Like a fleecy cloud settled on a mountain top, the flowers of Fringe trees create a marvelous, soft haze of creamy white bloom suspended on their branches. The display is very dramatic, somewhat reminiscent of a white spring version of the purple haze of Smokebush. The best known Fringe tree is the native American Fringetree, Chionanthus virginicus, which is indigenous to most of the southeastern United States. It can generally be found along the banks of streams and ponds or in other areas with moist, rich soil, although it has been reported in other types of soils as well. There is also a lesser known second native Fringe tree, Chionanthus pygmaeus, the Dwarf Fringe tree, which is a more diminutive, slower growing form of Fringe tree. It is only found occurring on the sandy soils of Florida and is listed as an endangered species. Our native Fringe trees are not the only type of Fringe tree available to gardeners. The Chinese Fringe tree, Chionanthus retusus, was introduced to this country in the 1800's. A native of China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, it is similar to American Fringe tree but has special qualities of its own. All the Fringe trees were named by Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist responsible for our system of technical botanical names, who named them Chionanthus, from the Greek for 'snowflower' (chion=snow and anthus=flower).
The American and Chinese Fringe trees both make wonderful landscape plants. They are small deciduous trees, or sometimes multi-stemmed large shrubs. The American Fringe tree will generally reach 15 - 20 feet in the landscape but can get to 35 feet with age. It has a somewhat open and gangling branching habit with an overall broadly-oval shape. In the spring, many-flowered panicles of small blooms with creamy white, strap-like petals drape the branches before the leaves emerge. Each flower alone is not dramatic, but together, they create the striking cloud of flowers that is so fantastic and unique. The fruits that follow can be very beautiful. They are bluish and look like tiny plums which shrivel somewhat late in the season. Fringe trees have male and female flowers on separate plants (as do Hollies) so a female plant (with males in the vicinity) is needed to have fruits. Usually though, the male trees have more profuse flowering displays because there tend to be more flowers per plant. The foliage of American Fringe tree is an attractive glossy green and begins to come out as the flowers have matured. Fall color is yellow but is not especially dramatic. The American Fringe tree's bark is an attractive light gray which becomes ridged as the plant matures.
The Chinese Fringe tree also blooms in the spring, a bit later than the American Fringe tree. It tends to have smaller, more compact flower clusters and hold them a bit more upright on the branches. The bloom color is closer to a clear white and gives a more opaque effect to the flowering display. The foliage of Chinese Fringe tree is smaller and more leathery and shiny than the American Fringe tree. Chinese Fringe tree has the potential to reach 40 feet but is usually seen in the range of 15 to 25 feet in height with a broad spreading habit and more regular branching than its American cousin. In general, Chinese Fringe tree gives a neater, more orderly and compact appearance, both in flower and throughout the season. The bark of Chinese Fringe tree begins to peel in an interesting manner as the plant matures. Chinese Fringe tree also bears male and female flowers on separate plants and produces showy dark blue fruit on the females.
The American and Chinese Fringe trees are easy, stress tolerant trees for sunny sites. They have no disease or pest problems and will thrive in most landscape settings. Both Fringe trees are hardy throughout the southeast and into the northeast as well. They are grown from seed but they both have double dormancy requirements which means the seed needs to be put through several different treatments before it will germinate (in nature, the seed has two "rest-periods" usually requiring two years). There is great variability in the performance and appearance of individual trees available for sale since plants have been grown from seed.
There are no named cultivars of Fringe trees because vegetative propagation is practically impossible. Chinese Fringe tree can be propagated with difficulty from rooted cuttings but American Fringe tree cannot be propagated from cuttings at all. They are sometimes grafted onto Ash tree rootstock but the resulting plants are not very vigorous. Nonetheless, these plants are available from specialty nurseries and the American Fringe tree in particular is becoming easier to find as more nurseries expand their offerings in native plant materials.
Fringe trees offer a special kind of quiet drama to the garden that is completely unique. The Chinese Fringe tree in full bloom was described as looking "as if white muslin cloth had been thrown over its head" by the famous plant explorer Frank Meyer in 1915. Fleecy, snowy, billowy, and beautiful are all
descriptions that fit the Fringe trees. In the Southall Garden at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), the Chinese and American Fringe trees stand side by side and offer a rare opportunity to Fringe tree lovers to closely compare their spectacular shows. Plant a Fringe tree, either native or exotic, to bring clouds of loveliness to any spring landscape.