White fringe tree is usually a shrub with crooked branches, but it is sometimes a tree to 33 feet. Usually there are several trunks that spread from the base and ascend toward the tips.
Leaves are simple, opposite, and may appear whorled or clustered near the tip; they are large, 4–8 inches long, 1–4 inches wide, oval to egg-shaped or lance-shaped, with the tip blunt to pointed, the base wedge-shaped, the margin entire or wavy; they are dark green and smooth above, and paler below with hairs on the veins. The leaf stalk is ½–1 inch long, hairy.
Bark is brown to gray, thin, close, flattened, broken into small thin plates, becoming thinly ridged or furrowed with age; the wood is light brown, the sapwood lighter, hard, heavy, close-grained.
Twigs are stout, hairy, light brown to orange, later gray. The leaf scars are raised, and there are raised, oval, darker brown lenticels.
Flowers April–May, in delicate drooping bundles along the twig at the leaf axils, 4–6 inches long; stalks hairy; petal lobes usually 4 (to 6), narrow, the tip pointed, about 1 inch long, white with purple spots near the base, fragrant; stamens 2. Fringe tree is usually dioecious (with male flowers and female flowers on separate plants), but sometimes there are perfect flowers (having functional male and female parts on the same flower) mixed with the male or female ones. The male flowers are showier than the female ones.
Fruits August–October, a drupe (a seed covered by fleshy pulp), borne in clusters, at first olive green, turning bluish black or dark purple, smooth, globe- to egg-shaped, ½–¾ inch long, with 1–3 seeds, each seed about ⅓ inch long, oval, brown. Plants 5–8 years old begin to produce seed.
Similar species: From a distance, American smoke tree (Cotinus obovatus) might be confused with fringe tree. Both are shrubs with simple, alternate leaves crowded toward the branch tips, and both have flower clusters that look something like feather dusters. In smoke tree, the feathery clusters are finer and are actually not flowers — they are the hairy, colorful stalks of the flowers after the blossoms have fallen away. They are in different families. Also, the Eurasian smoke tree (C. coggygria) is a common landscaping shrub that is smaller and has smaller leaves than our native smoke tree; one popular variety has purple leaves.