Are you looking for a small beautiful spring-flowering tree to plant this spring with great fall color and beautiful blue-black fruit? Look no further than the native Fringetree.
Fringetree, Chionanthus virginicus, is rarely planted in a home landscape because local nurseries often don’t carry it as it doesn’t have the name recognition of a dogwood or redbud. But it definitely is a notable small tree that should be more widely planted. Seen mostly at arboretums and botanical gardens, their staff know a good thing when they see it, and include it frequently in plantings. But unless you see it in full bloom, in April or May, you would probably ignore it completely, so that is the reason people don’t plant it more widely. It should be a staple in every garden for its spectacular flowering alone.
According to Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, a resource bible for horticulturalists, Dirr says, “I would like to make the case for this as the national shrub for even dogwood does not carry itself with such refinement, dignity, and class when in flower”. And also, “The British consider this one of the finest American plants introduced into their gardens”.
If you have a site in full sun to partial shade for a tree that won’t grow over 20′ tall and 10-15′ wide, try this no-maintenance small tree for fantastic flowering in the spring and wonderful yellow fall color. Rarely needing to be pruned, Fringetree tolerates a wide variety of soils – even heavy clay, proximity to black walnuts, and air pollution. But don’t plant this near the beach, as Fringetree won’t tolerate salt spray.
Clouds of fleecy white, softly fragrant, thread-like blooms give this the humorous common name of ‘Old Man’s Beard’. Wafting like a lacy cloud in a breeze, the blooms appear in late spring, when the Dogwoods are finished, so they don’t compete with other spring-blooming trees.
Native to the Eastern US, it will grow from Canada down to the Gulf Coast, appearing in the wild in rich moist woods and hillsides, stream banks, and rocky ledges. As a landscape designer, my most commonly requested spring flowering tree for landscapes are Dogwoods and Cherries. Fringetree is tougher than the temperamental Dogwood and longer-lived than a Cherry, but since people don’t know about it, it is not requested. I have been suggesting this more and more for small to medium properties. Moderately resistant to deer browsing, I would still fence the tree while young and tender if deer browsing is a problem.
There are female and male Fringetrees and the males have slightly showier flowers, but the female plants produce clusters of 1/2 inch to 2/3 inch long wonderful blue-black, olive-like fruit (drupes) that mature in late summer and early fall. While not edible to humans, these fruits are attractive to birds. Plus, the tree attracts many pollinators, including bats. It is also the larval host plant for several species of sphinx moths. Unfortunately, at a nursery, you can’t tell if you are buying a female or male tree unless you are buying it in the fall and it is actively bearing fruit.
Usually multi-trunked and with a rounded shape, this small tree can fit into tight spots, preferably with a dark background so the blooms contrast for a good show. Sometimes you can find a single-trunked specimen that would have a narrower silhouette. The glossy leaves start to appear when the blooms have finished and are dropping to the ground like snow.
A great woodland tree, Fringetree can be grown in partial or full sun. Spectacular grown in groups or as specimens in lawns, Fringetrees would also be at home in native plant gardens and shrub borders. No serious insect or disease problems make this a no-brainer for gardeners to try.
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Claire is a horticulturalist and landscape design consultant. Owner of Claire Jones Landscapes, LLC, Claire’s designed gardens have been featured in print publications like WSJ and Style Magazine. A garden writer at The Garden Diaries, Claire maintains 3 honeybee hives and gardens at her home in Maryland.