and walk across a mountain stream. As the path leads you past cardinal flowers in blossom, vibrant red, and deeper into a wooded area, look around you. You might see a tree with the biggest leaves ever, creating a sort of silvery green umbrella overhead. That would be big-leaf magnolia.
Big Leaf Magnolia by Beth Thompson
You might see a magnolia-like seed pod, only in the most vibrant magenta with hints of green, surrounded by dark green leaves. That would be the Frazier Magnolia, called Mountain Magnolia by William Bartram.
Frazier Magnolia (Bartram’s Mountain Magnolia) by Beth Thompson
What do you see?
Finally, if you are extremely lucky, you round a corner and come upon massive white blossoms, with yellow pistils and stamen. There’s a bumblebee happily tumbling around in pollen. The flower has only 5 petals, and hasn’t bloomed in the wild like this in 100’s of years, at least not here, not in its native state, Georgia. And even still, it it miles and miles from the river which gave it its name. The flower belongs to the Franklinia alatmaha Tree, discovered by John Bartram some 250 years ago, and whose seeds he sent his son, William, to collect, thus they ensured its survival at the Bartram Gardens in Philadelphia.
Franklinia Blossom by Beth Thompson
Beautiful specimens, rare organisms…
As I watched the tree in its glory with Heather Gladfelter, the scientist who is exploring the tree and led me to these beautiful specimens this day, another rare organism arrived. The Monarch butterfly came to drink the sweetness of the Franklin Tree, and in return, pollinate. What does the Monarch think I wonder? Is there some ancestral memory embedded into its genetics, so that it goes, ahhh, a Franklinia, my species hasn’t imbibed from this tree in 100’s of years, yet I somehow know the sweetness of your nectar? Is the bumblebee overwhelmed with joy to see this old friend of its species blooming in the Southeast once again?
Franklinia Blossom Sunlit by Beth Thompson
Both rare and bountiful…
I keep my camera trained on the tree, blossoms with bees, ants, and butterflies in ecstasy. The Franklinia is at once a testament to terminal uniqueness and nature’s bounty. Heather collects only 3 seed pods from one tree, as this equals 150 seeds and hours worth of work in the lab. Yet there are many trees growing here, each with lots and lots of seed pods. Nature’s bounty indeed.
Heather Collects 3 Seed Pods by Beth Thompson
Survive and thrive…
Yet the surviving Franklinia trees may not have enough genetic diversity to resist phytothera, the water mold in the soil that’s killed them off in the Southeast. Unlike my species, which is on the verge of overpopulating the planet, Franklinia alatmaha may be terminally unique. Yet it survives and thrives, blossoms and is pollinated in turn, makes more fruit than a single human can study.
Franklinia Blossom Against the Sky by Beth Thompson
So who am I to feel as if I am terminally unique?
Franklinia Blossom Possible Perception by Beth Thompson
I am blessed in that I actually have a community of people who get me. There are lots of other humans on this earth that I can connect to. My kind isn’t in danger of going extinct due to limited genetic diversity in the human gene pool.
Franklinia Blossom Sunlit by Beth Thompson
Yet I cannot help but feel that a world without the Franklinia alatmaha would be a more fragile world, one I would feel more vulnerable in. Is my fate linked in some way to the survivial of the Franklin Tree? Is humanity’s?
Franklinia Blossom Sky by Beth Thompson
*Opening of recording from “The Slacks” by Trip Shakespeare, audio quote from Martha Graham.
William Bartram describes his encounter with Franklinia alatmaha, growing in the wilds of Georgia along the Altamaha River in the late 1700’s.
Thus, when William Bartram came through Georgia 250 years ago, the Franklinia alatmaha grew on the banks of the Altamaha River.
At the same time, collecting exotic plants was all the rage in Europe, a fad that William’s father, John Bartram made a livelihood from. Shipment of these exotics around the world eventually brought an oomycyte, or water mold, phytophthora cinnamomi to the Southeastern United States. P. cinnamomimay have originated in Southeast Asia, but after colonizing agricultural sites degraded by cotton, it naturalized in Southeastern forests, killing susceptible species. Infrequently mentioned in articles online, one of those susceptible trees is Franklinia alatmaha, which while extinct in the wild, still survives. But where?
Franklinia on my porch
Well right here in Colbert, GA on my front porch! And up in Clayton, GA and Highlands, NC for a few others. Yet all these came from a single source, Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia.
Thus does this source in Bartram’s Garden have enough genetic diversity to grow a cultivar that can resist the deadly seductions of phytophthora?
Franklinia in Bartram’s Garden, Philadelphia, PA
That’s what PhD. student, Heather Gladfelter is figuring out for her thesis. She has two powerful tools at her disposal. In laymen’s terms they are cloning and genetic engineering. In scientific terms, cloning is somatic embryogenesis, and genetic engineering is transformation. On Tuesday November 17, 2015 Heather generously walked me through the greenhouse and labs, explaining the processes in great detail.
Heather has decided not to use transformation to modify the genetics of the Franklin Tree to resist phythophthora, as she wishes to preserve the species. However she refers to somatic embryogenesis as her Holy Grail. The process is complex, but perhaps not as difficult as other processes, because the embryo grows into an entire plant, with leaves and roots. Heather can get leaves to grow from cells in the plant, but getting the leaves to convert to a plant with roots proves difficult, depending on the species, and it adds a step to the process.
