Chionanthus virginicus

Departments - Green Guide

The American fringe tree presents an alluring flower display in spring and offers fruits for wildlife in the fall.

June 30, 2020

Chionanthus virginicus in full bloom at Sebright Gardens in Salem, Oregon.
All photos by Mark Leichty
Chionanthus virginicus, or American fringe tree, is a deciduous tree or shrub native to the Southeastern United States. In late spring to early summer the tree is covered with clusters of lacy white, slightly fragrant flowers, creating a stunning focal point in the landscape. Chionanthus is dioecious, meaning there are both male and female trees. The male trees have the showier flowers, but do not produce the dark purple berries in fall. These berries are edible for birds and other wildlife. I have read articles suggesting they can be pickled for human consumption, like olives, though I have never tried it and am not recommending it. Like olive trees, Chionanthus is a member of the family Oleaceae. There is evidence that the bark and roots of C. virginicus are useful in treating disorders of the liver and gall bladder and commercial homeopathic remedies are available, although again, I am not recommending it. There is NO evidence that tinctures of C. virginicus are effective in treating COVID-19, no matter who tells you!

Over the past five years, American fringe trees have faced attacks by the emerald ash borer, Agrilus planipennis. While this is certainly a concern, an ongoing study by Wright State University gives hope that Chionanthus might fare better than ash trees in terms of susceptibility to the beetle. There is evidence that ornamental plantings are not targeted like dense wild populations of fringe trees. Also, trees that are healthy and well cared for are much less likely to be infested.

C. virginicus thrives in rich, moist woods and hillsides. There are numerous specimens at Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, and it was apparently one of his favorite trees. In the landscape, they do best in full sun to partial shade and they love heat and humidity. They are best grown as a multi-stemmed tree or large shrub and will reach a final height of 20 feet with a canopy spread of 15-20 feet. Chionanthus seldom need pruning and are naturally somewhat slow growing. They do well in urban settings, although perhaps not as a street tree. I say this for two reasons. First, they will not tolerate prolonged drought. Secondly, they are so beautiful while in bloom, I fear they would distract drivers. I can literally see myself trying to take a drive-by video or selfie and ending up in the ditch — or worse. Anyway, you’ve been warned. Seriously though, Chionanthus are beautiful trees, and I wish they were more available to American gardeners.

Mark Leichty is the Director of Business Development at Little Prince of Oregon Nursery near Portland. He is a certified plant geek who enjoys visiting beautiful gardens and garden centers searching for rare and unique plants to satisfy his plant lust.