(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 5, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Known variously as grancy gray-beard, old man of the woods or fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus is native to the Southeastern and South-central United States and is hardy from USDA zones 3 to 9. Although it may reach 25 to 30 feet tall and wide in favorable conditions, it generally tops out at anywhere between 12 and 20 feet. Its membership in the Oleaceae (olive) family is evident by the clusters of dark bluish black olive-like fruits which ripen in late summer.
One reason for the popularity of the grancy gray-beard is the white, honey-scented flowers that cover the plants for about three weeks in spring. Blossoms with four narrow, inch-long petals dangle from threadlike stems in delicate, fleecy panicles (clusters) six to eight inches long. The unusual petals quiver in the slightest breeze.
The trees are deciduous and have a slow to moderate growth rate. They are often multi-stemmed, and at maturity some specimens have an oval or rounded form. However, the habit is quite variable and some plants may be straggly while others are full and robust.
In the Landscape
Use grancy gray-beard in groups, borders, or as accents near large buildings. Take a clue from Thomas Jefferson, who planted them at the edges of his fields at Monticello. They are a popular selection for urban landscapes because of their high tolerance to pollution.
Plant container-grown plants at any time. In most parts of the country, the greatest chance of success results when young trees are planted in late fall through winter. They tolerate a wide range of conditions, but prefer slightly acid, fairly rich, moist but well-drained soil, and full sun to partial shade. In areas with soil deficient in organic matter, a mulch of leaves, pine needles, or other organic material will be beneficial. Trees should be watered frequently and deeply until they are well established in the landscape, after which very little maintenance is needed.
The grancy-graybeard is usually dioecious, meaning that the male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Infrequently, perfect flowers may be borne on the same tree. Male flowers are showier and have the longest petals, but the female tree bears the fruit that birds and other wildlife find attractive. Remember this when selecting and placing the tree in your landscape. If falling fruit will be a problem, choose a male plant. However, if you want to attract songbirds to the landscape, choose a female tree. It may be necessary to purchase a tree when fruit is actually present, as the sex of a tree is seldom identified in nursery specimens.
The seed of the grancy gray-beard requires a double dormancy. Gardeners who are unaware of this requirement may give up before the seed has a chance to germinate. It takes three to five months of warm weather for the roots to develop. During this time, the stem remains dormant. When the temperature drops to about 41° F for one to two months, the stem begins to develop. Seeds planted outside in fall will not start growing a stem until the second spring. Even then, the unobservant gardener may miss them, for the first-year seedlings are small and grow very little. Cuttings are very hard to root, but some persistent gardeners have managed to root softwood cuttings taken from spring growth.
In central Florida's scrub communities, a dwarf version can sometimes be found. Dwarf fringetree (Chionanthus pygmaeus) blooms just as prolifically as the standard tree and may grow up to eight feet tall. It is endangered in Florida, and is just as spectacular in spring as its larger cousin. Chionanthus retusus is the Chinese version of this plant. Perhaps even showier than our native, it has excellent heat tolerance and retains its vibrant green color all summer long.
Once you spy this native plant in the woods and in neighbor's yards, you'll most likely want to add it to your landscape. Many nurseries stock this popular native plant, and it can be found at several catalog and online sources.
Thanks to TomH3787 for the image of Chionanthus retusus.