I planted my native Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus) on my north-facing slope near the bottom of the hill about fifteen years ago. It probably gets more shade from the canopy trees towering over it (River Birches, Sweet Gums, Tulip Poplars) than it would like for optimal blooming, but it still puts on a spring show every year.
I used to worry about it every spring. It is one of our last native trees to leaf out. But I’ve learned to trust that it knows what it’s doing, and each succeeding year, my patience is rewarded with more flowers.
Fringe Trees are so named for the conspicuous clusters of white flowers that dangle like fringe — or tinsel on a Christmas tree. I don’t think its other common names — Old-Man’s-Beard and Grancy Gray Beard — adequately convey the loveliness of this tree (a member of the Olive Family) in full bloom. I’m not alone in my opinion. In his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (5th edition), Michael Dirr states that the British consider this species to be “one of the finest American plants introduced into their gardens” (page 229).
Trees usually produce either mostly female or mostly male flowers; the male flowers are showier because of their longer petals. Fertilized female flowers produce blue berry-like fruits (botanically, drupes) that are very popular with birds — and ornamental until they are devoured.
When it’s not in bloom or fruit, this nearly pest-free native blends inconspicuously into the understory, providing cover and habitat for wildlife. It is ideal in landscapes when planted along a forest (or natural area) edge, and requires conditions similar to Dogwoods and Redbuds. Planting several together provides optimal spring impact and is more likely to ensure fruit production.
I think the flowers on my tree are mostly female, but because I don’t have any other trees nearby, it doesn’t produce fruit. I need to plant more Fringe Trees nearby — preferably male trees — so that I can provide more fruit for the local birds. My tree is about fifteen feet tall now, and will likely grow another ten or so feet before it attains its mature size.
A few years back — maybe five or six — I planted a Chines Fringe Tree (Chionanthus retusus). A local nursery that specializes in well-adapted Asian species was selling them, and I couldn’t resist performing my own comparative analysis by planting my native Fringe Tree’s Asian cousin nearby.
My Chinese Fringe Tree leafs out before the native, but achieves peak bloom later. It seems to be growing into a more shrubby form than the native tree, and its leaves are quite thick and lustrous — altogether a very different-looking Chionanthus.
The flowers of my Asian specimen are not as showy as those of the native. Like our native Fringe Tree, this species is mostly dioecious (male or female). I think mine may be a female, but I’m not positive. It will probably grow to be a smaller tree/shrub than my native specimen, and now that it’s getting bigger, the exfoliating (peeling) bark its noted for is becoming increasingly evident.
Based on what I’ve seen so far, I prefer our native Fringe Tree. Most of the year, it inconspicuously contributes to the forest understory, providing cover, habitat, and food. But every spring, it shines as its snowy fringe flowers dance in the sweet-scented breezes of the season.