Native trees are excellent choices for North Carolina landscapes since we know they have survived the stresses of our environment for hundreds of years. Most of us, however, usually want a tree to do more than just survive. We often look for trees that can fit into smaller spaces, have few disease and insect problems and offer a feature that gives them special interest. All of these criteria describe the fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus. This tree is native to North Carolina with a range from New Jersey to Florida and as far west as Arkansas and Texas. In the wild it grows along streambanks and wetlands.
The fringe tree is considered a large shrub or small tree that can grow to about 20 feet in height and width and maturity. The tree produces dark green glossy leaves in the spring, along with beautiful, slightly fragrant flowers that feature airy, drooping, four- to six-inch-long clusters of fringe-like, creamy white petals. These flowers give the tree its common name as well as other names such as old man’s beard. When in bloom, the entire tree looks like it is glowing due to the soft airy nature of the flowers. The flowers give way to clusters of olive-like fruits that ripen to a dark, bluish black in late summer and are a food source for birds and other wildlife.
The fringe tree grows easily in moist, fertile, well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade. It may be difficult to transplant specimens once established. It’s best to plant balled-and-burlapped or container-grown plants early in the spring in a well prepared site. The tree seldom needs pruning and is a beautiful specimen shrub. It also does well in groups, borders or near large buildings. Because it is tolerant of air pollution, it can thrive along streets and highways. The slow-growing nature of this tree results in strong, dense wood that is better able to withstand the bending stresses associated with wind and ice storms.
Chionanthus virginicus is an excellent choice for the urban landscape, the native garden, container planting or as a utilitarian tree under power lines.