Close-up of fringetree flowers which have some fragrance to them. Photo: Mike Masiuk, Penn State
It is hard to place white fringetree in categories. No doubt it is a tree in its native habitat (New Jersey to Florida) as it can grow to a tree-like 30 feet.
When one thinks of shrubs with attractive fall color, Chionanthus virginicus is usually not at the top of the list. According to Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, leaf color is usually a “yellow-green-brown”. Not a ringing endorsement for colorful fall foliage. I have seen fringetrees in October that are an intense bright yellow while 10 feet away, another fringetree has that yellow-green-brown look. It might be a good research project on ways to select C. virginicus for fall color.
Fringetree’s most valuable asset is its spring floral display. For a few weeks in June, white fragrant flowers seem to drip from the emerging leaves. The flowers produce egg-shaped fruit that turns a dark blue toward the end of summer. While they are attractive, they are mostly hidden by the leaves. For those who enjoy providing a variety of foods for birds, this may be just one of many plants to add to a yard to encourage visitation. Be aware that fringetree is dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants (male tree will not produce the fruit).
Site selection is a bit critical compared to some of our other ornamental shrubs. Tight, clay soils should be avoided and optimal growth occurs in soils that are slightly acidic. Although C. virginicus can grow in shade, it will be leggy and produce few flowers. Select a sunny spot to obtain the good growth and plentiful flowers.
Flowers are very showy against the backdrop of green foliage. Note the height that fringetree can obtain in landscape setting. Photo: Mike Masiuk, Penn State
Chionanthus virginicus in full fall color. Photo: Tom Butzler, Penn State
Close-up of yellow fall color. Photo: Mike Masiuk, Penn State
Green, olive-shaped fruit will eventually turn a dark blue and attract birds. Photo: Mike Masiuk, Penn State