by Mary Reid Barrow
Around here the fringe tree is Earth Day’s holiday tree.
Come upon a fringe tree unexpectedly this time of year and it’s like an April celebration.
The other day at Norfolk Botanical Garden, white blossoms showered down from the branches of two trees at the entrance to the Native Plant Trail. Sun shining on the white blooms lit the trees as if they were strung with lights and the flowers were reminiscent of tinsel itself on a holiday tree. Only this tree has a mild sweet fragrance, an aroma found only in spring.
Sometimes called “grancy graybeard” or “old man’s beard” because of its cascading blossoms, the Virginia fringe tree is native to the southeast. Its Latin name is Chionanthus virginicus. “Chion”comes from the Greek word for snow and anthus, from the Greek for flower.
In fall, female fringe tree flowers turn into clusters of small dark grape-like fruits that birds love. Both a male and a female fringe tree are required for the females to bear fruit.
The fringe tree would do well in a suburban yard because it is small and grows only between 15 and 30 feet, according to “Native Plants for Southeast Virginia, including Hampton Roads Region.” A slow grower, the fringe tree likes our sandy, sometimes wet, soil here in Hampton Roads. It does well in sun or part shade and because it’s a native, it doesn’t get many diseases or pests.
Don’t mistake the Chinese fringetree, Choinanthus retusus, for our native because the two look a lot alike. Though they are equally beautiful, our native beats the Chinese fringetree by a mile because ol’ grandpa graybeard feeds eight species of native caterpillars and local insects. Pollinators also love to nectar on “his” blooms.
The fringe tree is one of local plant lover Dana Parker’s favorite natives. She purchased hers years ago at a native plant sales, hosted by the South Hampton Roads Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society.
“Then I thought I had really scored because they’re not that readily available in the trade—at least they weren’t that many years ago when I bought it,” Parker said.
It wasn’t too long ago that Southern Living Magazine even called the fringe tree “The Best Tree Nobody Grows.”
Southern Branch Nursery in Chesapeake can set that straight. The nursery has fringe trees for sale in many sizes. During the pandemic, Southern Branch is open by appointment 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Call 757-373-7763.
Parker said her one mistake was to plant her tree in a spot where she can’t see it from the house. She is always surprised when she notices the beautiful blooms.
You don’t have to miss fringe trees in bloom if you visit Norfolk Botanical garden now. The garden is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. All indoor facilities are closed and admission tickets must be purchased onlinehttps://norfolkbotanicalgarden.org/online-daily-admission-ticketing/
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