Fringe Benefits: Little Chinese Fringe Tree Makes Lovely Addition to Texas Landscape
Nothing adorns the spring landscape quite so beautifully as flowering trees. Texans have several from which to choose, but they need to add one more to their list: the Chinese fringe tree (Chionanthus retusus). This small, ornamental tree makes a graceful addition to the landscape across most of Texas.
Native to China, Korea and Japan and a member of the Oleaceae (olive) family, the Chinese fringe tree adapts to USDA hardiness zones 5B to 9B. It forms a multi-trunked tree (or single-trunked, with training) with a rounded, wide-spreading growth habit and reaches a height of about 20 feet and a width of the same. Fringe tree grows slowly, usually only 6 to 10 inches per year.
The genus name, Chionanthus, comes from the Greek word chion meaning “snow” and anthos meaning “flower.” When this tree bursts into bloom in spring, you’ll surely think that snow flurries have swept into your landscape. Compact, terminal clusters (up to 4 inches long) of mildly fragrant, pure-white flowers with fringe-like petals bloom after leaves have emerged and cover the tree for about two weeks. Chinese fringe trees are primarily dioecious, which means male and female flowers are on separate plants. Occasionally, however, male and female flowers may exist on the same plant. Male flowers are slightly showier because of longer petals, but both male and female trees are spectacular when in bloom. Female flowers, if fertilized, give way to clusters of olive-like fruits about half-inch long which ripen to a dark bluish-black in late summer and early fall. These fruits appeal to many kinds of birds and wildlife. Fringe trees are rarely labeled as male or female, so unless they are purchased in bloom or with fruit present, it’s impossible to know which one you are getting. Fortunately, both are beautiful.
Lustrous, leathery leaves about 4 inches long adorn the tree during the growing season. The leaf shape is ovate to elliptic, and the leaves appear opposite each other on the stem. Leaves are bright green above and whitish-green with downy underneath and then turn yellowish-green to brown in the fall. The gray-brown bark is attractive in winter.
Since the fringe tree does not transplant well, take care to select an appropriate permanent location and use proper planting methods. Although the Chinese fringe tree adapts to many soil types, it prefers moist, deep, well-drained, acidic soils. It grows best in full sun to partial shade, but flowering is best in full sun. An ideal location would have full sun most of the day and protection from the hot afternoon sun. Once established, the Chinese fringe tree has low maintenance needs. Due to a naturally strong branch structure, this tree rarely needs pruning.
Although insect pests and diseases rarely create problems for the Chinese fringe tree, the tree can be susceptible to mites, scale and borers. Scale can be controlled with horticultural oil sprays. Borers are more likely to attack trees already under stress or that have wounds.
Plant the Chinese fringe tree in groups or as a single specimen where a small tree is needed, such as near a patio, in a courtyard, in small yards or under power lines. It can also be used in mixed shrub and/or woodland borders, natural gardens and near streams or ponds. As with any white-flowering tree, Chinese fringe tree looks best against a dark green, evergreen background such as a row of Nellie R. Stevens hollies or eastern red cedars. Include a Chinese fringe tree in a wildscape since the fruits attract birds and other wildlife. Finally, a Chinese fringe tree functions well in urban settings due to its tolerance of pollution and different types of soils.
With its billowy white blossoms, the Chinese fringe tree will definitely lend grace and spring beauty to landscapes across the state. Add this tree to your own yard and let its vernal loveliness delight you!
Steve Huddleston is the senior horticulturist at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and co-author of Easy Gardens for North Central Texas.