Dr. Peter Gallagher is a professor of plant and environmental science at Louisiana Tech University. He gardens in Ruston, Louisiana.

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White Fringe Tree
by Peter Gallagher       #Plant Profile   #Trees

White fringe tree also answers to the names grancy graybeard and old man’s beard. It is a member of the Oleaceae (olive) family, along with forsythia, ash (Fraxinus), olive (Olea) and lilac (Syringa). This fine specimen makes a great understory tree or large upright shrub, reaching a height and spread of 20 to 25 feet. It is found in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 9. As a matter of recognition, Dr. Michael Dirr suggests that the fringe tree would make an excellent candidate for designation as a national shrub or understory tree, carrying itself with “such refinement, dignity and class when in flower.”

A mature specimen of Chionanthus virginicus in full bloom, this tree measures approximately 20 feet in
height and spread. Cloud-like masses of flowers give this tree a smoke-like appearance when in bloom. 1

Although the fringe tree will actually tolerate quite a range of soils and exposure, its preference is a fertile, moist, well-drained, organic, acid soil with at least a bit of shelter from intense summer sun. As a species, I associate Chionanthus virginicus with such natural companions as flowering dogwood, native azalea and redbud. It is very much at home at the edge of a wooded area or in the filtered shade of large canopy trees such as pine and oak. Multi-stemmed specimens are commonly grown, but it can also be used as a single-trunk tree form. I prefer it being used in small clusters or groups of plants in a wooded setting.

Chionanthus is dioecious, with plants bearing predominately either male or female flowers. The male flowers are somewhat showier, but the female produces clusters of deep blue fruit (drupes) in August and September. A few male cultivars have been selected for superior flowering and sturdy deep green foliage. Notable cultivars include ‘Emerald Knight’, Prodigy and ‘Spring Fleecing’. These cultivars are not offered in all areas, however. With that, I would highly recommend the species for most any landscape!

Common Name: White fringe tree, grancy graybeard, old man’s beard

Botanical Name: Chionanthus virginicus

Family: Oleaceae

Zone: 3 to 9

Color: Masses of white flowers with linear, almost thread-like petals. Flowers from April to May. Fruit (only found on female trees) is a dark blue grape-like drupe, ripening in August to September.

Type: Deciduous small tree

Size: Can reach a height of 25 feet with a spread of 15 to 20 feet.

Exposure: Full sun to partial shade; seems to perform well and looks at home near the forest edge. Considered an understory tree.

When to Plant: Container-grown trees can be put in almost any time of the year, but fall or winter planting will allow for better transplant success.

How to Plant: Place on a well-drained site, no deeper than the tree was growing in the container. Loosen the soil beyond the bounds of the root ball to encourage better establishment in the landscape. Water well and provide an inch or two of organic mulch.

Soil: A loose, well-drained organic or sandy-loam soil would work well. A fresh layer of mulch is helpful to maintain optimum moisture levels. Chionanthus virginicus is really adaptable to most soil conditions, once established.

Watering: Irrigation is advised during the first year or two of establishment, but this tree is relatively drought tolerant thereafter. Obviously, some water should be applied during periods of extended drought.

When to Fertilize: A balanced slow-release fertilizer could be applied in early spring. Alternatively, a general purpose fertilizer, such as 8-8-8, could be used with a fresh coat of organic mulch. This plant doesn’t really need a lot of fertilizer after the first few years in the landscape.

Buying Tips: You can often find this in well-stocked garden centers, but you may need to put in a special request to be sure that it will be available.

Individual flowers are only about 1/16 inches wide by 1 inch long, but the finely divided
panicles (inflorescence) can reach 10 inches in length and width. 1



Photo Credits:
1. Photos courtesy of Peter Gallagher.
2. Photo CC BY SA 2.0 Ryan Somma


Posted: 01/18/11   RSS | Print


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