The flowers of this multi-stemmed, deciduous shrub or single-trunked small tree have made this one of North America’s most outstanding ornamental natives. In early summer, cloudy masses of fragrant, ribbon-like, white flowers emerge around the same time as yellow-green foliage – a truly stunning contrast. Male shrubs have larger blooms, while females produce blue-black fruits that attract scores of birds. Both male and female plants are needed for fruiting. Typical growth is around 15 feet tall and wide, although if well-sited, it can reach 30 feet. While it thrives in moister soils that are slightly acidic and rich in nutrients, it adapts well to sandy and clay soils. If sited in a dry spot, it may need additional water during drought conditions, and it appreciates some protection from the wind. Fringe tree blooms best in full sun, but it grows just fine in part sun, developing a more open and rounded crown than the dense, oval-shaped crown that full sun tends to produce. The glossy leaves appear later than the leaves of most trees and, in northern climates, turn yellow in fall. It’s a great tree for urban areas because it tolerates pollution. Its disease issues tend to be mild, and it rarely needs pruning.
The flowers of fringe tree have inspired a number of common names, such as old man’s beard, grandfather graybeard, grancy graybeard, snowflower tree, and flowering ash (it’s in the same family as ash tree). The genus name, Chionanthus, means “snow” and “flower.” The tree is native to the eastern coast, from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Currently, it’s on the list of potentially threatened plants in Ohio.
The American fringe tree is just as striking as the Chinese fringe tree, which is commonly used in landscaping, and our native tree is much better for wildlife. It hosts 12 species of Lepidoptera larvae, and birds absolutely love the fleshy drupes, which helps the trees reproduce.
Native habitats include damp woods, thickets, bluffs, and banks of streams. It is lovely in woodland gardens, massed, in borders, as a specimen plant, under utility lines, or near large buildings.
Grows 12-30’ tall and wide.
Site in full or part sun.
Prefers acidic, moist, nutrient-rich soils. Adapts to clay, sand, and loam.
Fragrant, feathery flowers appear in 6-8” drooping panicles late May to early June. The white to greenish-white flowers are composed of 4-6 narrow petals 1” long by 1/16” wide. Drupes are egg shaped, ½-1” long with thin layer of flesh surrounding a large stone, or seed.
Deciduous leaves are elliptical to ovate and 4-8” long with smooth margins that are sometimes folded downward and inward.
Trunks are short and branches are irregular and crooked. Mature bark is slightly scaly, warty, and gray. The branching root system is fairly shallow.
Fringe tree is a host plant to moths of the sphinx moth family, including the laurel sphinx, as well as fringetree sallow, fall webworm, and inkblot palpita moths. Cuckoo and other native bees are essential pollinators. Berries are attractive to birds such as cardinals, bluebirds, thrashers, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, and wild turkeys. Twigs and foliage are browsed by many animals, including deer.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
The dried root and bark are used to treat liver and gallbladder disorders, including gallstones.
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