I think it smells like chocolate; others may think differently. But what we all seem to agree on is that the flowers of Chionanthus virginica possess one heck of a fragrance.
Yet this smallish deciduous tree or shrub, with its drooping clusters of heavily-scented white blossoms, seems to be something of a rarity in this country, although in its native United States, it is grown widely.
It may well be one of the last trees to bear new leaves in spring (it appears dead until the leaves and flowers appear) but once it burst into life, it is one of the delights of the garden.
Chionanthus (meaning snow and flower) can grow to a height of 30 feet, although it’s usually much less, so it’s worth considering where space is limited.
The bark is scaly, brown tinged with red, and the shoots are light green, downy at first, later becoming light brown or orange. The leaves are quite attractive and they turn a lovely yellow in autumn and birds seem to like the small, dark blue, olive-like fruit. It’s the richly-scented flowers which are the stars of this hardy little tree (also known as the Fringe Tree), which refuses to be rushed – it grows at a very sedate pace.
It prefers a moist, acidic soil and a sheltered situation where, if left alone, it usually forms an open shrub, but landscapers prefer to train it to have just one trunk to form a small tree. They also appreciate the fact that it is tolerant of air pollution so it can thrive in the city.
Fringe Trees rarely need pruning (if you want a single-stemmed tree rather than a shrub, get the pruning done when the plant is young) and once they are in the ground, they don’t like to be moved – so be warned; get the siting right first time.
The Fringe Tree has quite a history in the US where the dried roots and bark were used by Native Americans to treat skin inflammations, and the crushed bark was used in treatment of sores and wounds.
There is also the Chinese Fringe Tree (Chionanthus retusus.) which is native to eastern Asia and which tends to be a bit taller.