by Ann Farnham, LLA
The White Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus) is a beautiful, deciduous tree sometimes known as Granny Gray-Beard or Old Man’s Beard. It is an enchanting sight in the Spring landscape.
Fringe Tree is dioecious, meaning that a tree is either male or female (it is not possible to know which until it first blooms, which is at 4 to 5 years old). The male tree has longer flower petals and thus is a little more eye catching. The flowers are pure white, lightly fragrant, in groups of four thin, drooping petals about ½ inch long, and they appear shortly before the leaves fully expand. The flowers, born on fleecy, cottony panicles 6 to 8“ long, appear in the spring. They grow on the previous year’s growth, so if the tree is pruned, one must be aware of that fact. The female tree bears dark blue, fleshy, egg-shaped berries about 1/3 the size of an olive in August and September; birds, which can strip the entire tree of berries overnight, relish the fruit.
This tree is a native species and ranges from Maine to Minnesota, to Florida and Texas. It is native in southern New Jersey and is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9. Ewing is USDA Zone 6B. The growth rate is slow, averaging 8 to 16 inches a year, but the plant will attain a height of 25-30 feet in the wild (where they can be found along stream beds and marshy areas) and 12-20 feet in the designed landscape. The habit is open and spreading.
The leaves are opposite on the stem, 3-8 inches long and half as wide. They are medium to dark green, shiny and smooth-edged. In the fall the leaves become yellowish-green to golden yellow. The bark is grey and smooth on young branches but becomes slightly ridged as the tree matures. The branches, after about 15 years, take on a more irregular shape and the large limbs arch down sometimes to reach the ground.
A Fringe Tree should be transplanted balled and burlapped or from a container. They like deep, moist, acid, and fertile soil and need full sun.
There are few serious pests and diseases which affect the Fringe Tree. There is occasional scale, borers and leaf spots, but it is reported to be tolerant of air pollution. It rarely needs to be pruned.
In the landscape Fringe Trees make beautiful specimens in groups or alone as a focal point. The British consider Chionanthus virginicus to be one of the finest introductions ever made to Great Britain from North America.