Chionanthus virginicus, white fringetree is a beautiful shrub or small tree belonging to the olive family, which includes lilacs, forsythia and ash trees (Fraxinus). The genus Chionanthus (kye-oh-NANTH-us) has 60 species that are primarily tropical with only two in the northern temperate zone. White fringetree is native to the southeastern and south central United States including southern Ohio.
On Memorial Day weekend in 1985 I traveled to Heritage Plantations in Sandwich, Mass. (Cape Cod) and saw a specimen of Chionanthus virginicus in full sun that was striking. It was wider than tall, and covered in fragrant thin white drooping flowers. In amongst the mass of bloom were the fresh green expanding leaves. I was enchanted by this showy shrub.
At The Holden Arboretum Chionanthus virginicus can be viewed on the northwest side of the Myrtle S. Holden Wildflower Garden. Three specimens, now 14-18’ tall and 19-27’ wide, have been there since November 1978 when Brian Parsons and John Cross (currently on staff) transplanted them. Originally purchased from Wayside Gardens in Mentor, Ohio in 1974 and planted in the Thayer Center landscape, they were moved to make way for construction of the Warren H. Corning Visitor Center. One of the three bears fruit.
In late August or early September the fruit turns a deep blue. Since most white fringetrees are grown from seed, their sex is usually unknown at purchase. In addition to male and female, some individuals also bear inflorescences that contain both. Such is the case with Chionanthus virginicus ‘Emerald Knight’, which has sparse fruit sets on the trees at the Arboretum. The oval fruit can persist through most of November. Robins, cardinals, blue jays, mockingbirds, pileated woodpeckers and wild turkey may eat the fruit. Spontaneous seedlings are very uncommon in our gardens.
The fall foliage is yellow and can be briefly showy in late October, but may be green well into November if it is a clone of southern provenance such as ‘Emerald Knight’, which suffered branch breakage during October and November snowstorms in 2013. Plants of southern Ohio provenance in the Pennington Beds of the Holden Wildflower Garden and other seed grown plants purchased from local nurseries tend to drop their leaves from late October to early November. In spring, Chionanthus virginicus is one of the last species to leaf out (late May), avoiding damage from spring frost.
At Lantern Court there is a fine specimen of Chionanthus virginicus on the southeast side of the property planted in October 2000. This former Holden Plant Sale surplus plant from the Research Department is multi-stemmed and measures 16’ tall by 17’ wide. Flowering has been as early as the second week of May (2012) and as late as the first week of June (2005).
In 1993 I purchased a white fringetree from Holden’s Plant sale and planted it in my back yard in Eastlake. It now measures 12’ x 12’ and has flowered every year for a delightful two weeks. Although Chionanthus virginicus has not experienced any serious insect or disease problems locally, there are reports that emerald ash borer can infest it. Fraxinus oxycarpa ‘Aureafolia’, a golden desert ash in my back yard was decimated by emerald ash borer in 2014, but so far the white fringetree is unscathed.
Of the group of five white fringetrees planted in the Arboretum’s overflow parking lot in 1991, three bear fruit. Renewal pruning – cutting all stems to several inches above the ground – produces strong upright new stems as can be seen on a 30-year-old specimen on the west side of Blueberry Pond having a single trunk that was cut back following the 2012 growing season. Both spring and fall are excellent times to plant. Chionanthus virginicus is a fine companion for numerous herbaceous perennials, including ephemeral wildflowers.