This is a shrub or small tree up to 30' tall, although it is usually
less than 15' tall. Shrubs with multiple slender trunks are common,
although sometimes it becomes a tree with a single short trunk up to 8"
branches are often irregular and crooked, forming an open crown in
areas that receive less light, while in full sunlight a dense ovoid
crown may develop. On a large mature trunk, the bark is slightly
scaly, warty, and gray; it may have reddish brown furrows that are
shallow and narrow. The bark of branches and twigs is gray and
smooth, while twigs are gray or brown, glabrous or short-pubescent, and
covered with scattered white lenticels. Young shoots are
light green, terete, and glabrous or short-pubescent. Pairs of opposite
leaves occur along the twigs and young shoots. These leaves are 3-6"
long, 1-3" across, and deciduous; they are elliptic to ovate in
shape with margins that are entire (toothless) and revolute (folded
downward and inward).
The leaf bases are wedge-shaped, while their tips are acute. The upper
leaf surface is yellowish green to
medium green and glabrous, while the lower leaf surface is pale green
and either glabrous or short-pubescent. Leaf venation is pinnate. The
petioles are light green or reddish purple, glabrous or
short-pubescent, and up to ½" long. Drooping panicles of flowers up to
long 6" across are produced from the axils of last year's leaves. Each
a tripartite branching structure that terminates in either multiple
solitary flowers or multiple clusters
of 2-3 flowers (usually the latter). The peduncle, intermediate stems,
and pedicels of each
panicle are light green to reddish purple and slender; sometimes pairs
of small leafy
bracts develop at the bases of divergent stems. Each flower is about 1"
long, consisting of a white corolla with 4 lobes and a light green
calyx with 4 teeth. The divergent lobes of the corolla are linear in
shape and quite long; they are usually somewhat curved or twisted. In
contrast, the calyx is very short (about 3 mm. or 1/8" in length).
American Fringetree is usually dioecious, producing either all male
flowers or all female flowers on the same shrub or tree, but not both.
However, sometimes perfect flowers are produced. Male flowers have 2
short stamens, while female flowers have a small superior ovary with a
single style. The
blooming period occurs during late spring, lasting about 2 weeks. The
flowers have an attractive fragrance. Afterwards, fertile female or
perfect flowers are replaced by drupes that become mature during late
summer. Mature drupes are ½–¾" long, ovoid in shape, and blue to nearly
each drupe contains a thin layer of flesh that surrounds a large stone
(hardened seed). The root system is woody, relatively shallow,
and branching. This woody plant reproduces by reseeding itself.
The preference is full sun to light shade, moist to dry-mesic
conditions, and deep loam to thin rocky soil. This woody plant is able
to adjust to climates that lie north of
its natural range (at least to Zone 5). It is probably best cultivated
in areas that receive some protection from prevailing winds.
American Fringetree has naturalized in
DuPage County as
an escape from cultivation, otherwise it is not known to occur as a
wild plant in Illinois (see Distribution
). This woody plant is
native to SE United States, including small areas of Kentucky and
Missouri; Illinois lies north of its natural range.
Outside of Illinois, habitats include upland woodlands and rocky
bluffs, glades and ledges, river outcrop prairies, and wooded areas
along streams. American Fringetree is often cultivated as an ornamental
The pollinators of the
flowers are widely reported to be bees, although little additional
information is currently available. Steury et al. (2009) reported a
cuckoo bee (Nomada
) as a visitor to the flowers. American
Fringetree is a host plant of several insect species. Polyphagous
armored scales, including Forbes Scale (Diaspidiotus forbesi
English Walnut Scale
), and White Peach Scale (Pseudaulacaspis
), attach themselves to the bark, where
they feed (ScaleNet, accessed 2014). The larvae of several moths feed
on the leaves (Covell, 1984/2005), including the Fringetree Sallow (Sympistis chionanthi
Fall Webworm (Hyphantria
), Waved Sphinx (Ceratomia
), Rustic Sphinx (Manduca rustica
and Fawn Sphinx (Sphinx
). Among vertebrate animals, the fruits of this
woody plant are eaten by such birds as the Northern Cardinal, Eastern
Bluebird, Brown Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, Blue Jay, Pileated
Woodpecker, and Wild Turkey, while White-tailed Deer browse on both the
foliage and fruits. The stones (hardened seeds) of the fruits are
sometimes eaten by small rodents.
On the campus of the University of Illinois in
American Fringetree has attractive flowers, fruits, and
leaves. In particular, the flowers have a very distinctive appearance.
A similar species, Chinese Fringetree (Chionanthus retusus
often cultivated. This latter species has wider leaves with either
rounded or cordate
bases and the corolla lobes of its flowers are somewhat shorter than
those of American Fringetree. There are no records of Chinese
Fringetree escaping from cultivation in Illinois, however. Another
species that is endemic to Florida, Pygmy Fringetree (Chionanthus
), is similar in appearance to American
Fringetree, but it is
smaller in size.