Chionanthus virginicus is a large, deciduous shrub or small tree in the Oleaceae family (olive) and is native to the US. It has glossy, dark green, pinnate leaves that turn golden in autumn and long clusters of fragrant white flowers from spring, just as the leaves emerge. Fringe trees have male and female flowers on separate plants and it is impossible to tell them apart unless they are in flower. Fortunately they are both stunning when in bloom although the male has the slight advantage with showier, longer petals.
The fringe tree is quite hardy although it may suffer some frost damage and even die-back in very harsh winters. It is fast growing and prefers free-draining acid soil although it will also grow in alkaline soil. It needs full sun or partial shade and should be kept moist. The Fringe tree is also resistant to pollution. When fully grown it can reach three metres high by the same width.
It is sometimes catalogued as C. pubescens and common names include the Fringe tree, Old Man’s Beard and Snowflower.
After the long panicles of flowers (up to 20cm long) have faded in the autumn, dark blue or black berries form which attract birds. The fruits which are about 18mm long, do not have much flesh and contain up to three seeds.
The dried bark, peeled from the roots, was once made into a tea and used by native American Indians and European settlers to treat inflammation of the eyes, mouth ulcers and gums. It is used in homeopathy to treat liver disorders and gall bladder problems. It is believe to reduce the sugar content in urine and stimulate appetite and digestion.
The Fringe tree can be propagated successfully from seed sown as soon as the fruit has ripened. The flesh needs to be removed and the seed rinsed before sowing. However germination can take up to 18 months. Another way to increase stock is by layering the lower stems.