Test Your Knowledge - April

Chionanthus virginicus flowers
Chionanthus virginicus flowers
Karen Russ, ©2007 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Yes, you are correct! In fact, all of the answers are correct.

This beautiful, small, native tree is known by a wide variety of common names. In addition to Grancy gray-beard, white fringetree, and old man’s beard, it is might be called granddaddy’s gray-beard, white ash, snow-drop tree or snowflower depending on region of the country and the person with whom you are talking.

The solution to this horticultural confusion is to use a name that is recognizable everywhere as referring only to this one specific plant – the botanical or scientific name, Chionanthus virginicus.  The variety of common names of plants are often very descriptive and may be connected to interesting gardening or plant stories.  But it is nice to know that no matter where you are in the world, if you know that the botanical name of the grancy gray-beard or fringetree is Chionanthus virginicus, you can be sure of buying the correct plant.

Chionanthus virginicus in full flower
Chionanthus virginicus in full flower
The Dow Gardens Archive, Dow Gardens, Bugwood.org

By any name Chionanthus virginicus is a striking plant in full bloom. Large clusters of white, fragrant, flowers with long narrow petals appear at the same time as the leaves, in spring, about the same time as mid-season azaleas bloom. The fringetree will grow slowly up to 20 feet tall at maturity. Male and female flowers occur on separate plants, with the male flowers being somewhat showier. However, if both female and male trees are present, the female trees will have showy, small, olive shaped blue fruit that appear in late summer to early fall. Unfortunately, the different sex plants are rarely differentiated in nurseries, so fruit usually occur only when a number of plants have been planted near each other. Fortunately, a mass of fringetrees, blooming above massed azaleas is one of the most spectacular sights one can see in the spring.

Plant fringetrees where they receive sun to partial shade; like dogwoods, they grow well along wooded edges. However, they are more tolerant of full sun than dogwoods, and make a good substitute in exposed or urban sites. Fringetrees prefer moist, well drained soil, ideally with a decent amount of organic matter.

The blooms of Chionanthus retusus, a related species
Chinese fringetree (Chionanthus retusus) flowers
Joey Williamson, ©2007 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Chinese fringetree (Chionanthus retusus) is a closely related species from the other side of the world. It flowers a few weeks after our native fringetree with smaller, tighter flower clusters. The leaves are smaller and more rounded, with a thicker texture and lustrous sheen. It enjoys the same growing conditions as Chionanthus virginicus.

Karen Russ
HGIC Horticulture Specialist

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