The Plant Native

Fringe Tree

Highlights

It’s hard to believe this is magical, out-of-this-world plant is a natural, native tree. Fringe Trees bloom with white, long-petaled, ethereal flowers in the spring which also smell lovely. After they bloom, their green leaves offer shade until the fall. These are smaller trees, topping out at around 30 feet tall. Almost half of America can plant a Fringe Tree. They are found as north as New York, as south as central Florida, and as west as Texas. Plant in a place to be admired.

Full Sun – Part Shade
Up to 30′ tall
Flowers in the spring
Chionanthus virginicus
A Fringe Tree looks ethereal (and smells amazing) when in bloom

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native Fringe Trees

Table of Contents

The Fringe Tree is a stop-you-in-your-tracks flowering native tree. Fringe Trees have been used in landscaping since America’s early days—it is said George Washington planted them at Mount Vernon. 

Fringe Trees have many funny, common names

Common names for plants are the names generations before us created. Common names for Fringe Trees are hilarious in their range and playfulness and include flowering ash, old-man’s-beard, granddaddy graybeard, and grancy gray-beard.

On The Plant Native, we’ll stick to Fringe Tree (although it is very tempting to go with ‘Grancy Graybeard!’)

If you’re feeling a little confused, you’re not alone. All these different common names are part of the reason Latin naming was invited. While there can be many common names, there is only one Latin name for a plant.

Fringe Trees’ Latin name is Chionanthus virginicus. Interestingly, even its Latin name has whimsy: ‘Chionanthus‘ means “snow flower” in Greek.

Where should you plant a Fringe Tree?

Fringe Trees are perfect for front yards and statement trees: they won’t get too tall, and they offer four seasons of beauty (see below for more!) According to Uli Lorimer, Executive Director of the Native Plant Trust, Fringe Trees are “perfect for smaller gardens, courtyards, or foundational plantings.”

A Fringe Tree at the North Carolina Arboretum; Photo by F. D. Richards

What do Fringe Trees look like throughout the seasons?

Fringe Trees change throughout the seasons, but always look amazing. Their show-stopping looks make them highly prized for front yard statement trees in particular. Here’s how the Fringe Tree changes throughout the seasons:

Spring

In spring, the tree bursts with a profusion of delicate, snow-white blossoms that gracefully drape its branches. The flowers have a sweet floral smell that attracts pollinators.

Image by F. D. Richards

Summer

In the summer the tree is covered in glossy green leaves, providing shade and homes for songbirds as the tree gets taller. 

Late summer / fall

In the late summer, if you plant two Fringe Trees (one male and one female) a magical thing happens: the flowers turn into tiny plum-like fruits. (Only the female tree fruits.)

The tree again invites friends to party—this time the birds. 75 different species of birds eat Fringe Tree fruit, including thrashers, bluebirds, vireos, and finches.

How to grow Fringe Trees

Fringe Trees love the sun—the sunnier the spot, the better the fringe-y bloom. Fringe Trees also like soil that has consistent moisture. In nature, they are often found in wet areas. In our yards, they are happy in moist areas.

Native Fringe Trees can get tall: up to 30 feet! However, Fringe Trees are slow growers: 6-10 inches of growth a year is their standard.

The University of Maryland has a great 3-minute overview of the Fringe Tree in bloom, hosted by an energetic master gardener:

Where are Fringe Trees native?

Fringe Trees’ range extends from southern parts of the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and South. They are found from Pennsylvania south to central Florida and westward through the Gulf States to Texas and to northern Arkansas (USDA.)

Cultivars and one non-native to be careful of

A cultivar is a plant that has been curated or edited by humans to look or behave a certain way (here is a quick cultivar overview.) Whenever possible, try to plant true native species.

There are several Fringe Tree cultivars that have been cultivated to be shorter, have different colored flowers, or withstand drought better than the native species. These cultivars include:

  • Fringe Tree ‘Emerald Knight’: This cultivar completely covers itself in flowers, followed by glossy dark green leaves—and it does not fruit. A good choice if you’re worried about fruit issues.

  • Fringe Tree ‘Prodigy’: Is a shorter cultivar (10′-15′ tree) with lots of fringey blossoms. Perfect for smaller spaces.

  • Fringe Tree ‘Spring Fleecing’: This cultivar also doesn’t make fruit, but still delivers lots of flowers and a light fragrance. It’s leaves are a little brighter green than ‘Emerald Knight.’

Do NOT plant a Chinese Fringe Tree

Be careful NOT to buy a non-native Chinese Fringe Tree (Chionanthus retusus). Non-native plants are plants that are native to other places on the globe—in this case, Asia. Non-native plants do not offer the nutrution for wildlife or resilience for the soil and weather that native plants provide

Where can you find or buy a native Fringe Tree?

Finding specific native plants can be challenging, especially at conventional nurseries or big box stores. Here are four ideas for finding a Fringe Tree for your yard:

Fringe Tree

Where can I find seeds and plants?

Finding native plants can be challenging (we partly blame Marie Antoinette.) To make it easier, we’ve assembled four sourcing ideas.

Native Plant Nurseries

Our list of native nurseries makes finding one a breeze

Online Communities

Local Facebook groups are a great plant source

What are good Fringe Tree pairings?

Why not plant a whole native shrub and tree garden party to accompany this stunning tree? We recommend the following pairings:

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Cucumber Magnolia

redbud-tree-in-bloom-native-tree

Redbud

rosebay-rhododendron-native-shrub-flowering

Rhododendron

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Southern Magnolia

A white Sweetbay Magnolia flower blooming, photographed growing on a branch of the Sweetbay Magnolia tree.

Sweetbay Magnolia

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Sweetshrub

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Tulip Poplar

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Winterberry

In conclusion, Fringe Trees are a stunning native tree that looks fantastic in high-profile places as a statement tree. While they might be slow growers, they will return year after year, and depending on how many you plant, may also provide food for songbirds. You might want to see if you can add a nametag to your garden when you plant one because people will definitely stop and ask for the name of this plant! (Maybe try telling introducing it as ‘Grancy Graybeard?! 🙂 

UPDATED —
04/12/2024
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