Native Plant Highlights

What’s In Bloom | American Fringetree

June 1, 2021

  • American Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) is a small deciduous tree native to the southeastern and south central United States.
  • Grows 15-30 foot tall as a tree or shrub.
  • Blooms with beautiful, feathery white flowers in April-June; forms fruits which provide a great food source for birds and other wildlife.
  • Host species to numerous native moths. 

American Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), also known as Old Man’s Beard and Sweetheart Tree, is a deciduous tree native to the southeastern and south central United States. It grows up to 30 feet tall with one or more short, scaly, pale-gray trunks with narrow, shallow brown furrows. However, it is generally found in a smaller, shrubbier form. It has glossy, dark green, opposite ovate-shaped leaves 4-8 inches long and 1-3 inches wide with a 1 inch petiole. For around 2 weeks in April-June, before the first leaves emerge, 4-8 inch stalks bloom with terminal drooping clusters of slightly fragrant flowers. Each has 4-6 petals which are 1 inch long, 1/16 inch wide, fringe-like and white; their appearance is the inspiration for the species’ common names. Most fringetrees are dioecious, meaning they have either male or female flowers; it is uncommon but possible to find trees with perfect flowers. Males tend to have showier flowers, but will not form fruits. Since the species is in the olive family, oleaceae, the pollinated female and perfect flowers form fleshy, olive-like drupe fruits in late summer. These bluish-purple fruits provide a great food source for birds and other wildlife, and can even be pickled and eaten by people.

In the wild, fringetree often occurs in forested areas and hillsides, stream banks, and rocky ledges. It prefers moist, well-drained soil in full sun-part shade, but it is not drought tolerant. It grows best in acidic or slightly alkaline soils, though is adaptable to variable soil pH and texture. It is a great option for home cultivation, with low maintenance requirements and high adaptability. However, care should be taken to avoid Chinese fringetree, which has a similar appearance. Fringetree is also susceptible to scales, small insects which attach themselves to the bark and can cause damage by sucking sap from the tree.

Benefits to biodiversity: American Fringetree hosts several insect species, including the larvae of Fringetree Hawk Moth (Sympistis chionanthi) and Rustic Sphinx Moth (Manduca rustica). The fruits are eaten by numerous birds including Northern Cardinal, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Mockingbird, Pileated Woodpecker, and Wild Turkey. 

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