Frederick fringe festival

Don't look now, but the spring spectacle of flowering trees isn’t over yet.

Now is the prime time for one of the Mid-Atlantic’s showiest native bloomers, the fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus). The long, strappy sprays of creamy white petals on this underutilized tree in May might bring flashbacks of a favorite fringed purse from the ’70s, but en masse on the tree, the effect is more like a ballet swan costume, especially on a gently breezy day. Sometimes also called old man’s beard, fringe trees can be either male or female; male trees are somewhat showier and smell faintly of cocoa or vanilla, while female trees bear dark blue berries in fall which attract a broad variety of birds including thrashers, vireos, bluebirds and finches. In the wild, fringetrees grow primarily as thin understory trees: visit the Great Falls of the Potomac to witness specimens growing directly out of soilless crags above the river. In the landscape, this multi-stemmed species fills out nicely, blooming from mid-May to June in our area, preferring moist, well-drained soils and a bit of afternoon shade.


Credit: - Ginny Brace, FCFCDB

Trees can grow to between 12 and 20 feet tall and work well as individuals, or planted in groups in front of evergreens, which set off the white spring flowers and golden fall color to its best effect. Fringe trees are sensitive to salt, so avoid planting them near a sidewalk or roadway that requires frequent de-icing in winter.

Weed or Wonder?

Far from rare along roadways and near rivers in Frederick County, the black locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a rampant native tree that many might consider a weed. Suckering from the base and reseeding easily from the long, curling black bean pods produced in fall, black locust has established itself well outside of its native Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern range, and is considered an invasive exotic in the Midwest and West as well as parts of Canada, Europe and Asia where it has been imported. Though its natural growth structure means its branches tend to break easily during storms, early American settlers valued black locust lumber for its exceptional hardness and used the wood to craft nails and other rigid fasteners for homes, barns and ships. Weed or no, this tree’s frequency in the naturalized landscape means something else entirely to one of our most important and storied pollinators: the honey bee.

Black locust’s large, white and powerfully fragrant wisteria- like blooms signal the true start of honey season for bees, which rely on the tree’s ample nectar to boost their hives’ early honey supply. Some estimates suggest that an acre of black locust is enough to produce between 800 to 1,200 pounds of honey. Additionally, as a legume, black locust injects nitrogen back into to poor, depleted soils, and its suckering habit makes it a useful species for reclaiming eroded or other degraded sites. Though the seeds, bark and leaves of black locust are poisonous, the destemmed flowers can be battered and fried into fritters, which reputedly have a sweet taste reminiscent of the flowers’ scent.

Article and photo by Ginny Brace, FCFCDB member

Nature Note for 6/1/2014