2018-07-06 / Home & Garden

Vive la Vitex!

Stopping to smell the flowers
By Arlene Marturano

From sunup to sundown the petite 15’ vase-shaped multi-trunked tree, Vitex agnes castus, sends vivid blue spires skyward attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. The Mediterranean native, for centuries classified in the Vervain family, has been moved to the mint family following pylogenetic molecular studies.

What’s in the name? Early naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79AD) stated “agnos castus” was a Greek term meaning “chaste.” Allegedly Athenian women preserved their chastity by lying on pallets of Vitex foliage during the feast of Demeter, goddess of harvest and fertility. Since the days of Hippocrates, Vitex flowers, leaves, and seeds have been used for gynecological conditions. Romans called the tree Vitex meaning “basketlike” because the flexible limbs were used in wickerwork.

The common name chaste tree originated in Europe where herbalists prescribed the aromatic leaves and flowers as an anaphrodisiac.

Pollinators make a beeline to Vitex. Pollinators make a beeline to Vitex. In the Middle Ages the tree was called monk’s peppertree. Spent Vitex flowers give way to pungent-scented panicles of peppercorn-like seeds. Monk’s are said to have brewed a libido-busting tea from the seeds to maintain celibacy. In Italy today, the flowers are used in monasteries as symbols of chastity.

The name lilac chaste tree originated south of the Mason Dixon line when transplants from the north sought to find a mimic for the cool climate lilacs. Panicle form and fragrance do resemble lilacs.

The grey-green aromatic leaves are compound palmate with five to seven leaflets 2-4” long and tapering at either end resembling Cannabis, hence, the common name hemp tree.

Vitex appeared in English gardens around 1570. European immigrants introduced the tree to America in the early 1800s.

Vitex agnes-castus flowers, leaves, and seeds have been used as a medicinal herb for 2,500 years.Vitex agnes-castus flowers, leaves, and seeds have been used as a medicinal herb for 2,500 years.
While Vitex herbal tinctures, tablets, and teas can be found on local health food store shelves, the medicinal herb is much more prevalent in Europe and Asia. In the United States Vitex is primarily used as an ornamental landscape tree, in pollinator plots, and for honey production.

Gardeners appreciate the tree’s heat and drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance, long flowering season, parade of pollinators, and true blue flowers although Vitex is available in pink, purple, and white flowers too. Vitex are easy to propagate from seed or by cuttings all summer.

The tree likes a sunny to partial sun site with wel-drained soil. Pruning back flowerheads after bloom promotes remontancy.

Horticulturist Michael Dirr foresees a new market for shorter, denser, floriferous chaste trees that resemble the compact growth habit of a shrub. The University of Georgia’s Daytona Heat™ series is destined to be as hot as the racetrack. New cultivars will be heavy and repeat bloomers with novel flower colors and foliage traits.

Spicy scented Vitex seeds are easy to germinate without stratification. Spicy scented Vitex seeds are easy to germinate without stratification. In the Midland’s marketplace Vitex trees are available at the following garden centers for fall planting: Cooper’s, Millcreek Greenhouses, Reese’s, Southern Vistas, and Woodley’s.

Vive la Vitex!

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