In early spring, just as the dogwood blossoms begin to fade, the delightful, fragrant flowers of the fringe tree burst into bloom. Want to know more? You’ll find all the fringe tree information you need in this article.
Native to the southeastern U.S., Chionanthus virginicus can grow anywhere in the country except for the southernmost tip of Florida. Its botanical name means snow flower and refers to the tree’s large clusters of snow white flowers.
There is also a Chinese fringe tree, C. retusus, which is very similar to the native species but has smaller flower clusters. It hasn’t yet proven itself to be invasive, but as with all imported species, there is always a chance that problems may arise.
There are male and female trees, and you’ll need one of each if you want to have a crop of berries that are coveted by wildlife. If you only want one tree, choose a male for its larger, showier flowers. The tree is deciduous, and the leaves turn yellow in autumn.
Although you may find fringe trees growing naturally in moist woods and on streambanks and hillsides, you probably won’t be able to bring one home to plant in your garden, as they don’t transplant well.
Fringe trees grow only 10 to 20 feet (3-6 m.) tall, so they fit in almost any garden. Use them in groupings, in shrub borders, or as specimens. They look spectacular when in bloom, and the large white flowers are followed by hanging blue or purple berries that bring birds and other wildlife to the garden. In summer you’ll enjoy a neat, oval-shaped canopy of dark green leaves. The fruit and flowers don’t leave behind a mess to clean up, making fringe tree care simple.
You don’t have to worry about planting a fringe tree under power lines. Their short stature means they won’t interfere with the lines. The trees tolerate urban conditions, including air pollution, but they won’t tolerate street salts or dry, compacted soil.
The branches are strong and withstand all kinds of wind and weather, but the flowers are more delicate, and if you want them to last, plant the tree in a sheltered location.
For best results, plant fringe trees in moist, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. As with most flowering trees, more sun means more flowers.
Dig the planting hole as deep as the root ball and two to three times as wide. After you place the tree in the hole, backfill with the soil you removed from the hole without additives or enhancements.
Water thoroughly when the hole is half full of soil and again when it is completely full, tamping down to remove air pockets.
The tree won’t withstand prolonged drought. Water before the soil around the roots has a chance to dry completely at root depth.
Unless the soil fertility is naturally moderate to high, fertilize annually with about an inch (2.5 cm.) of compost or use a complete and balanced fertilizer according to the label instructions.
The sturdy branches of a fringe tree seldom need pruning. The canopy develops a naturally tight, oval shape.
Steve Nix is a member of the Society of American Foresters and a former forest resources analyst for the state of Alabama.
Fringe Tree or Old Man's Beard is a beautiful, small tree when it is in full spring bloom. It can grow nearly anywhere in the continental United States and its white flower color kicks in just as the dogwood blooms are fading.
The upright oval to rounded form of fringe tree adds dark green color in summer, bright white flowers in spring. The pure white, slightly fragrant flowers hang in long, spectacular panicles which appear to cover the tree with cotton for two weeks.
Native white fringetrees remain small, maturing at 12 to 20 feet in height and 12 to 20 feet in width. Trees in the wild may be taller. Fringetrees naturally grow with multiple stems, but can be trained to single trunks. The typical form is spreading with an open crown, but plant habit can vary.
Chinese fringetree is somewhat taller than white fringetree, usually growing 15 to 25 feet tall. The habit is similar to white fringetree, with a rounded, spreading crown, but is usually less open.
Typical growth habit of Chinese fringetree.
Photo by Karen Russ, ©2009 HGIC, Clemson Extension
Chinese Fringetree flowers
Chinese Fringetree flowers
Chinese Fringetree in bloom
Chinese Fringetree in bloom
A strikingly beautiful small multi-stemmed tree when in bloom, with frothy upright panicles of very fine strap-like flowers in spring atop the foliage, also attractive berries in fall and interesting bark for winter value a wonderful landscape accent
Chinese Fringetree is clothed in stunning panicles of fragrant white flowers rising above the foliage in late spring. It has forest green foliage throughout the season. The glossy narrow leaves turn yellow in fall. It produces navy blue berries from early to late fall. The peeling gray bark adds an interesting dimension to the landscape.
Chinese Fringetree is a multi-stemmed deciduous tree with a more or less rounded form. Its relatively coarse texture can be used to stand it apart from other landscape plants with finer foliage.
This is a relatively low maintenance tree, and should only be pruned after flowering to avoid removing any of the current season's flowers. It has no significant negative characteristics.
Chinese Fringetree is recommended for the following landscape applications
Chinese Fringetree will grow to be about 20 feet tall at maturity, with a spread of 20 feet. It has a low canopy with a typical clearance of 2 feet from the ground, and is suitable for planting under power lines. It grows at a slow rate, and under ideal conditions can be expected to live for 70 years or more.
This tree does best in full sun to partial shade. It is an amazingly adaptable plant, tolerating both dry conditions and even some standing water. It is not particular as to soil pH, but grows best in rich soils. It is highly tolerant of urban pollution and will even thrive in inner city environments. This species is not originally from North America.
