March 19 marked the first day of spring, and all around us we see the signs of new life in our landscapes.
This time of year, the fringe tree puts on a show of snowy white blooms.
There are two species of fringe trees — the American fringe tree and Chinese fringe tree — that can be found throughout the South and northeastern United States.
Fringe trees produce clusters of white flowers spread all along their branches. The flowers are long and narrow, with green to white petals. The narrow-hanging petals give the flowers a fringe or beardlike appearance, hence the common name of grancy (meaning grandpa) greybeard or old man’s beard.
The American fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) is a native of North America from Canada way. It thrives in full sun to partial shade and can be found growing in the wild on the edge of forests, flourishing in extremely wet river bottoms or in upland areas that are favorable to longleaf pine trees.
The foliage of the American fringe tree is glossy green and begins to come out as the flowers have matured. Fall foliage color is bright yellow, providing a decent color change for the South. It can be used as a fall foliage focal point or spring-flowering specimen in the landscape.
The Chinese fringe tree (Chionanthus retusus) is a native of Asia, growing from Korea to Japan to China. But they also grow well in Louisiana.
Chinese fringe tree flowers are showier than our native species. In China, reportedly the young leaves of the tree are used as a tea substitute, and some are considered equal in fragrance to the best green teas.
Botanically, both species are deciduous shrubs. But if pruned properly when they are young, you can train them to one good trunk and encourage a tree form.
Chinese fringe trees grow in USDA hardiness zones 5 to 9 and reach a height and width of 10 to 20 feet. A slow-growing tree, it makes a fantastic specimen tree or foundation tree near your house.
Trees bloom in early spring from March to April in full sun to partial shade.
The flowers are showy and fragrant, with a lilaclike aroma, and the bees just love them. The foliage of Chinese fringe tree is smaller, shinier and more leathery than the American fringe tree. They display a good fall leaf color change.
Fringe trees are low-maintenance with medium watering requirements and few pest or disease problems. They also tolerate air pollution and adapt well to urban settings.
However, they are not very drought tolerant. They will thrive in most landscape settings, adapting to a wide variety of soils, including clay or sandy soils. They also like moist or wet soils and can be used in rain gardens or low-lying areas.
Fringe trees have male and female flowers on separate trees, with the male flowers being showier. Female flowers make clusters of olivelike fruits that ripen to a dark bluish-black in late summer or early fall and are a good food source for birds and wildlife.
The Chinese fringe tree has a neater, more compact appearance, both in terms of its flowers and the overall tree, than the American fringe tree. The bark of mature Chinese fringe trees peel in gorgeous layers.
The trees are available in some local nurseries. The American fringe tree may be easier to find in nurseries offering native plant selections.