Plant of the Week: Chinese Fringe tree

The High Line's planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line's rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today. This week we share one of our gardeners' current favorites with you.

As the gardens transition from fall to winter, characteristics often overlooked become more prominent and appreciated in the High Line's landscape. One handsome tree that might catch your eye during this transition is Chionanthus retusus, or Chinese Fringe tree. Normally noted for its feathery white flowers or its clusters of blue-purple berries, the distinguishing quality for this November splendor is its exfoliating red-brown bark. The C. retusus holds onto its foliage, showcasing a pleasant array of green, yellow, and brown. It creates a lasting display on mornings when the winter light filters through the colorful leaves and reflects the papery cinnamon-toned bark.

An Asian native, C. retusus flowers slightly earlier in spring than its American cousin, C. virginicus. The delicate, pure-white flowers are responsible for its botanical naming: chion, meaning snow, and anthos, meaning flower. The particular epithet retusus refers to the rounded leaf shape. Berries appear in late summer and darken in September and October against the lasting foliage. Trees are primarily dioecious, meaning male and female parts exist on separate plants, which is why you won't find any berries on our male specimen.

C. retusus is quite adaptable, so don't be afraid to plant in a difficult spot. It is cold hardy and able to stand harsh conditions such as drought. However, a decent amount of sun will lead to more flowers and perhaps a more pleasing growing shape.

Northern edge of the Chelsea Thicket, just across from the 23rd Street Lawn & Seating Steps

Photos by Ayinde Listhrop.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line's most important gardening projects.

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