Autumn fern, fringetree win state's plant of the year title
8:07 a.m., June 7, 2012--Beauty pageants like to stress that it’s not just good looks but also talent and poise that make a winner. Likewise, the Delaware Nursery and Landscape Association Plant of the Year designation isn’t given to just any pretty plant but one “particularly well suited to thrive in Delaware,” notes Valann Budischak, executive director of the association.
That being said, the newly announced 2012 Plant of the Year winners are knock-out beauties – even if these plants weren’t easy to grow you’d want them in your garden. Dryopteris erythrosora, aka autumn fern, sports a copper pink color when its leaves first unfurl in spring, eventually maturing to glossy dark green. And Chionanthus virginicus, commonly known as fringetree, is a Southern charmer, with airy panicles of fragrant, fringy flowers in May.
“Fringe tree is an apt moniker for this delightful, small flowering tree, whose white blossoms do resemble a fanciful white fringe suspended in the spring sunlight,” wrote Landenberg, Pa., landscape consultant Rick Darke, a University of Delaware alumnus, in his 2002 book The American Woodland Garden.
Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania are the northernmost habitat for the fringetree. It also grows in south Jersey, nearly all of Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, into the Deep South, and as far west as Texas.
With its ethereal appearance, you’d think fringetree would be a high-maintenance plant. But it’s a cinch to grow in full sun to partial shade. “Fringetree prefers moist, well-drained soil but it also will tolerate extremely dry conditions,” says Budischak. “And it’s especially well-suited to urban sites because of its high pollution tolerance.”
Dozens of fringetrees planted in the I-95 median north of Wilmington to the Pennsylvania state line are exposed to exhaust fumes 24/7 but look just as good as if they were growing in the wild. These trees were installed as part of the Enhancing Delaware Highways project, a joint venture between UD, the state Department of Transportation and Delaware Center for Horticulture (DCH).
DCH also has planted fringetree in several spots in Wilmington, including a 911 Memorial Garden on Scott and 14th streets and along a railway embankment on Union Street. At the embankment planting, fringetree was mixed with Eastern ninebark, a hardy native shrub, and a variety of perennials, including false indigo. Fringetree also works well on its own as a specimen tree.
“I like fringetree because it’s very stalwart, very dependable and it’s a good habitat for pollinators and other wildlife,” says Lenny Wilson, assistant director of horticulture and facilities for DCH.
Female (fruit-bearing) fringetrees are especially attractive to wildlife. Bluebirds, thrashers, finch, vireo and eight species of caterpillars enjoy the tree’s dark blue fruit, according to Doug Tallamy, chair of UD’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology. The trees aren’t labeled “male” or “female” at the garden center so the only way to know if you’re getting a female tree is to buy the plant in the fall, after the fruit has appeared.
Unlike fringetree, autumn fern isn’t native to Delaware. However, Budischak is quick to note that autumn fern is not invasive and spreads very slowly over time via creeping rhizomes. An arching, vase-shaped fern, it grows in medium to wet soils, in partial to full shade. Ultimately, it reaches a height of one and one-half to two feet.
June 13 Garden Day
If you have questions about growing fringetree or autumn fern, head to the June 13 Garden Day at the New Castle County Cooperative Extension office in Newark.
Master Gardeners will be on hand to lend their expertise at this event in the Native Teaching Garden. It is held from 9 a.m. to noon on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month, through September.
There also will be an evening open house in the garden June 20 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Call 831-COOP for more info about either event.
Article by Margo McDonough
Photo by Danielle Quigley