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On Gardening: Grancy greybeard offers great winter appeal

  • The Grancy greybeard is native from New York to the Gulf Coast offering springtime white blossoms, blue fruit eaten by birds, and develops a structure that shows out in the winter landscape like a fine piece of statuary. (MCT)<br/>

    The Grancy greybeard is native from New York to the Gulf Coast offering springtime white blossoms, blue fruit eaten by birds, and develops a structure that shows out in the winter landscape like a fine piece of statuary. (MCT)

  • The Grancy greybeard is native from New York to the Gulf Coast offering springtime white blossoms, blue fruit eaten by birds, and develops a structure that shows out in the winter landscape like a fine piece of statuary. (MCT)<br/><br/>

    The Grancy greybeard is native from New York to the Gulf Coast offering springtime white blossoms, blue fruit eaten by birds, and develops a structure that shows out in the winter landscape like a fine piece of statuary. (MCT)

  • The Grancy greybeard is native from New York to the Gulf Coast offering springtime white blossoms, blue fruit eaten by birds, and develops a structure that shows out in the winter landscape like a fine piece of statuary. (MCT)<br/>
  • The Grancy greybeard is native from New York to the Gulf Coast offering springtime white blossoms, blue fruit eaten by birds, and develops a structure that shows out in the winter landscape like a fine piece of statuary. (MCT)<br/><br/>

Last week a most picturesque Grancy greybeard or white fringe tree had me completely mesmerized. If you are a gardener you may be thinking: Doesn’t it bloom in April? The answer is absolutely — which is the real point.

This tree reminded me of a quote by Gertrude Jekyll: “In summertime, one never really knows how beautiful are the forms of deciduous trees. It is only in winter, when they are bare of leaves, that one can fully enjoy their splendid structure and design.”

This is precisely the reason that a stately 20-year-old Grancy greybeard could steal the show in the winter landscape. If you do not know this native tree you are missing one of the great landscape opportunities. Botanically speaking it is Chionanthus virginicus. The name Chionanthus comes from the Greek words meaning “snow flower.” In the spring, they erupt into glorious fragrant white blooms, eye-catching in the forest and highlighting the tree’s exquisite beauty.

The Grancy greybeard or fringe tree forms multiple trunks and usually tops out at less than 20 feet in height.

Though we treasure those spring blooms, there is something magical going on over time that is revealed in winter: The tree’s scaffolds are developing into a rare piece of twisting art. Age is everything in the garden, including the maturity of trees.

The Grancy greybeard is native over a wide range from the Gulf Coast states all the way to Pennsylvania and New York or hardiness zones 4-9. Its stature allows it to be a stand-alone specimen or an accent. If you use it in combination with spring-blooming bulbs or shrubs like azaleas you will create a garden masterpiece.

Unfortunately, they aren’t exactly staples at the garden center. When you do find yours, it pays to plant it right. Choose a site with full sun to partial shade. The soil should be moist and fertile but very well drained. Dig your planting hole about twice as wide as the root ball but no deeper. You do not want the tree planted too deep or sinking. The top of the root ball should be even with the soil surface. I have really become accustomed to forming about a 4-inch berm outside the root ball area. This will allow you to usually add about 5 gallons of water that will be directed to the most important zone while the tree is getting established. After a year you can remove the berm.

Many gardeners really give no thought to fertilizing trees like they do flowers or vegetables. Once you have a Grancy greybeard, feed in late winter with an application of a balanced fertilizer like an 8-8-8 at a rate of 1 pound per 100 square feet of planted area. This is the area from the trunk to just outside the canopy of the tree.

Trees can be male or female. The male trees have showier blossoms while the female tree produces olive-like blue fruit relished by birds. Ask your favorite garden center to get you one for spring planting. You will be glad you did.

(Norman Winter is executive director of the Columbus Botanical Garden, Columbus, Ga., and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.”)

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