Fringe Tree

fringe tree chionanthus virginicusVirtues: Fragrant spring flowers are very showy. Grows as a small tree or large shrub, often with more than one trunk, with a size that recommends it for a small garden or tight space. Dark blue fall fruit (female trees only) attracts birds. (A male and a female tree are needed for fruit set.)

Common name: Fringe tree, old man’s beard

Botanical name: Chionanthus virginicus

fringe tree chionanthus virginicusFlowers: White flowers are held in drooping 4- to 8-inch-long clusters in late spring. Fragrant. Long, narrow petals inspire the common name fringe tree.

Foliage: Medium-green 3- to 8-inch-long leaves turn yellowish or brown in fall.

Habit: Deciduous multistemmed tree or large shrub, 12 to 20 feet tall with a similar crown width.

Season: Spring for flowers, summer for shade.

Origin: Native to the Eastern Seaboard from New York to Florida and west to Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

Cultivation: Grow in full or part sun. Adaptable, but likes moist, acidic soil with good drainage. USDA Zones 4–9.

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9 thoughts on “Fringe Tree

  1. Hey, I like the info you posted! I like Fringe trees a lot. I used to maintain one on a clients property for years. It always made me happy when I was done pruning it to a nice shape!

  2. I purchased a fringe tree not knowing there were male and female specimens. How do I know whether to purchase a male or female next? My tree doesn’t have fruit,but that coukd mean I have a female with no male(hense no fruit) or it could mean I already have a male specimen.

    • Hi Jeannette — unfortunately, all my references say it is difficult to visually differentiate between males and females (except of course that females will have berries if a male is nearby, which doesn’t help your question).
      Supposedly the male has showier flowers, with longer petals, so that may give you a hint. A female might have very sparse fruit set even without the presence of a male, but this is very iffy.
      All that said, these trees are usually propagated by seed, and the propagator doesn’t determine/label their sex before selling them. (As opposed to plants propagated by cuttings, which would be the same sex as the parent.) So I’m not sure you could easily buy a partner for your tree even if you guessed correctly “he” or “she.” To me, this seems the major drawback of this tree…perhaps the only one, though, which says a lot for it, and only a drawback if you are hoping to attract birds with its fruit.

      • Thanks Meghan, I’m one of those self-proclaimed “collector” of all things perrenial and have expanded to trees and shrubs. My goal is to find unusual or underused specimens and I concentrate on those that have more than one season of interest and/or will attract wildlife(birds in particular). Thank you so much for the valuable info…I think I’ll try to buy 2 more and make sure they are labeled (or in fruit) to increase my odds for success. This is indeed a very pretty tree or shrub and I have enough land to experiment so that is what I will do.Even if I don’t figure out the “gender”; I am happy with the qualities of this tree and would DEFINATELY reccommend it . Your input was much appreciated!

  3. You forgot to mention this plant is dioecious and may occsionally have complete flowers on a plant. That would be disappointing for someone who purchased only a male plant.

    • This is a superb small tree, although can be unwieldy growing due to its coarse branching, so it benefits from judicious pruning. While the tree is dioecious, and with most trees being the more showy male form, it is not strictly dioecious, and some flowers on a male tree will be female, thus some fruits can appear even on a male tree. The masses of white tassel flower puffs when in full bloom, are a special sight to be sure, and the fragrance is exceptional. The large deep green foliage seems resistant to disease and insects, and colors up a decent yellow in autumn. Some people criticize the Fringe Tree because it is so late to leaf out in spring, it can give the appearance of a dead tree in the spring landscape. Personally I like late-to-sprout trees because one can underplant with spring bulbs that need spring sunshine.

      • I have a fringe tree that is about 10 years old and is very wieldy and needing pruning. The older limbs fell over last year after snow/icy storms and have not come back up again. The tree also has 2 new smaller limbs coming up from the main trunk. Is is possible to remove 2 of the older limbs and pruning the others and letting the new limbs develop? Any suggestions? Thanks!

        • Hi Linda — thanks for stopping by and I hope I can help with your pruning question. I referred to a few extension publications and one of my very favorite books—Native Trees, Shrubs & Grasses by William Cullina. In his entry on fringe tree, Cullina explains that young (2-3 yr old) specimens can be pruned almost to the ground in winter to encourage several strong, straight new shoots to appear in spring, resulting in a tree with several trunks instead of a more shrublike plant. He writes older broken stems can be treated in the same way — pruned nearly to the ground. Although your tree is older, if I were you I would remove the downed limbs and any others that are detracting from or crowding the two new limbs you mention you would like to develop. Cut them at their point of origin, be it the ground or a parent trunk/limb.
          Keep in mind that in removing the limbs felled by snow/ice, you’re just completing nature’s method of pruning!

        • A compelling reason to practice judicious pruning of woody plants in climates that experience heavy snow or ice, is to promote strong weather-resistant trunks and branching. The only drawback of the wonderful native Fringe Tree, is its unweildy branching, which can lead to coarse open growth, prone to winter damage when snow or ice weight is added. Branches can grow 18-30″ without any apparent intermediate leaf nodes and sub-branching, leading to long meandering branches and an open wild looking tree.

          Contrary to what we believe about pruning, that we must only make cuts just above a leaf or bud node, I have experimented with drastically pruning stems somewhere between the distantly spaced leaf nodes. The results were fantastic, in most cases new intermediate leaf/stem nodes formed where none were present before, and shorter stronger branching increased dramatically. In the infamous New England ice storm of December 2008, my Fringe Tree suffered no damage, whereas some Magnolia trees nearby (which have similar unweildy long internode growth) were completely shattered to bits.

          My particular single-stem specimen of Chionanthus virginicus was also a challenge to get started initially. Each winter the 5′-6′ “whip” that I planted would get girdled at the base from rodent damage under the snow during winter months. In spring the tree would respond by sending up lots of new tree sprouts, one of which I’d leave to become the new single-trunk tree. This went on for several years, until finally one year the rodents didn’t kill off the sapling, and I finally got a strong main leader.

          After the ice storm of 2008, I pruned a number of trees and shrubs in the fall, to removed lanky growth and seed pods that might catch snow and ice, to reduce the possibility of winter storm tree damage. After drastically pruning my fringe tree in spring after flowering, it responded and is now stockier, with shorter thickened branches and better branching overall, resulting in a much stronger tree, one which is visually more appealing with its finer branching and more tame and compact shape.

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