Fringetree — Slow to Bloom but Worth the Wait
When we consider flowering trees in the spring landscape, we naturally think of our favorites, such as redbuds, dogwoods, serviceberries, flowering cherries and plums. Yet another lovely tree belongs in that auspicious group. I’m referring to Chionanthus virginicus — our native fringetree.
In A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, author Donald Culross Peattie, a mid-20th century botanist, naturalist, and prolific nature writer, wrote: “The Fringetree is as gracile and feminine-seeming as any that grows beside the rushing stream or climbs the warm slopes of the Blue Ridge under the shelter of sturdier growths.” Peattie further mused: “… it is a raving beauty when in mid-spring it is loaded from top to bottom with the airiest, most ethereal yet showy flowers boasted by any member of our northern sylva.” Wow! What an expressive choice of terms to describe one of the most enchanting spring-flowering trees in North America.
Dr. Michael A. Dirr, plantsman extraordinaire, has his own take on the value of the fringetree, recommending it for consideration in his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants “…as the national shrub for even dogwood does not carry itself with such refinement, dignity and class when in flower….”
Given Peattie’s and Dirr’s clear affections for this tree, it deserves to be better known and more widely used in the landscape.
In 1737, Linnaeus named this plant Chionanthus virginicus (pronounced kee-oh-NAN-thus ver-JIN-ih-kus), which is derived from a combination of the Greek words chion (snow) and anthos (flower). Its many common names include old man’s beard, Grancy graybeard, flowering ash, white fringetree, or simply fringetree, which most people prefer. A member of the Oleaceae genus, fringetree is related to the lilac, privet, forsythia, jasmine, ash tree and olive tree.
Native to the United States, fringetree originated in Missouri and eventually spread throughout the eastern half of the country as far north as New Jersey, south to Florida, and west to Oklahoma and Texas. It has proven to be fairly hardy in USDA Zones 4 – 9 and, thanks to the nursery trade, has been planted throughout most of the New England states and points west. Historically, Native Americans used the bark and flowers for medicinal purposes to treat skin inflammations, sores and wounds.
A slow-growing, large shrub or small, deciduous ornamental tree, fringetree matures at 12 to 20 feet in height and 12 to 20 feet in width in the urban landscape. In the wild, the tree may grow 25 to 30 feet tall with a similar spread. At full maturity, the tree is typically broader than it is tall with a spreading, often irregularly shaped crown that is somewhat open in appearance. The crown is generally supported by multiple short trunks close to the ground, which gives the plant a shrub-like appearance.
Its appeal lies in its generous clusters of fragrant, fringed white blossoms, which appear in late spring after other spring-flowering trees have finished blooming. The fringetree is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers occur on different plants. The male flowers tend to be showier than female flowers, but both are lovely. Each flower is comprised of four long, narrow petals and occurs in drooping, 4 to 8-inch long clusters at the ends of the branches. When in full bloom, the delicate, airy-looking blossoms give the tree a cloud-like appearance. The flowers give off a delicate, sweet, spicy fragrance, making the plant all the more endearing in the spring landscape.
The narrow, elliptic 3 to 8-inch long leaves are medium to dark green with a waxy appearance. The leaves tend to emerge very late in spring after the flowers bloom and turn a dull yellow in fall. The pale gray or brown bark is smooth on young branches but becomes ridged and furrowed as the trunks and branches mature.
In late summer, the females bear fruit in clusters of grape-size, dark blue, fleshy drupes resembling olives. This is understandable, considering that olive trees are members of the same genus. The fruits are favored by birds, such as blue jays, cardinals, mockingbirds and wild turkeys.
CULTIVARS AND RELATED SPECIES
While the straight species is the primary form available commercially, a few cultivars are also available, including:
- ‘Emerald Knight,’ a male cultivar (flowers but no fruit) with an upright form, dense crown, and handsome, dark green, glossy leaves.
- ‘Prodigy,’ a smaller selection with a rounded habit and dense clouds of blossoms.
- ‘Spring Fleecing,’ another small selection that is very floriferous. An award-winning male cultivar, it has narrow, glossy dark green leaves.
A related species that is native to eastern Asia also grows in this country. Chionanthus retusus, or Chinese fringetree, was Introduced here in 1845. It looks very similar to our native species but is less hardy (USDA zones 6 to 8). By comparison, our native species tends to have a more open canopy whereas the Chinese species is denser in appearance. The Chinese species is a little larger (15 to 25 feet tall) than our native species but the leaves and flower clusters are smaller. Both species bloom at about the same time in late spring.
Fringetree is very versatile and adaptable to a wide range of soils and light conditions. It grows well in full sun but does better if given a little filtered shade as respite from hot summer sun. Although it prefers deep, acidic, moist, well-drained soil, it is fairly adaptable to drier soils.
Once it is established, fringetree requires little, if any, maintenance. If any pruning is needed, prune immediately after it flowers to allow the branches sufficient time to develop next year’s flower buds. The shrub-like form can be shaped into a small tree form by pruning the lower limbs and foliage away.
Fringetree is relatively problem free. It may occasionally be bothered by scales, mites, or borers if grown in a dry site. There is some concern that it may be attacked by the Emerald Ash borer, since the tree is related to the ash tree.
Fringetree is an enchanting asset to the late spring landscape when it displays its billowing masses of fragrant white blossoms. It is particularly effective when planted in front of an evergreen background. Use it:
- Wherever a very small understory tree or large shrub is needed.
- As a single specimen near a terrace or patio where its blossoms can be appreciated at close range.
- As part of a naturalistic planting featuring native species.
- In a mixed border with other shrubs or small trees.
- In the filtered shade of large canopy trees.
- In a grouping near the edge of a woodland setting.
- To attract birds to the landscape. According to the South Carolina Wildlife Federation website, fringetree fruits are eaten by more than 75 species of birds.
- In urban environments where air pollution is a problem.
- For its unusual and beautiful flowers in late spring.
- To perfume the air with its sweet, delicate scent.
- To support many pollinators, particularly bees.
- To serve as a host plant for two moth species: the Fawn Sphinx moth (Sphinx kamiae) and the Rustic Sphinx moth (Manduca rustica).
Although fringetree is slow to leaf out in the spring, the patient gardener will be rewarded with a shimmering display of exotic blossoms certain to make the neighbors green with envy.
A Natural History of Trees of the Eastern and Central North America (Peattie, Donald Culross, 1948, copyright renewed 1977)
Bringing Nature Home (Tallamy, Douglas W., 2007)
Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses, (Dirr, Michael A., 1975, Revised 2009)
Native Plants of the Southeast (Mellichamp, Larry, 2014)
“Chionanthus virginicus,” University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources Plant Database (hort.uconn.edu)
“Chionanthus Virginicus Fact Sheet,” Virginia Tech Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation (dendro.cnre.vt.edu)
“Fringetree,” Clemson Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information Center (clemson.edu/extension)
South Carolina Wildlife Federation (scwf.org/native-plant-list)
“The Fringe Tree and Its Far-Flung Cousins,” by Rob Nicholson, The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University (arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu).
“White Fringe Tree,” Yale University website (naturewalk.yale.edu/trees)
“White Fringetree, Old-man’s Beard,” Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 3010-1499 White Fringetree.