Fringetree – Native Tree That Nobody Grows

Are you looking for a small beautiful spring flowering tree to plant this spring with great fall color and beautiful blue black fruit? Look no further than the native Fringetree.

Fringetree, Chionanthus virginicus, is rarely planted in a home landscape. Seen mostly at arboretums and botanical gardens, their staff know a good thing when they see it, and include it frequently in plantings. But unless you see it in full bloom, in the spring, you would probably ignore it completely, so that is the reason people don’t plant it more widely.

Closeup of the flower
Young Fringetree in the landscape

According to Dirr’s  Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, a resource bible for horticulturalists, he says “I would like to make the case for this as the national shrub for even dogwood does not carry itself with such refinement, dignity, and class when in flower”. And also “The British consider this one of the finest American plants introduced into their gardens”.

If you have a site in full sun to partial shade for a tree that won’t grow over 20′ tall and 10-15′ wide, try this no-maintenance small tree for spectacular flowering in the spring and wonderful yellow fall color. Rarely needing to be pruned, Fringetree tolerates a wide variety of soils, and conditions, but not salt spray, so don’t plant this near the beach.

Native to the Eastern U.S. , it will grow from Canada down to the Gulf Coast. My most commonly requested spring flowering tree for landscapes are Dogwoods and Cherries. Fringetree is tougher than the temperamental Dogwood and longer lived than a Cherry, but since people don’t know about it, it is not requested. I have been suggesting this more and more for small to medium properties. Moderately resistant to deer browsing, I would still fence the tree while young and tender if deer browsing is a problem.

Fence young trees; this is a Dogwood

Clouds of fleecy white softly fragrant thread like blooms give this the humorous common name of ‘Old Man’s Beard’. Wafting like a lacy cloud in a breeze, the blooms appear in late spring, when the Dogwoods are finished, so they don’t compete with other spring blooming trees.

The flowers are delicate and profuse

Usually multi-trunked and with a rounded shape, this small tree can fit into small spots, preferably with a dark background so the blooms contrast for a good show. The glossy leaves start to appear when the blooms have finished and are dropping to the ground like snow. A great woodland tree, it can also be used in a border as a specimen tree.

One named cultivar, called ‘Tokyo Tower’ is much narrower in silhouette and can be used quite close to a building. Flowering profusely, the yellow fall color is also notable against a house.

Tokyo Tower Fringetree fits in the landscape around a house quite nicely

There are female and male Fringetrees and the males have slightly showier flowers, but the female plants produce clusters of 1/2 inch to 2/3 inch long wonderful blue black , olive-like fruit (drupes)  that mature in late summer and early fall. While not edible to humans, these fruits are attractive to birds. Plus it attracts many pollinators, including bats. It is the larval host plant for several species of sphinx moths. Unfortunately, at a nursery, you can’t tell if you are buying a female or male tree, unless you are buying it in the fall and it is actively bearing fruit.

Fruit of the Fringetree

For more information on this interesting native, go to North Carolina Extension -Fringetree.

Available on line and at good local nurseries, Broken Arrow in Connecticut carries several names varieties called ‘Dirr’, ‘White Knight’, ‘Spring Fleecing’, and ‘Emerald Knight’. Also, native plants sales locally should carry Fringetrees.

19 Replies to “Fringetree – Native Tree That Nobody Grows”

  1. Long ago my neighbor had a beautiful and extremely fragrant Fringe tree that I looked forward to each year to see the flowers and wonderful fragrance. It is one of a kind and not many grow them here. Thanks for this special feature.

  2. Hi ClaIre I love fringe trees! First time I saw one at a park, I fell in love with its fragrance. Planted one in my yard, and when we moved, planted one at our new house. Unfortunately this one doesn’t have the fragrance that my old one had.

    Hope you’re doing well!


    1. I am doing fine considering our pandemic problem! The trees are very variable and you just can’t count on them being identical. Be safe and healthy!!

  3. Hi! The flower colors on the fringe tree were not mentioned in this article. I have a deep pinkish-red flower color on my fringe tree. Is this a native tree to the East Coast also? I bought it thinking it was.

    1. they are creamy white. I have heard about some pink ones, but it has not been confirmed anywhere. Do you have a picture?

      1. Thank you for your quick response. I will be happy to send a picture as soon as it blooms in May or June.

  4. I am helping restore an old garden in northern California and there is a Fringe tree without a central trunk. Can I prune it way back and treat it as a shrub? If so when would I do that. It did bloom, but is struggling.

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