Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Fringetree - Chionanthus virginicus   L.
Members of Oleaceae:
Only member of Chionanthus in NC.
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Section 6 » Order Scrophulariales » Family Oleaceae
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DistributionThroughout the Piedmont; essentially throughout the Coastal Plain, though of spotty occurrence in the far eastern counties. Present in the lower Mountains, but absent from a number of Mountain counties. Probably also absent in a few counties close to the eastern and northern coast. Because the species is often planted for its showy flower clusters, new county records from iNaturalist are not included here, owing to uncertainty if photos are from a natural setting.

This is a Southeastern species, ranging north to NJ, PA, and MO south to southern FL and eastern TX. It is scarce in the Mississippi River valley.
AbundanceFrequent to common in the Piedmont and lower elevations of the Mountains. Fairly common to frequent in the western and central Coastal Plain, but rare to uncommon in the tidewater areas near Albemarle and Pamlico sounds (and locally absent close to the northern coast). Scarce in the Sandhills region, except bluffs along Little River and Crains Creek.
HabitatThis species has a very wide range of habitats, not characteristic of any. It can be found, always as scattered individuals, in mesic forests, rich forests, bottomlands, and even in drier woods, including along borders and around rock outcrops. In drier or rockier woods it favors somewhat circumneutral soils. It typically is scarce in strongly acidic soils of pocosins, bays, and some Sandhills habitats.
PhenologyFlowers in April and May; fruits from July to September.
IdentificationEveryone has seen this species, at least as planted in yards and gardens, as it is quite unique and showy in bloom. It is a tall shrub or small tree, growing to about 15-25 feet on average. The deciduous leaves are opposite, rather large, but are otherwise “ordinary” – being elliptical to somewhat oblong, 2-3x longer than wide, with entire margins. They often reach 5 inches long, if not more. When not in bloom or fruit, you can often identify the species by large leaves that are opposite; there are many trees or large shrubs with similar leaves, but nearly all others have alternate leaves. When in bloom or fruit, it is unmistakable. The inflorescences consist of dense masses of white flowers with very narrow and drooping petals; so dense are the flowers that the entire tree “turns white”! Later in summer the inflorescence is a wide open panicle of fairly large dark blue drupes. When in shade, the trees often do not flower, and thus they are most conspicuous when along wooded margins and around rock outcrops.
Taxonomic CommentsWeakley (2018) mentions that plants in some Coastal Plain habitats, such as swamps and pocosins, have much narrower leaves than do those in the drier Piedmont sites, where leaves are wider and barely twice as long as wide. He speculates that two taxa may be involved.

Other Common Name(s)Old-man’s-beard, White Fringetree
State RankS5
Global RankG5
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B.A. SorrieMesic ravine N of Sorrell Road. 20 Apr 2008. AnsonPhoto_natural
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