Thursday, June 19, 2008


Native American fringetrees are little-known and neglected beauties. They're hard to find. Fringetrees are so few and far between in Plainfield that the poor, solitary things can't even reproduce. Female fringetrees produce a crop of beautiful blue berries in the fall, but to do that they need a male close enough to provide pollen. I have never seen a single berry on a Plainfield fringetree.

The trees produce a magnificent floral display, which has just finished in Plainfield. The fringetree pictured below is between 1745 and 1751 Watchung Avenue.

The native fringetree below, which was also pictured in my June 2 posting, is at 653 Ravine Road.

The Ravine Road fringetree used to be the focus of an annual spring celebration complete with poetry recitations until it broke off at the ground about ten years ago. Its owners, Jean Mattson and the late Norman (Moose) Mattson, brought it back from a hollow stump by cutting away all but a few of the hundreds of sprouts that grew up from the wreckage over the space of a few years. The sprouts that were allowed to grow reconstituted an attractive multistemmed tree. I wish it a long (second) life.

How do I know that these two fringetrees are the native species, Chionanthus virginicus, rather than the beautiful Chinese import, Chionanthus retusus? I happened to be at the Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha's Vineyard for a lecture last weekend when both species of fringetree were in bloom there. I was able to take photographs permitting a comparison. The most easily recognizable difference is in the bark. The Chinese tree's bark, pictured below, is deeply furrowed, while the American's is relatively smooth.

The flowers have easily recognizable differences too. The Chinese species' blooms, shown below, are not as thread-like as the American's, shown at the top of the page.

I have not seen any Chinese fringetrees in Plainfield. Clearly there is a niche available here for both of these species of Chionanthus.

(1) The rarity of fringetrees can inspire deviant behavior in susceptible subjects. Plainfield tree lady Barbara Sandford took me trespassing into the backyard of a house on Sleepy Hollow Lane to see one in bloom a few weeks back. (I place the blame for this transgression entirely on her.)

Copyright Gregory Palermo


Anonymous said...

Thanks Greg for the post on Fringe Trees. There is one right on my side yard. The tree belongs to the house next door, but we are lucky enough to enjoy not only the flowers in spring, but the exquisit aroma that comes from this tree.

We have come to love it so much that we worry that one day it will be taken down by any new owner that might come along. To ease this fear we have decided to plant our own fringe tree, but now it seems to me that these trees will need a third one too. I think.

Do the berries make such a mess that is better not to have both female and male trees? Or should we let go of our fears for spilled and bruised berries as to not sexually starve our new tree and enjoy the berries production? After all, who wants to be blamed for sex starving trees!

And how reliable are nurseries when it comes to determine the sex of one's trees?

Male or female, fringe trees are certainly a treat. Are they good for street planting?

Thanks again. Your blog, along with Bernice's, have become one of the city's highlights since moving here to Plainfield three years ago.


Gregory said...

Thank you.
I have seen native fringetree in berry. Quite beautiful and it certainly gets one's attention. The sight of a tree full of blue berries comes as something of a surprise in the northeastern United States.
I can't tell you if the berries make a mess. I have no experience. Michael Dirr's Manual of Woody Landscape Plants says the birds relish the fruits. Perhaps the birds eliminate any messiness, as they do with native dogwoods.
Gender identity problems? I don't know the answer to that question either. If you are interested in buying fringetrees, I would pose the question to Mrs. Scudder at Ambleside Gardens in Hillsborough. Her nursery has sold both native and Chinese fringetrees for years. You might try purchasing in September, when the females produce fruit.