We’ve long admired Chionanthus retusus, Chinese fringe tree, as a bullet proof plant for the Gulf South. Our first tree was planted back in the 1980s and finally succumbed to too much shade and poor drainage. We learned our lesson. This is a plant that likes full sun and well drained soils. Our first big planting at SFA was in 1999 when 75 of the trees were planted along Wilson Drive next to the SFA Mast Arboretum, a planting to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Stephen F. Austin State University. This planting was made in cooperation with Dr. David Kulhavy’s, Professor of Forestry, and his class in early spring 1999. If I remember right, the trees came from our good friend Aubrey King, King’s Nursery, Tenaha, Texas.
While there was no drip irrigation on site, we did manage to drag some hoses across the street and give them a good soaking two times in 1998, once in 1999, and once in 2000. They’ve been on their own ever since. Even in 2010 and 2011, benchmark years for heat and drought, the trees were left unirrigated. While they weren’t happy in that long stretch of hundred degree days and incessant drought, they survived. Our conclusion is this is one tough tree.
The form of the straight species is a bit problematic. Chinese fringe trees tend to sprawl with limbs going here and there. We believe in training the trees to a single trunk and then let branching go as the tree intends, except for some occasional side branch removal. We’ve seen zero disease and insect problems. In Texas, the tree is better adapted to East Texas. Soil pH should be a little on the acid side if possible. Sprinkler irrigation with alkaline or salty water results in leave burn. Mike Arnold, TAMU, College Station, TX, reports the tree is chlorotic in their region. Foliage is very glossy and an attractive light green. The tree flowers best in full sun. While some Chinese fringe trees fruit heavily, some do not. It’s best to avoid the heavy fruiting types as seedlings “can” be a problem. While we haven’t seen a severe problem, we do find seedlings here and there, particularly if the trees are in a mulched bed.
The tree can actually get to be quite large. I’ve witnessed giant trees in Karo, Georgia and one of the largest specimens is in the garden at TreeSearch Farms in Houston, Texas. Heidi Sheesley planted this tree in a perfect spot and it is perhaps the largest Chinese fringe tree in Texas?
There’s one variety worthy of much greater use, ‘Tokyo Tower’. This Don Shadow introduction from Japan is very fastigiate. In East Texas, ‘Tokyo Tower’ appears to leaf out and bloom about a week after the straight species. It’s a male with blooms that are quite large compared to the straight species.
It must be grafted and a couple of rooting experiments a few years ago were a total failure. Our start of ‘Tokyo Tower’ came from Hidden Hollow Nursery in Tennessee and came in bareroot. Growth in the first year in the container is disappointing and leaves are characteristically quite small. However, the second year sees better growth and leaf size jumps. Chinese fringe tree has a propensity to grow only in the spring and fall, sitting quite still during the summer months in spite of good nutrition and irrigation. ‘Tokyo Tower’ is a unique small flowering fastigiate tree for the southern USA. Anyone looking for a tough as nails columnar small flowering tree need look no further. It’s a winner. There is one caveat and it relates to chilling. This tree is not from Taiwan genetics – it’s from Japan. It has a higher chilling requirement. Over the last decade, I’ve concluded Nacogdoches, TX is the very southern most spot where the tree performs reasonably. In low chill years (<700 hrs <45 degrees F), the tree is late to bloom and many buds fail to break properly. Another issue that arises in low chill years is a tendency to push shoots from below the graft union which must be cut away. A good rule of thumb might be to stick to 50 miles South of I20 and northward?