American Fringe Tree Chionanthus virginicus has long been a favorite of mine for small space and urban gardens. It is a stunner in bloom – not much compares, and the summer and fall foliage is attractive enough to be worth incorporating it into a formal landscape design. I am happy to have seen this native tree used more in recent years and can now find it for sale in larger nurseries.
American Fringe Tree Chionanthus virginicus, also known as Grancy Greybeard or Old Man’s Beard, is a small deciduous tree or shrub native to the eastern United States (USDA Plant Profile) and hardy zones 3 to 9. Overall maintenance is low and it keeps to a small size of 12′ – 20′, making it a great pick for small space gardens or public areas.
From May to June delicate, white flowers appear before the leaves emerge. The tassel like blooms are numerous and hang in showy clusters covering the tree, giving it an airy, delicate look. American Fringe Tree has a long bloom period and will bring beauty to the late spring garden for weeks.
American Fringe Tree Chionanthus virginicus is dioecious with separate male and female plants, however an individual tree may have perfect flowers. Male trees are showier than female in bloom, yet I have cultivated both male and female specimens and find both to have ornamental merit. Oddly my female trees have never been happy growing in tree form but prefer to be shrubs while the males are happier as trees. I have also heard this from other people who grow both sexes.
Foliage emerges just after the blooms. They start the season with a bright green color which will eventually turn to a glossy, dark green with a thick, interesting texture and wide, pear shape. American Fringe Tree is late to wake in the spring and will be one of the last plants in a garden to leaf out. Foliage serves as a food source for Rustic sphinx Manduca rustica moth.
In late summer, fertilized perfect or female flowers will develop clusters of dark blue, almost metallic olive like fruits which are a food source for birds and other wildlife. The grape size fruit will not last long on the plant as the birds eat them as soon as they ripen, leaving no mess under a tree. Fall leaf color is a bright yellow that will stand out in the autumn garden.
American Fringe Tree Chionanthus virginicus is easily grown in in full sun to part shade average, medium, well-drained soil. It will tolerate clay soil and pollution. I have grown it as an understory tree in dappled shade in loamy woodland soil as well as in full sun in more clay based dirt. It has done well in both conditions but prefers a little relief from the hot afternoon sun of Georgia. American Fringe Tree may dry out between watering but will not tolerate prolonged dry spells. It preforms well in urban settings and has no serious insect or disease problems.
This is a wonderful, hardy tree for many landscape uses. It rarely needs pruning and may be formed into a single or multi trunk specimen or grown as a shrub without fuss. Plant it as a specimen tree, front yard tree, in a naturalized setting or mixed border. Versatile, attractive, low maintenance and hardy. What more could you ask for?
American Fringe Tree Chionanthus virginicus is a native plant alternative to Callery pear/Bradford pear Pyrus calleryana, Princess tree Paulownia tomentosa, Autumn olive, Silverthorn, or Russian olive Elaeagnus umbellata.
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