By Wendy Diaz EMGV
All photos by Wendy Diaz unless otherwise indicated.
Recently, the fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) has been exalted in landscaping talks and gardening magazines because of its fragrant showy white tassel-like flowers in late spring. For example, in the March-April 2023 issue of our local Triangle Gardener magazine the Plant Focus article described poetically the many attributes of the fringe tree and recommended planting this tree for its “spectacular and ethereal clouds of pure white fringe-like flowers that cloak the tree when in bloom.” 1
So why am I writing about this spring flowering tree in the peak of summer? Because of its fruit, of course. One of the reasons I have transplanted seedlings from a shady natural woodland area to sunnier parts of my back yard is that the tree has attractive bluish oval fruit that wildlife love to eat in July and the large deep green oval leaves fill in the middle layer of my otherwise bare landscape.
As luck would have it (it is hard to tell the difference between male and female seedlings), I planted a female tree next to the bird bath which I can view from my kitchen window and it provides garden interest all summer long.
It is a small tree that fills the mid-level area of my garden between the canopy trees and the near ground-level native perennials important for birds. I wrote about the importance of planting small trees to fill up the middle layer of the vertical landscape in an earlier post2. Even though in the wild the fringe tree is mainly found along stream banks and swamp edges it is certainly more drought tolerant than my more shallow-rooted native dogwoods.
Nurseries recommend pruning the lower branches when the tree is young and small so it will have fewer multiple trunks and look more like a small tree than a shrub. Some nurseries offer a single-trunk form. I transplanted the trees when they were about 8 inches tall and I could identify their large opposite leaf arrangement. I let them grow their multiple trunks naturally without pruning because I wanted the open spreading branch habit to fill in the middle section of my backyard landscape.
The fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) is native to Central and Eastern United States and is found from Texas to New York. Other common names for the fringe tree are grancy greybeard, old man’s beard and sweetheart tree3; all names that reference aspects of the tree’s unique aromatic white trailing flowers. Native Americans used the plant in their traditional medicine as a disinfectant and a dermatological aid. It is a small deciduous tree in the Oleaceae (olive) family and the fruit (drupes) look much like olives. The genus name comes from the Greek word chion that means snow and anthos which means flower referencing its snow to creamy-white flowers4.
The fringe tree prefers full sun (more blooms) to partial shade and tolerates acidic clay soil but also prefers alkaline soil and neutral moist to occasional dry soil with good drainage. They are also found in the wild along the margins of limestone glades (neutral to alkaline soil conditions). The New Hope Audubon Society (during an inspection of our garden) suggested that because I had so many fringe trees in my backyard that perhaps the hill behind our house was underlain by a diabase sill and our topsoil could be partially-derived from the weathering of this bedrock which is found sporadically in Durham County 5 and creates a more basic soil. The fringe tree has a rounded, open spreading habit that can grow from 12 to 30 feet in height and a 12 to 20 feet spread. It grows slowly at about 6 to 10 inches per year and my small transplants flowered about 5 years after transplanting them. The flowers are white delicate paniculate flowers produced on 1 year old growth. The white fragrant flowers form clusters 4 to 8 inches long in late spring; around the end of April to mid-May in the Piedmont. The male flowers are more showy than the female flowers because their petals (4-5 petals in each flower) are longer.
The fringe tree is dioecious so to get fruit you will need more than one specimen tree (need male and female plants). Fruit begins to form in early May in grape-like clusters and each ovoid-shaped drupe reaches a size of less than one inch and is pale green color in early July. When ripe, they turn an attractive showy blue-black color in late July in the Peidmont, North Carolina.
The dark green elliptical leaves are 6 to 8 inches long and 2 to 3 inches wide. They start to emerge slowly around the time the dogwoods are in full bloom. The leaves turn yellow in the fall (October). The smooth bark is generally gray and forms dark brown ridges and red furrows with age.
The drupes attract robins, bluebirds, thrush, mockingbirds, catbirds and even the Scarlet Tanager and not to mention squirrels. The fringe tree is also the larval host for 12 species of caterpillars6.
I always marvel at all the abundance of flowering native trees in North Carolina during the spring time but my favorite is the fringe tree because it offers the whole package – not just spring beauty and fragrance but attractive summer fruits, wildlife habitat and food, fall color and winter interest. Thanks to having at least one female tree among my several fringe tree transplants, I can count on more seedlings to emerge in my yard as the squirrels and birds do their thing after they eat the drupes! And I can enjoy the male trees in the spring and the female trees in the summer.
1. Triangle Gardener, Your Guide To Enjoyable Gardening; Springtime! Annuals, perennials, edibles, shrubs March–April 2023, Plant Focus: Fringe Tree by Tina Mast, page 4.
2. https://durhammastergardeners.com/2021/10/20/native-mid-level-trees-for-a-bird-friendly-garden/ Native Mid-level
trees for a Bird Friendly Garden by Wendy Diaz EMGV October 20, 2021
3. North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/chionanthus-virginicus/
4. Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=282950&isprofile=1&basic=fringe%20tree
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