The ethereal spring bloom of the fringe-tree, Chionanthus virginicus, qualifies this plant as one of North America’s most beautiful small flowering trees. Fringe-tree’s showy bloom delights any who visit this plant’s native habitats along streams, small rivers, and in drier sites at higher elevations throughout Virginia. Its unique natural beauty, longstanding use in horticultural settings, widespread distribution throughout the Commonwealth, and its distinctive biology have earned the fringe-tree recognition as the Wildflower of the Year, 1997
Common names for Chionanthus virginicus include fringe-tree, white fringe-tree, old-man’s beard, grancy gray-beard, and flowering ash. The literal translation of the generic name Chionanthus is snow flower, a reference to the graceful appearance of the snow-white flowers.
The genus Chionanthus is a member of the olive family, the Oleaceae consisting of 29 genera and about 600 species of trees and shrubs, which are most common in southeastern Asia and Australasia. Economically important members of this genus include the edible olive, ashes used for lumber, and ornamental plants including Forsythia, gardenia, and privets. North American relatives of Chionanthus virginicus include the many ashes in the genus Fraxinus, the less well known devilwood, Osmanthus americanus, and four species of Forestiera, some of which bear the common name privet. The privets grown in gardens are members of the genus Ligustrum, none of which is native to North America.
There are only two species of fringe-tree: Chionanthus virginicus found in eastern North America and Chionanthus retusus native to China. This unusual biogeographic pattern, with different species within a genus found only in eastern North America and eastern Asia and separated by several thousand miles, is a product of major geologic events including mountain building and the effects ofglaciation. Familiar plants exhibiting this pattern include tulip poplar, Liriodendron, tupelo or sour gum, Nyssa, and the witch hazels, Hamamelis.
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