Lightly fragrant fluff has its fans

In the Horticultural Flora of South-eastern Australia (online as HortFlora), Roger Spencer favours the Chinese Fringe Tree, Chionanthus retusus, with a full description and illustration, giving Old Man's Beard - not to be confused with the bromeliads and lichens that carry this common name - an honorable mention.

Compared to the Chinese Fringe Tree, Old Man's Beard has wispier flowers (with longer, narrower petals), along with larger, more elongate leaves. The flowers are also born on the previous year's growth so tend to not be quite as showy from a distance (some are hidden by new leaves). 

The flowers are wonderfully ethereal, and as suggested in a useful factsheet on the species from the US, would look even better against a dark backdrop. I also learned there that the leaves will be more attractive if there are a few hours of shade each day but the flowering better in full sun. The best compromise, apparently, is some afternoon shade which is what this Birregurra tree gets.

Old Man's Beard, Chionanthus virginicus, is as the species names suggests, from the east of USA. It's found near streams and 'upland woods' in the south-east corner of the country, but is tough enough to be grown further north.

Chionanthus is a member of the olive family, along with jasmine, osmanthus, lilac and many other fragrant ornamental plants. The flowers of Old Man's Beard are only lightly perfumed, and there was no detectable scent when I sniffed these flowers in the middle of the day. The Chinese Fringe Tree flowers are more perfumed.

The plants usually bear only male or female flowers. The flowers I've featured here are I think all female (I forgot to check and can't see the usually obvious anthers). 

Chionanthus' is a name coined by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, and an illusion to the plant in flower: chion for snow, and anthos for flower. A name that applies equally well to both species. 

A post in the Mount Auburn Cemetery blog by Jim Gorman on both species of Chionanthus, includes some lovely quotes about Old Man's Beard, including 'a raving beauty', 'ethereal yet showy flowers' (noting I'd already used the word ethereal when I discovered this page...), 'transcendent', 'clouds of sweetly fragrant, delicate flowers like so much cotton or fleece' and 'enchanted...when it fluffs into flower' (I wished I'd used the word fluff...).

The post even quotes Michael Dirr from his book Manual of Woody Landscape Plants saying that he would prefer to have Old Man's Beard as the national shrub for USA, instead of the dogwood which, says Dirr, 'does not carry itself with such refinement, dignity and class when in flower'.

I gather this Birregurra plant was purchased from Stephen Ryan's Dicksonia Rare Plants nursery, at Mount Macedon. If not, I'm sure he grows it! It's Stephen's kind of plant.

This specimen is only a few years old and doesn't yet have it's mature form, which may be single or multi-stemmed and up to six metres high. At the moment it's a slightly awkward subshrub with plenty of potential.