vitexI’m getting close to the end of the alphabet, and it doesn’t get any easier…so today’s feature tree (or large shrub), is the interestingly named Vitex agnus – castus…

Common name:  Vitex, Chaste Tree, chasteberry, Abraham’s balm, lilac chastetree, or monk’s pepper.

Native areas: Vitex agnus-castus is a native of the Mediterranean region and China. It is one of the few temperate-zone species of Vitex, which is on the whole a genus of tropical and sub-tropical flowering plants. It has a long history in the U.S.A. where it was first cultivated in 1670, and since that time it has become naturalized throughout the Southern part of the country. Many southerners use it as a replacement for lilacs, which don’t tolerate hot summers.

Historical notes: : Theophrastus mentioned Vitex as agnos (άγνος) in ‘Enquiry into Plants’. Vitex, its name in Pliny the Elder, is derived from the latin vieo, meaning to weave or to tie up, a reference to the use of Vitex agnus-castus in basketry. Its specific name repeats “chaste” in both Greek and Latin, and was considered to be sacred to the goddess Hestia/Vesta. In folk legends the tree is associated with Greek hagnos, ‘pure’, since it was strewn in bedchambers during Thesmophoria, the Greek religious festival when Athenian women left their husbands’ beds to remain ritually chaste-   “to cool the heat of lust”. At the end of the thirteenth century John Trevisa reports “the herbe agnus-castus is always grene, and the flowre therof is namly callyd Agnus Castus, for wyth smel and vse it maketh men chaste as a lombe”. More recently, this plant has been called monk’s pepper in the thought that it was used as anti-libido medicine by monks to aid their attempts to remain chaste. There are disputed accounts regarding its actual action on libido, with some claims that it is anaphrodisiac and others that it is aphrodisiac. Because of it’s  complex chemical action it can be probably be both, depending on the concentration of the extract and physiological variables. Today, Vitex agnus-castus is used to alleviate the symptoms of various gynaecological problems.

Features: Vitex blooms from late spring until early autumn with long, upright spikes of butterfly- attracting pink, lilac and white flowers (depending on variety) in late summer in cooler climates. It also has delicate-textured aromatic foliage. It develops small hard berries that ripen to a dark colour and look like peppercorns. It grows to a height of 1–5 metres.

Uses:   Whether left to grow as a large, multistemmed shrub, pruned to a standard tree or cut back annually for a more compact look, this selection is a winner. Fine, lacy leaves are glossy and green. Bright blue flower panicles begin to form in early summer and continue through the heat of the season and into autumn. This is a reasonably cold-hardy, deer-resistant woody plant. Vitex, also a traditional plant in Africa, is a little-known fruit plant that has potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable landcare.

Growing conditions:   It requires full sun or partial shade along with well-drained soil. It’s best not to plant them in soil that is rich in organic matter because these soils hold too much moisture close to the roots. Chaste trees do very well in dry gardens. Under ideal conditions it is hardy to -10 degrees Fahrenheit and will grow in South West England (and possibly in suitable micro-climates and sheltered parts of gardens eleswhere) and the more temperate zones of north America. Wildlife shuns the seeds, and it’s just as well because you’ll have to remove the flower spikes before they go to seed to keep the plant flowering. You’ll need to prune annually to control the shape and size and encourage branching.

Further information:

Wikipedia

How to grow Vitex (U.S.A.)

Vitex agnus-castus- The British Gardener

Old School Gardener

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