Chionanthus is from the Greek words chion and anthos, which mean “snow flower” in reference to the white flowers; virginicus means “of Virginia.”
Fringe tree is from the white, fringe-like flowers that bloom in early spring. Other names include old man’s beard, Grancy graybeard, grandsie graybeard and fringe tree.
NATIVE RANGE AND HABITAT
Fringe tree is found from eastern Texas and southern Missouri eastward to the Atlantic Coast and north to Ohio and Pennsylvania. Trees grow in moist wooded areas, swamp borders, rocky bluffs, streams and outcroppings. In Kentucky, trees occur infrequently in dry to mesic forests in the Appalachian Plateaus and Interior Low Plateaus provinces.
Fringe tree is not ranked as a plant of conservation concern by the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission.
Growth Habit and Form
Fringe trees typically form irregular, spreading crowns supported by a short multi- or single-stemmed trunk. Plants can grow 25 to 30 feet tall in the wild with a similar spread. Cultivated plants grow 12 to 20 feet tall with an equal or greater spread.
The thick, opposite, simple leaves grow 3 to 8 inches long and half as wide. They are narrow-elliptic to oblong or obovate-oblong, with a medium to dark green, waxy appearance. Leaves emerge very late in spring and turn dull yellow in fall, before dropping.
Fringe tree’s fragrant, late-spring blossoms signal the closure of spring and the onset of summer. The flowers bloom in drooping clusters at the ends of the branches in May to June. Each flower has four long and narrow petals. Flowers are pure white, wispy and cloudlike. The flowers are pollinated by insects. Fringe trees are dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants. The male plants are more impressive in bloom because of longer petals, but the female plants bear the blue, plum-like fruits that are attractive to wildlife.
Female plants produce clusters of ½ to 2/3 inch long, dark blue, fleshy, plum-like fruits (drupes) in August to September. Each fleshy drupe contains a single large seed. Birds and other wildlife relish the fruits and scatter the seeds.
The bark is pale gray or brown. The bark is smooth on young branches. Mature trunks and branches are ridged and furrowed, developing an attractive craggy like with age.
Wild and Cultivated Varieties
There are no listed cultivars for fringe tree. Natural variation is significant enough that some authorities recognize several natural botanical varieties. These include forms with narrow leaves, broad leaves, and pubescent leaves.
Fringe tree is of great beauty both in the late spring when the flowers emerge and early fall when the fruits ripen. Plants may be used as specimens, for naturalizing and in shrub borders. Fringe tree is excellent planted in front of an evergreen background. Plants adapt to difficult sites and are quite tolerant of air pollution.
Hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9.
Fringe tree grows slowly, under ideal conditions possibly 8 to 10 feet in 10 years.
Cultivation and Propagation Information
Fringe tree is adaptable to a variety of light conditions and soils. Trees grow well in full sun to partial shade on moist, rich, well-drained soils. Plants are somewhat intolerant of drought conditions and require a reasonable degree of shelter. Transplant balled-and-burlapped or as a container-grown plant in spring. Fringe tree is reportedly difficult to propagate from cuttings. Seed possesses a double dormancy and requires a warm period followed by cold period for root and shoot initiation to take place. If sown in fall outside, seed germinates the second spring as first year seedlings do not put on much shoot extension. Fringe tree is very sensitive to allelopathy from some trees in the walnut family. They should not be planted near walnut (Juglans) or hickories (Carya).
Diseases and Insects
Fringe tree is among the most trouble-free small trees. Plant in suitable site and protect from excessive deer browsing.
Fringe tree fruits are among the favorite foods of wild turkeys, blue jays, cardinals and mockingbirds. White-tailed deer and other animals browse the foliage.
Fringe tree is among the most trouble-free small trees. Flowers are produced on 2nd year wood, so care must be taken when pruning to allow for the next year’s flowering.
TRADITIONAL AND MODERN USES
A tincture made from the bark and grain alcohol was used for jaundice.
Native Americans used tea made from boiled bark as a topical treatment for skin irritations, cuts and infections.
Dried or fresh root and trunk bark can act as a diuretic.
The bark can also be used as a poultice for bruises, cuts and ulcers.
Fringe tree is a member of the Oleaceae or Olive family. Oleaceae is important for fruit and oil production. Oil comes from olive, perfume from jasmine and wood products are from ash.
Related ornamentals include forsythia, privet and lilac.