Fringe Tree — The Best Native Tree Nobody Grows

April 28, 2013 | By | Comments (23)
Fringe tree

I saw this fringe tree on my drive in to work last Friday and had to take it’s picture. It’s what I call a “drive-by shooting.” Photo by Steve Bender.

You’d think a small, native tree with pretty spring flowers and pretty fall foliage that’s easier-than-pie to grow would be a staple in our gardens. You’d be wrong. So let me tell you about fringe tree.

Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) has always played twelfth fiddle to dogwood, saucer magnolia, flowering cherry, Bradford pear (yuck), and numerous others choices for spring-flowering trees. That’s just wacky. Indigenous to the eastern U.S., it grows from Canada all the way down to the Gulf Coast. It’s tougher than dogwood, more dependable than saucer magnolia, longer-lived than cherry, and smells better than stinky Bradford. And it’s beautiful.

Fringe tree

White, fleecy blooms  hang beneath the branches. Photo by Steve Bender.

Fringe tree gets its name from its clouds of fleecy white, softly fragrant flowers that hang from the branches in late spring and early summer. Other common names here in the South are grancy graybeard and old man’s beard. Trees can be either male or female. Males sport larger, showier blooms, but females form attractive, blackish-blue fruits that birds like. Nurseries don’t sell trees by sex, so you have to take your chances. But either sex is well worth planting.

Just the Facts
So now that Grumpy has convinced you that unless you plant a fringe tree this spring, you will be cast out of the Hoe & Trowel Society, let me provide you with the basics about this charming, native tree.

Size: 12 to 20 feet tall and wide
Shape: Rounded and usually multi-trunked
Light: Full to partial sun
Soil: Moist, fertile, well-drained
Water needs: Moderate, tolerates some drought
Fall foliage: Bright yellow
Pests: NONE
Hardiness zones: USDA Zones 3-9
Prune: Seldom needed; prune after flowering
Bonus fact: Tolerates air pollution; good for city gardens
Bonus bonus fact: One of the last trees to leaf out in spring

Where to Buy
Independent garden centers are your best bet to find fringe trees for sale. You can also buy them from mail-order nurseries, but of course the trees will be small. Here’s a list of Grumpy-Certified Mail-Order Suppliers.

1. Woodlanders

2. Forest Farm

3. Fairweather Gardens

4. Sunlight Gardens

5. Niche Gardens

COMMENTS

  1. chicagoconcertman

    Emerald Ash Borer has not been observed completing instar stages by utilizing American Fringe, which is related to Ash & Olive family. So having one growing next to your families American Ash protected with temporary treatment against tree species extinction should not be a problem. But yes, keep up with field studies just in case things change. Enjoy!

    May 26, 2015 at 6:07 pm
  2. Penny Astoria

    Would love to post pic of gorgeous fringe tree growing and blooming in a famous park here in Eugene, Oregon! Who knew this was well-known in the South! I had never heard of tree and was truly astounded to behold it on Memorial Day 2015 here in the Northwest!

    May 26, 2015 at 1:18 pm
  3. sandy thomas

    Would like to know how close you can plant them to your house? Would love to have this on the corner of my house but not much room.

    May 23, 2015 at 6:54 pm
  4. Ranji Stewart

    What time of year is it safe to prune a Fringe Tree?

    May 19, 2015 at 3:09 pm
  5. LD

    Left one in Alpharetta, should be 20 years old now. I saw it a few years ago and it is still beautiful. The one at my new house is about 10 years old, right off of the porch to enjoy the wonderful smell when it blooms. Everybody loves this tree!!!

    May 13, 2015 at 8:12 pm
  6. Jeff

    These are beautiful trees! I just planted one and it is about to burst in to bloom. I am surprised to see all the people saying they eould like to dig them or steal them from wild areas- this not a good idea and may very well be illegal. Removing native trees from areas where they are established increases the chance for invasive species to establish not to mention they are there for everyone to enjoy, including the wildlife that feed on them.

    May 12, 2015 at 11:34 pm
  7. Carrie

    I’m going to have to move my fringe tree to put on an addition to my house. My tree is about 7 feet tall and 4 feet across – at least 14 years old. Do they respond well to transplantation?

    May 12, 2015 at 7:17 am
  8. Kim

    I purchased one of these lovely trees last weekend in Asheville, at a plant festival. Right now its a baby. How do you tell males from females? And how rootbound do they get? Very intrigued by this specimen!
    Curious in SC.

