The fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), sometimes called granddaddy graybeard in the American South, develops into a small tree about 12 to 20 feet tall and wide. Its springtime white fleecy flowers appear on last year's twig growth, and small blue-black fruits develop by early autumn in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 9. Other small trees with white flowers can substitute for the fringe tree in gardens but look similar only from a distance.
Chinese Fringe Tree
This native of China is closely related and similar to the American fringe tree in all aspects but grows a bit larger at 15 to 25 feet tall and wide. The petals of the flowers are slightly wider, making the fleecy or fringe-like floral display in spring more intense and opaque. To distinguish the Chinese species (Chionanthus retusus), look for flowers that occur on the tips of the new leafy growth stems, not arising from the brown twigs. Extremely adaptable to soil types and sun exposure, it is considered easy to grow. Only female-gendered trees produce the blue-black fruits. Enjoy this deciduous tree in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 through 8.
When the drooping horizontal branches of the sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) display slender clusters of finger-like flowers in midsummer, you'll be entranced. Up close the clusters are populated by hundreds of tiny urn-like blooms that attract honeybees. The dry seed capsules linger and contrast with the rich red or maroon fall foliage color. This American native tree, growing 25 to 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide, makes a sound choice for infertile acidic soils in all but heavy shade locations. Grow it in USDA Zones 5 through 9.
Two species of snowbell trees both mature to a 20- to 30-foot size and bear white bell-like flowers in late spring. Best grown in moist, acidic soils rich in organic matter across USDA Hardiness Zones 5 though 8, the Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonicus) produces five-petaled white flowers in clusters of three to six on tiny side shoots on the lower side of leafy branches, while the fragrant snowbell (Styrax obassia) bears its white flowers in long, finger-like clusters. While both trees' blooms are fragrant, they produce tremendous numbers of seeds that readily sprout under the mother tree. Visually, snowbells' flowers look prettiest when viewed from below the branches when you walk under the trees. In warmer regions in USDA Zones 7 through 9, also look for the bigleaf grandifolius (Styrax grandifolius).
Also called lily of the valley tree, the evergreen clethra (Clethra arborea) produces long-lasting displays of white bell-like flowers from branch tips from summer to fall. It grows 10 to 20 feet high and prospers only in mild winter regions like USDA Zones 9 through 11. In colder regions, the Japanese clethra (Clethra barinervis) boasts colorful bark and drooping white flower clusters in midsummer. Appreciating a shade spot in a moist to wet acidic soil, this species grows in USDA Zones 5 through 7.