Like something from the cover of a fantasy novel, this late-blooming stunner enlivens landscapes in all seasons.
Awbury Arboretum’s pick for this month is particularly enchanting. The Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus) is a deciduous North American beauty that will leave you spellbound at the sight of its fragrant, ethereal blooms fluttering with the summer breeze. 😍 Its wispy white flowers hang down from branches like little beards, earning the tree its nickname “Grandfather Graybeard.” But don’t let the name fool you – this tree is anything but frail and old-fashioned.
For starters, despite its delicate appearance, it’s super hardy and low maintenance. Tolerant of heat and humidity, able to thrive in a wide range of soils, it seldom needs pruning and, once established, handles drought well. Landscapers love it! You’ll often see the Fringe Tree in public parks and commercial campuses, adding shade and visual appeal from spring thru fall, when the tree’s dark green foliage changes to brilliant gold.
Late spring, however, is when the Fringe Tree really shines, bursting forth in sweet-scented blossoms May – June in our area. The flowers attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators then give way to dark blue olive-like berries enjoyed by many different species of birds and other critters. Humans, not so much: while Fringe Tree fruit isn’t poisonous, most of us find its aroma unappetizing. Pickling can help make them more edible, but when most people consume the Fringe Tree, it’s for health benefits.
Fringe tree’s medicinal qualities have been prized for centuries. According to local folk remedies, the tree’s dried root and bark can be brewed into a bitter tea to treat a variety of ailments from fevers to bloating and indigestion. Fringe Tree can be used topically, too: its leaves and bark contain astringent and anti-inflammatory compounds known to soothe rashes, acne, insect bites, and other general skin irritations when applied in a poultice or wash.
You’d think that a tree of such vitality would be immune to pests, but unfortunately the Fringe Tree can be susceptible to scales, mites and aphids (as well as powdery mildew in wet conditions). On the plus side, though, deer seem to leave them alone. Though the Fringe Tree doesn’t transplant well (and is challenging to grow from seed), root-balled saplings are an easy, affordable way bring a little magic and beauty to your environment.
🌳🤓 Fringe Facts 🤓🌳
- The Fringe Tree has been cultivated in Europe since the 18th century. It was introduced by the botanist John Bartram, who sent seeds and plants to his friend Peter Collinson in England.
- The tree is also grown in China and Japan, where it is called bai hua lan (white flower orchid) or shiro bana enju (white flower pagoda tree).
- The Fringe Tree is tolerant of air pollution and urban conditions. It can be grown as an ornamental plant in gardens, parks, and streetscapes. It is also a good choice for wildlife gardens, as it provides food and shelter for various animals.
- The tree has a slow growth rate and a long lifespan. Some specimens have been estimated to be over 100 years old.
- The wood of the Fringe Tree is hard and heavy, but not very durable. It is sometimes used for tool handles and fence posts.
- Natural beauty products company Bianca Rosa offers a Fringe Tree salve and moisturizing cream that lists the tree’s bark as a botanical ingredient.
Learn more in author and expert Dan Sardaro’s original article in this month’s Local paper (page 15), where Dan gives growing tips and points out the arboretum’s most conveniently-located specimen for up close & personal viewing. All welcome, free to visit.
Follow Dan’s excellent blog with a whole calendar of special “tree-mendous” events throughout the year!
Dan is a novice birder and author of Awbury’s 2022 “Year of Birds” series, 2018 series on Pollinators, “From Wasps to Wind” and 2019’s series on natural fibers. (He is also a former Awbury Arboretum intern.) Read last month’s article here.
The Arboretum’s beautiful grounds are open FREE to the public from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. Maps available for self-guided tours at the main office, located in the Francis Cope House (Tues – Thurs, 10AM – 4PM or by appointment). Dogs on leash welcome — except not in the garden beds, please. Also available as a unique event venue. Learn more at awbury.org; follow on Facebook and Instagram.