Fringe-tree grows as a large shrub or small tree from 10-18 and occasionally to 35 feet. The plant is open in habit with an individual’s spread often exceeding its height. The trunk, which can reach 8-10 inches in diameter, is short with branches forming close to the ground. The bark is gray to light brown and smooth on new branches but becomes narrowly ridged at maturity.
Young branches and branchlets are stout and often thickened between the nodes. Ranging from green to buff to brown and being smooth or hairy, the slightly squarish stems produce a thin outer layer that can peel, sometimes giving them an onion skin effect. Stems are marked by semicircular leaf scars and dark pores called lenticels that allow carbon dioxide and oxygen exchange between the plant and the environment. Buds are oval and possess three pairs of sharp-pointed, keeled scales. Buds and leaves are opposite one another on the stem
The leaves are dark green on the upper surface and paler and somewhat hairy beneath, particularly along the veins. Leaves measure 4-8 inches in length and generally are uniform in their width of 1-4 inches while the tips of the leaves are pointed to long-pointed. The margins are entire, meaning without teeth, and are often wavy. In fall, the leaves turn a yellowish color, but fall color can vary from plant to plant and can range from greenish to brown, to a good yellow.
The plant’s crowning feature is its abundant production of 4-8-inch long clusters of delicate flowers in spring, contemporaneous with early leaf production. In northern Virginia, plants reliably flower near Mother’s Day. Flowers are white, fringelike and effectively dioecious, meaning that they are either pollen-bearing or pistillate, capable of setting seeds. Individual flowers consist of a minute calyx and a long-lobed corolla of 0.6-1.2-inch long petals and a single pistil on ‘female’ flowers or two stamens on ‘male’ flowers. Reportedly, plants bearing male flowers are more ornamental in spring than those with female flowers due to larger size of individual male compared with female flowers. Occasionally, both male and female flowers are found on the same tree.
The fruits ripen in late summer or early fall. The dark blue to nearly black, egg-shaped fruits are marked by a white, powdery bloom and contain a single seed. Fruits are 0.6 to 1 inch long and are borne in clusters that may be hidden by leaves. Fruits are attractive to a variety of wildlife including many songbirds, whitetail deer, quail, and turkey. Male plants must be in the vicinity of females to allow abundant fruit set.