The Chinese fringetree, Chionanthus retusus, is native to eastern Asia, including eastern and central China, Korea, and Japan. It is hard to think of a more beautiful small tree than a Chinese fringetree in full bloom. Female plants develop purple/blue fruits which are highly prized by many birds. It is one of the finest accents available in the nursery trade! It differs from the American fringetree (C. virginicus), which flowers before the leaves emerge, and is noted for its profuse spring bloom of fragrant white flowers. Chinese fringetree is most often seen in cultivation as a large, multi-stemmed, deciduous shrub growing 10–20 feet tall with a rounded, wide-spreading form. Its exfoliating gray-brown bark is attractive in winter. Laura Barnes obtained this specimen from Morris Arboretum in 1942. When this tree was nominated for the championship in 2012 it had 100 points, while its competitors had 50 or fewer points.
The American fringetree, introduced to Europe before 1736, was named Chionanthus by Linnaeus in his Genera Plantarum, from the Greek words chion (snow) and anthos (flower). Retusus means rounded with a shallow notch at the apex, in reference to leaf shape. The Chinese species was introduced to Britain by Robert Fortune, who obtained specimens from a garden near Fuzhou.
The taxonomic history of the genus is also interesting. In 1788, Swartz described a small, evergreen, Jamaican tree with small corolla lobes, naming it Thouinia to commemorate the French gardener André Thouin (1747–1824). However, Linnaeus had already used this name in 1781. Accordingly, Swartz gave his new genus a different name, Linociera, in honor of a sixteenth-century French physician, Geoffrey Linocier.
Between 1791 and 1976 many species of Linociera were described from both the old world and the new. In 1976, William Stearn proposed the union of Linociera and Chionanthus. The difficulty of distinguishing between them had been recognized as early as 1860 by George Thwaites, who suggested that the two genera be merged but did not present a formal proposal. Thus, prior to 1976 botanists generally referred to deciduous species with big flowers as Chionanthus, and evergreen species with small flowers as Linociera.
However, a small-flowered Ecuadorian species (L. pubescens) is a deciduous tree, while a deciduous Florida species (C. pygmaeus) has small flowers. Other morphological traits overlap, and no clear-cut differences separate the two. Therefore, Stearn’s proposal to unite them has been widely accepted in the botanical community. The combined group is referred to as Chionanthus because this name was published first. The union has led to the transfer of numerous species, even though genetic studies have not been performed to determine the evolutionary relationships of deciduous and evergreen species. Modern DNA research will surely help clarify the taxonomy of Chionanthus and Linociera.
In China, the young leaves of this tree are used as a substitute for tea and some are considered equal in fragrance to the best green teas. The best bloomers are propagated by grafting.