    May 6, 2015 at 7:24 am
  9. Paul Henehan

    Thanks for the wonderful article. I bought our female tree at Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill 7 years ago. Now 7″ tall it would be bigger but voles have ravaged it the last few years. So mysterious and a vision in bloom on foggy and gloomy days! The fragrance is powerful to my damaged nose!

    April 30, 2015 at 8:51 pm
  10. teresa baker

    There is a grandpa’s bread growing in woods behind my house. I would like to dig it up and put in my yard. When is the best time to do this?

    April 30, 2015 at 10:09 am
  11. Jennifer Albert

    I bought mine at the botanical garden in New Orleans. They have a huge one there and sell the babies that come up, at there annual plant sale….paid $20.00 for it and it was already 2 1/2 feet tall! Now it lives in kentucky!

    April 5, 2015 at 9:56 pm
  12. Bobby McCranie (Munson Florida)

    I live in northwest florida (65 miles north of P;cola and 7 miles south of Alabama). This was my mothers favorite tree she called a Grancy Greybeard. I have bought 2 others at a nursery but I do have a “look-out crew” spottin them through out the management area here and taggin them with engineers ribbon so I can attempt to dig up. The state of Florida frowns on digging in a mngt. area but this tree is well worth the risk. I currently have 4 on my place and desire to have approx. 20-30 more.

    April 5, 2015 at 4:14 pm
  13. Bradford Pears and Mangroves | HORTravels

    […] you know another name for the native (& underused) Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus) is Grancy Grey Beard? I didn’t, I learned it at a rest […]

    February 21, 2015 at 1:48 pm
  14. Sherry Truett Rash

    My mama found one in the wooded area behind her home a few years back and we always called them the old mans beard. Glad to see it isnt unknown :) and yes I’ll have one or maybe two because their is others in that wooded area :)

    May 5, 2013 at 5:03 pm
  15. Wendy

    That’s beautiful Vikki! I’m in St. Louis and discovered this tree last year – I LOVE it! I bought two, and one turned out to be female and the other male. I had fruit on the female the first year.

    The male’s flowers are showier than the female’s, and I’m seeing why…the spring leaf buds are decidedly different, with the male’s a fat cluster, and the female’s a single bud. I love that this tree blooms a month or so after all of the other flowering trees.

    Re: the single trunk – this can be achieved by pruning. I didn’t do this myself – the nursery had the single and multi trunk forms, so they did the scary work :)

    Overall I agree with the fact that this gorgeous little tree is overlooked. I still can’t believe I’d never seen or heard of one until last year!

    May 5, 2013 at 8:39 am
  16. WWilliam P Cochran

    Vikki your fringe tree is beautiful. thank you for allowing me to take a look.

    May 4, 2013 at 9:33 am
  17. Sydney

    Vikki,

    You have a beautiful specimen. I love that it has a singular trunk, which is fairly uncommon for this tree.

    May 4, 2013 at 9:21 am
  18. Vikki

    William, I am computer challenged at times. I have made the pictures public. You should be able to see them now.

    April 30, 2013 at 6:46 am
  19. Linda Woodworth

    I have what my mama called a “Grandaddy Greybeard.” Is this the same plant or different? Mine is only 4-5 feet tall and doesn’t appear to be getting bigger.

    April 30, 2013 at 5:58 am
  20. William Cochraan

    Vikki, I attempted look at your fringe trees but I was denied access.
    Grumpy, apparently lots of folks take you advise nearly all the sources you listed have sold out of fringe trees. Great job Grumpy!

    April 29, 2013 at 8:01 pm
  21. amy jones

    This is my all time favorite tree. Love native plants:)

    April 29, 2013 at 6:24 am
  22. Arthur in the Garden!

    They are all over Raleigh, NC>

    April 28, 2013 at 9:10 pm
  23. Vikki

    Since reading your article many years ago in Southern Living, I have been captivated by the Fringe tree. I finally purchased a Chinese Fringe about 5 years ago Such a beautiful tree with lovely blooms and interesting trunk bark. Here are some pictures of mine taken today 4/28/2013. Vikki in VA. https://plus.google.com/photos/113569904760880376413/albums/5871988756246583361?banner=pwa

    April 28, 2013 at 3:17 pm

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