Fringetree is one of the last deciduous trees to bear leaves in the spring. It grows as a shrub or as a small tree with a short trunk. As a shrub it has a narrow rounded crown. It grows to a height of 20 feet and usually no more than 6 inches in diameter.
Bark is brown to dark brown, furrowed with reddish tinged scales.
The twigs are stout, light green to ash-gray, smooth to downy when young, a bit angled, with a few warty lenticels, and purplish at the nodes. Buds are light brown.
Leaves are opposite, up to 8 inches long, smooth margins, narrowly elliptical in shape and slightly thickened. The upper surface is a dark shiny green while the underside is a paler color with some fine downy hair along the veins. Leaves have purplish leaf stalks. Fall color is yellow.
Flowers: The tree is usually dioecious, that is the male and female flowers are on different plants, but some specimens may have perfect flowers. Individual flowers are about 1 inch long with a white corolla that has 4 narrow and linear lobes, widely spreading, with purple dots at the base. The calyx is small and green. These are grouped in hanging clusters from a long cluster stalk - giving the appearance of a white 'Old-man's-beard.' Flowers are fragrant, appearing with and just behind the new leaves in late spring on the previous years twigs.
Seed: Fertile flowers produce a 3/4 inch long elliptical shaped olive-like drupe, dark blue to blackish at maturity, on a long stalk in drooping clusters like the flowers. The drupe has fleshy pulp surrounding a large stone seed and well-liked by birds.
Habitat: Fringe tree is found in moist sunny soils of valleys and open woodlands and as an understory shrub in partial shade. It is tolerant of air pollution but not to prolonged dry spells.
Names: The genus Chionanthus means having 'snow white flowers'. The species virginicus means 'of Virginia' referring to the State, named for the Virgin Queen of England, Elizabeth I. The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' is for Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. He had first named the species with the feminine version of Virginia - virginica, but later changed to the masculine virginicus.
Comparisons: When in flower it is doubtful this species will be confused with another except some of the tree lilacs, but in the lilacs, the white blooms are confined to a pyramidal panicle.
Above: Fringe Tree will take on a different shape based on growing conditions; 1st photo - growing as a small tree in an unobstructed sunny environment. 2nd photo - growing as a shrub in the understory as is this example in Eloise Butler.
Below: 1st photo - The flowers are grouped in hanging clusters from a long cluster stalk formed just behind the new leaves - giving the appearance of a white 'Old-man's-beard.' 2nd photo - Individual flowers are about 1 inch long with a white corolla that has 4 narrow and linear lobes, with purple dots at the base.
Below: 1st photo - Leaves are thick, dark green on top, smooth margins with purplish color on the stalk. 2nd photo - Twigs are smooth to downy when young, a bit angled, with a few warty lenticels, and purplish at the nodes.s
Below: Bark varies with age - 1st photo - a large older trunk where the surface has become scaly; 2nd photo -where the reddish tinged scaly areas are forming; 3rd photo - an older twig with the warty lenticels still visible.
Below: The fruit of the tree is a 3/4 inch long elliptical shaped olive-like drupe, dark blue to blackish at maturity, on a long stalk in drooping clusters like the flowers. The drupe has fleshy pulp surrounding a large stone seed and well-liked by birds.
Notes: Fringetree is not indigenous to the Garden. It was planted by Martha Crone in April 1955 when she received 4 plants from the Three Laurels Nursery in Marshall North Carolina. It is not native to Minnesota but to the south and east parts of the United States from Texas and Oklahoma east to the coast and up the Appalachians into New York and Massachusetts. The closest part of its native range is southern Missouri and southern Ohio. The tree however, grows well in more northern climates, particularly as a shrub with multiple trunks, such as the example in Eloise Butler, or as a short trunk tree in full sun, such as the examples at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
Uses: The wood is heavy and hard with close grain, but due to limited size, it is not used commercially.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"