Leaflets in Lab
As I wandered through the outdoor greenhouse with the Franklinias showing their fall colors, to the enclosed greenhouse with powerful LED lights, to the lab with petri dishes and microscopes, I wondered why Heather didn’t start at the beginning, but as I sit to write this, I realize its a chicken and egg issue, and why not start with the whole plant?
Without the plant, somatic embryogenesis would not be possible. There would be no starting point. The Franklin Tree, all grown up, blossoming, attracting bees, ants, flies, even butterflies to its sweet nectar, pollinates. Did it pollinate itself? Perhaps. Or perhaps those insects carried some other Franklin tree’s pollen to the blossom. In any case, the following year, instead of bearing blossoms, the Franklin Tree bears fruit.
The fruit holds the key to somatic embryogenesis. But when to harvest? Ripe in August, for the right stage of development, the fruit must be harvested early. But how early? That’s what Heather hopes to determine in the 2016 harvest.
Immature Franklinia fruits
She knows what to look for. An invisible plant embryo. If she cuts open the seed in the unripe fruit, puts it under a microscope, and sees an embryo, then all bets are off. However, if she cuts open the seed, puts it under the microscope, and does not see an embryo, then she knows one of 2 things has occurred. Either the seed didn’t get fertilized, and thus didn’t form a plant embryo, or the fruit was harvested at just the right stage of development for somatic embryogenesis, or perhaps I should say non-development. Because the embryo Heather looks for has yet to go down a developmental pathway. Thus she can use growth regulators on tissue culture to direct its development.
Microscope in Lab
Hoping to harvest the not-yet-visible embryonic cells, Heather plates them on media that contains an herbicide, 24D, which at very low levels works as a growth regulator. Each cell grows a callous, like a scab, from the insult. These callouses are then placed in a liquid bath of low level 24D. Gently shaken in the dark for days, tiny specks become visible in the bath. These are proembroygenic masses, or PEM’s.
These masses are place on a nylon filter, and the 24D washed off. No additional growth regulators are needed from this point forward. The PEMs, left in darkness, becomes an embryo.
PEM’s on nylon
The embryos are harvested and plated in rows on nutrient media. Next, the embryos sit in a cold, dark place, called stratification, simulating Winter, before they are brought out of the cold to germinate. Germination, length of time in cold, or whether placed in the cold, all vary with species and thus the process has to be tweaked each time a new species enters the mix.
Not all embryos are created equal however. Some germinate, growing new leaves, but never convert to a plant by growing roots. Some shrivel up and die. And some thrive like the chestnut below, which proceeded to become a plant in a covered greenhouse, with LED lights. Will the Franklinia ever survive placement in the phytophthora cinnamomi infested soil of the Southeast?
Chestnut in Greenhouse
That remains to be seen…
Many thanks to Heather Gladfelter who led me on a tour of the greenhouses and labs and explained the science to me. Any mistakes wholly mine.
*Opening stanza from “The Slacks” by Trip Shakespeare.
Take a moment to listen to my reading of William Bartram’s Travels describing“mountain vegetable beauties….”*
Red bottlebrush buckeye forming seeds: Beth’s Travels on the Bartram Trail Series
The only constant is change. As I write this, the last of summer lies heavy on the land. The little plants that spring up in the early warmth of the year have completely vanished, and the larger plants, such as red bottlebrush buckeye, are developing fruits to bear seed in the fall or spring of the coming year.
Hiawassee Waterfall: Beth’s Travels on the Bartram Trail
My body grows stronger too, a recent summer hike to a waterfall and back was much easier this Summer than an earlier hike this Spring. Perhaps the dip in the cool refreshing waters had something to do with it.
Many Fleeting Beauties
Thanks to the generosity of my folks, Jimmy and Joy Thompson, my friend Tina and I were able to spend a May weekend exploring the wildflowers of the Highlands Plateau. As part of Wildflower Whimsy and led by a couple of botanists, we hiked down a mountain trail to a waterfall cascading into a river, stopping to ogle the amazing spring ephemerals every step of the way. I saw many fleeting beauties:
Jack in the Pulpit: Wildflower Whimsy Hike by Beth Thompson
Native Violet: Wildflower Whimsy Hike. Photo by Beth Thompson
Foam Flower: Wildflower Whimsy Hike. Photo by Beth Thompson
4 Varieties of Trillium: Wildflower Whimsy Hike. Photo by Beth Thompson
Then came the climb back out. I got majorly frustrated with my slow pace until I remembered, less than a year previously I had been on crutches with a broken toe.
Tattered Butterfly: Hummingbird Walk. Photo by Beth Thompson
I remembered eschewing the crutches to climb down to a pontoon boat the summer previously in Highlands, the better to see waterfalls cascading into the lake. The fact I could do the Wildflower Whimsy hike at all was a testament to the amazing healing powers of the body. That in July 2016 I could hike to a waterfall and swim beneath it truly a miracle of healing.
Magenta Trilluim: Original Photo for Possible Perception below.
I am approaching another birthday, growing older, perhaps wiser in some ways, more foolish in others. I dream of a macro lens, the better to photograph next year’s spring ephemerals. I dream too of finding a path towards greater self-support in my art. But mostly, I am asking questions. Learning and growing and wondering: what could I do differently next time? How do I calculate the value of this experience? Of that one?