top of page


I recommend Chionanthus virginicus (American fringetree). Before I divulge why, permit me to provide some background info. First, C. virginicus is one of three temperate deciduous species in a large genus (approx. 150 species). Most of the others are located in the tropics or subtropics and are evergreen -- some workers think these taxa should be split into a separate genus. Furthermore, American fringetree has several other common names like Grancy Greybeard or Old Man's Beard. Many of the names imply tree but it is not really a "tree" -- more shrublike (a shree, see addendum to my book). You will see a single trunked specimen only via pruning thus an acquired/manmade form, or the trunk will be very short, perhaps just inches in length. Moreover, while there are reports of specimens as tall as 30 feet, I have never seen a Chionanthus virginicus exceeding 20, and usually less (12-15). The plant has a shallow root system and does not mind being watered -- not surprising given its natural habitat preference, yet it is somewhat drought tolerant. Fringetree seems to be forbearing of some clay and prefers acidic soil. Specimens perform best in full sun to light shade but flower production in better with more light. Like magnolias, and even more than redbuds, fringetrees do not like to be transplanted. Chionanthus virginicus is native to the SE U.S., as far north and west as southern parts of Kentucky and Missouri, and is occasionally capable of naturalizing north of its native Zone 5, but fringetree definitely is not aggressive or invasive.

By the way, the USDA zonation map is a defective tool. It is an attempt at an easy solution to a complexity of related but independent variables, but uses just part of one. Since most people are oblivious, and a simple answer is what they want, they blindly accept it. I addressed this formula problem and gullibility in my book as well as my March 2020 rant (Would That It Were That Simple). The average of anything is rarely a limiting or deleterious factor for plants/gardening. The limiters are the extremes, the outliers, too much or too little. Moreover, the last version (2012) zonation map was outdated almost immediately after release. I have attempted to get both the University of Illinois and Purdue interested in investigating zonation since it is clearly more than just an average maximum low temp. For example, this judgement, this qualifier, often needs to consider (1) duration, (2) when, (3) rate of change, (4) preceding conditions {environment and plant, established or not}, (5) exposure/siting, (6) soil moisture, (7) wind, et cetera, and is taxa variable. See also ALMANAC on homepage.

So. back to the title topic, specifically why do I like American fringetree? Appropriately, three F words -- flowers, fruit, and fragrance. In case you are unaware, The Mad Botanist places a premium on fragrant plants and attempts to acquire and grow all that he can with one notable exception (black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia), which will be the subject of next month's post.

Fringetree flowering occurs in late spring -- typically mid May at my place in NE Indianapolis (see * below). When in anthesis the plants are often completely and stunningly enshrouded with drooping panicles of pure white 4-merous flowers -- the merosity is occasionally 5-6. The genus name is from the Greek chion meaning snow (and anthos meaning flower) in allusion to the abundant white flowers. The individual flowers have slender strap shaped petals which approach two inches long. The flowers are profuse and profoundly fragrant. One need only to be in the vicinity since the fragrance is pervasive. It is a sweet delicate but captivating smell. An awesome airy fragrance reminiscent of lilac. The leaves appear after or with the flowers. The flowering (see sex below) is followed in mid summer by beautiful large (size of your little fingertip) light to dark blue, single-seeded, fleshy, indehiscent fruits -- drupes, like olives (see pic). After all, along with ash, lilac, and privet, fringetree is in the Oleaceae, the olive family. Several sources I trust state that fringetree fruit is edible so I took a chance and ate one. It was somewhat bitter and not at all appealing. Perhaps if brine-cured like olives. Evidently birds are not as picky since some of them seem to be fond of the fruit. [SEX] Fringetree is usually dioecious (separate male and female plants) but many specimens in the trade are cuttings from male plants since the male flowers are bigger (more showy). And, like with most plants, one cannot tell if the specimen is male or female unless or until flowers or fruit are present That is, they are not sexually dimorphic outside of reproduction. One may occasionally encounter a specimen with both pistillate and staminate flowers -- I got lucky that way. Space permitting, I recommend having several specimens (a) since they can be spectacular when performing and (b) when from different sources the chance of the plant having sex is enhanced, thus the opportunity for more fruit production.

While the fall color of fringetree leaves is a nice yellow, it is not what I would consider outstanding -- there are so many other autumnal flava options. Frankly, Chionanthus is just a so-so leggy thing when not in flower or fruit -- nice simple leaves on sinuous stems and not much more. But when performing it is definitely an OH MY plant!

There are some fringetree animal problems that should be mentioned. (1) Rodent damage to the lower bark is not uncommon, and my squirrels seem to find it irresistible (and easy) to ascend, and damage. (2) Being a relative of ash, emerald ash borer could become a problem. (3) Although only in play once every generation or brood, that is 13 or17 years, fringetree can suffer considerable damage from periodical cicada ovipositing. Damage from Brood X in 2021 was so severe at my place in Indianapolis that I almost lost a fringetree. The victim now has a pseudopendulate form (see addenda chapter under BOOK). I lost half my established Oriental maples as well as other plant species native outside the range of the cicadas to the same event which seems to throw water in the face of the promulgated native species exclusivity and cure championed by a certain mercenary entomologist ecologist and his ignorant acolytes (the plant police purists, the P3). The truth will set you free, as will a pardon :)

Chinese fringetree (C. retusus) is a species I once had the hots for, especially the more slender/upright cultivar 'Tokyo Tower'. The Chinese species, which flowers a week or so after its American cousin, has smaller flowers (the petals are shorter and wider) and its leaves are smaller and more lustrous. It is also fragrant. A major difference between the two species is that the Chinese species flowers are produced on new wood. Chionanthus retusus is occasionally available and likes central Indiana. After seven years my specimen was already 12 feet tall. It grew much faster than expected and than online posts claim, and the flowers and fruits were all at the top. It was clear my plant was going to be too big for the spot I had chosen, so I edited. I dug, pulled, piled, and burned it. Remember, they do not like to be transplanted. It was a nice plant, and I may try again in a different location, but based on my experience the American fringetree is the superior choice. WARNING: if you can find a specimen of American fringetree for sale you likely will need to get it BEFORE it starts to flower -- then irresistible. Sale is probably not the right word since the plants are often somewhat pricey, but definitely worth the outlay. The scarcity is likely related to their being somewhat difficult to propagate. Because of the root sensitivity expect any for sale specimen you encounter to be in a large container and beware of barerooting.


* Looking for a fun and useful gardening activity, create a chronology (phenology) of when your plants start to flower (the anthesis). That is, when the first flower(s) actually appear. Most people would probably have substituted open for appear, but cleistogamous flowers by definition do not open. Instead, they have self sex behind closed doors. My tabular almanac has each month divided into three blocks (1-10, 11-20, 21-n) and then ordered by when within the block. Not only is doing this fun and challenging, the phenological data is a very useful reference tool. Every garden center should have one for their immediate region. I have contemplated posting mine -- as a book addendum. As the years pass you will start to see and learn that there can be variation. I find the sequencing data fascinating and very useful. The length of anthesis is also quite practical and interesting but I have found that attending to the recording of when the flowering stops is harder to accomplish. Doing this data gathering will make you more observant and a better gardener. Consider including the anomalies along with what you think was the cause, the why. And ask yourself, am I sure? Do the observed facts support the conclusion(s)? And if you really want to hone your skills while witnessing the spectacular magic of nature, try comparing the timing of the anthesis with the activity of the associated biota. THE DANCE. Disney and the offering from streaming services pale in comparison.


bottom of page