Loropetalum looks best when allowed to grow to its full size and naturally graceful shape, though it can also tolerate heavy pruning into formal hedging or topiaries. Since loropetalum blooms on old wood, wait until flowers are finished in spring before pruning. Trim out dead and diseased branches. Lightly shape as needed, or prune to desired size and shape.
Plant in rich, well-draining soil that is amended with compost or other organic matter. Loropetalum prefers acidic pH between 4.5 to 6.5. In alkaline soil with pH above 7.0, plants may develop chlorosis, a nutritional deficiency that causes yellowing of the leaves. Add aluminum sulfate to increase soil acidity.
Loropetalum needs little or no supplemental fertilizer once established. If desired, fertilize in spring with a slow-release all-purpose fertilizer, or one that is specially formulated for trees and shrubs. Apply according to package instructions. Mulch around the rootball with 2 to 3 inches of organic matter such as compost, straw, or aged wood chips to suppress weeds and retain moisture avoid covering the trunk and stems with the mulch.
Keep soil evenly moist, but not soggy. Loropetalum is somewhat drought-tolerant once established. Water more frequently during extreme heat or dry spells in summer.
When planted in optimal conditions and properly maintained, loropetalum exhibits few, if any problems. Possible diseases include mildew, anthracnose, root rot, or bacterial gall. There are no significant pest problems, but they can be susceptible to spider mites if kept too dry or in too much sun.
Like any garden adventurer, I occasionally grow odd plants from the fringe, but actually, I have gardened with the fringe for years. Let me explain. Many moons ago, on a whim, I bought a small fringe tree at the Farmers Market in Raleigh, and even after, I’ll admit, I haphazardly planted it in the first spot I found in my landscape. It has proven to be not only pretty, but also pretty dependable.
The fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) is a native woody that calls the eastern U.S. forests home, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by its toughness. More than just a survivor in the wild, it is also a survivor of the slop — fringe trees find river bottoms, lowlands and savannas much to their liking.
This indigenous pretty is deciduous and usually has a rounded shape formed by semi-open branches that eventually stretch 12 to 20 feet tall and about as wide. Fringe tree is also dioecious, with female plants producing small, olive-shaped, bluish drupes eagerly enjoyed by birds in the early fall.
Fringe tree is alternately called “old man’s beard,” and the reason for both names becomes pleasantly apparent in the spring. Just as new, vibrant green leaves begin to appear, large fluffs of white, spritely blooms form, enveloping the tree in a feathery, fragrant cloud. This show for the nose and eyes usually starts in mid to late April and lasts about two weeks.
The Chinese fringe tree (Chionanthus retusus) is another option that can occasionally be found locally. A similar-sized eastern Asia import, it tends to display smaller bloom clusters. Wait! Smaller bloom clusters? Sorry, that swings my preference needle to the shaggier “Made in America” fringe tree, but you decide for your garden.
In the woods, our native fringe tree is typically found in moist environments, but for cultivated landscapes, it will do well in just about any location if it is mulched and watered regularly. While this ornamental can be planted in partially shaded spots, its flower power will have more oomph in constant sun. And being rarely bothered by pollution, it makes an ideal addition to any city garden.
When its blooms fade away, fringe tree becomes a green glob for the rest of the growing season. Come autumn, however, the leaves brighten to a shimmering yellow, saluting seasonal change. Then, after a leafless winter rest, it will, once again, burst into its springtime bodacious spectacle of blooms, which for me, begins yet another fun year of fringe gardening!
April is the month when hellebores (Helleborus x hydridus) begin transitioning from flowering to forming seeds for future plants. Allowing the seeds to drop to the ground — or spreading them further from the momma plant — and then covering with a thin layer of compost is an easy way to increase the size of your hellebore bed — that is, as long as you remember Rule Number One: Don’t let freshly seeded areas dry out over the summer. Since these new hellebores come from seeds, the flowers of the offspring might not be exact copies of the parent plant, but I’ve found most of mine to still be pretty. Also, seedlings can take about two years to bloom, so don’t try to speed up the natural process by over-fertilizing them into flowering faster.
This is a good urban tree since it tolerates pollution.
Euphorbia, Weigelas, late tulips, forget-me-nots, pansies, foam flowers, sweet woodruff, bugloss, ajuga, moss phlox, phlox divaricata, bleeding hearts, and native columbines all bloom at a similar time.
Ajuga and scilla hispanica underneath would be especially delightful.
Hostas are always good tree companions, but especially in the fall when both would turn shades of clear yellow.
Consider a stand of Siberian or Dutch iris underneath, the contrast of foliage and flower shapes would be interesting and beautiful.
Birds love the berries, and the tree serves as larval host and nectar for the sphinx moth,(Manduca rustica).
It’s common name is “Old Man’s Beard” which it shares with the autumn clematis.
You might also be interested in the profile for the Redbud tree, another fine ornamental flowering tree of smaller size
The Fringe tree is a top choice as a small landscape tree. This is mine in full bloom.
These pages might also interest you:
Magnolia stellata, another ornamental tree of merit.
Autumn Clematis, which is fragrant and blooms late in the season.