Chinese Fringe Tree (Chionanthus retusus)

Chinese Fringetree, Chinese Fringe Tree

Planting a Chinese fringe tree (Chionanthus retusus) can add a striking focal point in a garden without taking up too much room or creating too much work for a homeowner. This slow-growing, small ornamental tree provides a lot of aesthetic value and wow-factor for its size. Its profuse white blooms and dark purple fruit can be stunning and make this species one to consider adding to your landscape if you are looking for a unique non-native to add.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Chionanthus retusus, the Chinese fringetree, is a flowering plant in the family Oleaceae. It is native to eastern Asia: eastern and central China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

It is a deciduous shrub or small to medium-sized tree growing to 20 meters (70 ft) in height, with thick, fissured bark. The leaves are 3–12 centimeters (1–5 in) long and 2–6.5 cm (0.8–2.6 in) broad, simple ovate to oblong-elliptic, with a hairy, 0.5–2 cm (0.2–0.8 in) long petiole. The flowers are white, produced in panicles 3–12 cm (1–5 in) long. The fruit is a blue-black drupe 1–1.5 cm (0.4–0.6 in) long and 0.6–1 cm (0.2–0.4 in) in diameter.

It is cultivated in Europe and North America as an ornamental tree, valued for its feathery white flowerheads.

In Japan’s Aichi Prefecture near Inuyama there is a grove of seven mature Chionanthus retusus renowned for their yearly white blooms. They were designated by the authorities as a natural monument since 1923.

II. How to Grow and Care

As fabulous as it looks, the Chinese fringe tree is surprisingly low maintenance and problem-free if you provide it with the right conditions.

  • Plant Chinese fringe trees in an area that receives full sun.
  • Ensure the tree’s soil is acidic and well-draining.
  • Water the Chinese fringe tree often in dry weather.
  • Prune Chinese fringe trees sparingly.

Sunlight

Whether you have native or Chinese species, they can grow in full sun to partial shade. The tree needs sun throughout most of the day as the fragrant flowers bloom more in direct sun. During hot summers, you can provide some afternoon shade.

Temperature and Humidity

The Chinese fringe tree is not incredibly fussy regarding temperature and humidity. It will be happy if you keep it situated in the recommended USDA hardiness zones of 5 through 9.

Watering

Keeping your Chinese fringe tree well-watered is essential to keep it producing plenty of flowers. This particular species does not tolerate excessively dry weather and needs to be watered more in dry conditions, or its health and ornamental qualities will suffer noticeably.

Soil

Providing organically rich, well-draining, and moist soil will give your Chinese fringe tree the best chance of thriving. Aim for soil with a low pH (under 7.0).

Fertilizing

Fertilization is usually not needed; adding extra fertilizer won’t speed up the slow growth of the tree. Scattering a 2-inch layer of compost around the base every year should take care of the nutrient needs. If the soil is nutrient-poor, you can apply a general tree and shrub fertilizer before new growth starts in the spring.

Planting Instructions

Select a location with full sun or dappled shade and well-draining, slightly acidic soil.

Because the tree thrives in moist soil, locations near a streambank or pond are also suitable as long as the soil is well-drained. However, avoid locations with saline soil or salt runoff because Chinese fringe trees are not salt-tolerant.

Plant the tree in the fall or, in areas with mild winters where the ground does not freeze, between winter and early spring. Make sure you select a permanent location, as Chinese fringe tree does not transplant well.

Dig a hole that is at least twice as wide and has the same depth as the nursery container. Place the tree in the planting hole so the top of the root ball is level with the soil. Backfill with the original soil and tamp down the soil. Water well immediately after planting and keep the young tree well-watered at all times. Cover the soil above the root ball with a 2-inch-thick layer of mulch to prevent soil moisture loss.

Pruning

When you leave the fringe tree unpruned, it forms a round ball, but you can train it to grow as a small tree. You can do this by removing the lower branches. Alternatively, you can remove old or diseased branches at any time. The best time to prune is in winter.

Propagation

The best way to propagate a fringe tree is through the seeds or using cuttings taken in early spring.

  • Early morning cut the end of the branch about six inches long without flowers on them.
  • If you do not plan on placing the cutting in a growing medium, put it in a wet paper towel in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
  • Fill a container with a 50:50 mixture of perlite and peat. Ensure that the container has drainage holes and moisten the soil.
  • Remove the bottom leaves, cut small slits in the wood, and dip into a rooting hormone.
  • Place 1/3 of the stem into the growing medium.
  • Cover the container with clear plastic and place it in indirect light while keeping it moist daily.
  • Once rooted, remove the plastic and transplant it to a larger container filled with acidic soil adding vermiculite or perlite for drainage.
  • Place the pot in full sun with partial shade and water when the soil is nearly dry.

Care for the seedling until spring arrives to transplant it into a spring landscape after the frost passes.

Potting and Repotting 

Due to its size, Chinese fringe tree is not suitable to be planted in a container.

Pests and Diseases

Fortunately the Chinese fringe tree does not suffer from many pests or diseases, and its issues usually do not threaten the tree’s life. The most significant concern when dealing with pests may be mites, which can easily be treated.

You will not run into many disease issues beyond superficial powdery mildew, which can be treated easily with a fungicide available at any nursery or home center.

How to Get to Bloom

To encourage your Chinese fringe tree to bloom profusely, plant it in full sun and clear away anything that shades the tree during the day. That action alone will elevate your blooms. Provide a yearly dose of fertilizer and provide it with a steady supply of water. Without enough water, its flower production will stall.

III. Types of Chinese Fringe Tree

Chionanthus retusus var. serrulatus

The serrated, oval leaves of this variety are so heavily textured and glossy that they appear like the foliage of an evergreen but in fact, like all fringe trees, it is deciduous.

  • Tokyo Tower

With its narrow, strongly upright branching, this cultivar works well in small spaces. It has four-season interest: abundant clusters of fluffy white flowers in the spring, dark green foliage in the summer, blueberry-like fruit and bright yellow foliage in fall, and a tan-and-gold exfoliating bark in the winter. The tree tops out at a height of 12 to 15 feet and width of 4 to 6 feet. Zone 6-9

  • Arnold’s Pride

Two characteristics set this variety apart from the species and other cultivars. It grows more rapidly, and it is self-pollinating. The tree has a strong central leader and shiny dark green leaves. It grows up to 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide. Zone 5-8

  • China Snow

This variety has been bred for a more profuse bloom of pure white flowers than the species. It grows slowly, 6 to 10 feet in ten years, but may eventually reach 25 feet in height and width. Its glossy, thick green, oval or round leaves turn a creamy yellow in the fall. Old trees have attractive curved trunks and furrowed bark. Zone 6-9

IV. Uses and Benefits 

The Chinese fringe tree is an excellent choice anywhere a small tree is needed, such as in urban yards, under power lines, or near a patio. The tree is especially appealing when placed in front of a backdrop of evergreen trees or shrubs. Another option is to plant it as an accent tree surrounded by perennials. Use a Chinese fringe tree as a specimen at the far back of a landscape or plant it in groups in lawns or in shrub or woodland borders.

Chinese Fringe Tree (Chionanthus retusus) Details

Common name Chinese Fringetree, Chinese Fringe Tree
Botanical name Chionanthus retusus
Plant type Perennial
Hardiness zone 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Medium
Harvest time Summer
Height 10 ft. 0 in. - 30 ft. 0 in.
Width 10 ft. 0 in. - 30 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Dappled Sunlight (Shade through upper canopy all day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Purple/Lavender
Leaf color Green