Notable American horticulturist Michael Dirr regards fringe tree (Chionanthus spp.) as one of the most beautiful small trees for temperate climate gardens. For good reason, too, as it is easy to grow, disease-free, and bears fluffy white flowers in spring, blue berries by late summer and yellow autumn foliage. Two species are discussed when "fringe tree" is mentioned: the Chinese fringe tree and the white fringe tree.
Members of the olive family, Oleaceae, fringe trees are part of a botanical grouping, or genus, called Chionanthus. Two species grow in gardens commonly: the Chinese fringe tree (Chionanthus retusus), and the American fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). Other common names for the American fringe tree include the white fringe tree, common fringe tree, old man's beard and granddaddy graybeard.
The Chinese fringe tree is native to China, Korea and Japan in mixed forests and thickets relatively close to lakes and streams. The American fringe tree is native to the eastern United States, from New Jersey southward to both Texas and Florida. Its habitat is also varied, but commonly in moist woodlands and thicket or bluffs.
Chinese fringe tree grows 15 to 25 feet tall and broad. Its oval leaves are medium green and glossy, turning yellow or persisting late into autumn before dropping. In spring, new stems and leaves emerge from the branches and by late spring bear white, lightly fragrant blossoms that are star-like but with thin petals. The flower clusters cover the entire tree, looking like tufts of fleece. Female flowers, when pollinated by bees, form small, pea-sized berries that are blue-black. The tree's bark is corky and attractive with furrows of dark brown and light gray.
American fringe tree grows 12 to 20 feet tall and wide. It also has oval leaves, but range in color from medium to dark green and have varying degrees of glossiness. In spring, thin-petaled white flowers appear on the bare twigs just before or as the first leaves emerge. After pollination, female flowers become small, blue-black berries. The tree's bark is smooth.
Both species are dioecious, meaning a tree is either male or female in gender, as determined by the sex of the flowers. Only female trees produce fruits, but the flower petals on male trees generally are larger and more showy.
Grow both species of fringe tree in either full sun locations to light shade, receiving between 4 to 10 hours of sunlight daily. Both are tolerant of a wide array of soils, adaptable to acidic and alkaline soils (pH range of 4.5 to 8.0) and to sand, loam or clay. Although slightly drought tolerant, a moist, slightly acidic or neutral soil (pH 6.0 to 7.0) that has good drainage is best.
Chinese fringe tree is best grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 through 8. American fringe tree is appropriate to grow in Zones 4 through 9.
Both fringe trees are used as singular specimen trees in gardens or lawns or as a tall accent plant in a mixed border. They may also be used in the open pockets of woodland gardens. The fruits attract songbirds.