All too often I see people using trees that are too big for their allotted space. I have always suspected that their decision was predicated on one of two things. Either they were swayed by the fact that they could buy a larger tree that fit the space immediately, based on price, or they were simply impatient, not wanting to wait for the right plant to fill their space? One shrub or small tree, often overlooked, is Chastetree, Vitex agnus-castus.
Vitex has the common name “Chaste Tree” since Athenian women used the leaves in their beds to keep themselves chaste during the Thesmophoria festival” (Florida State University Facilities/Sights Around Campus). Native to southern Europe and western Asia, many have shied away from planting this tree, fearful of its “hardiness.” Clearly a Mediterranean favorite, Vitex agnus-castus performs well in full sun and is very heat and drought tolerant. Hence, why August is prime time for “gawking” at its merits. Fast growing and easily capable of growing 15-20 feet tall and wide, this garden gem is very affordable. Chastetree has aromatic foliage, comprised of 5 to 7(9) radiating leaflets that is opposite, compound palmate and “digitate (finger-like) in appearance”. Not to mention, the leaves have a spicy sage scent when crushed making it less appealing to deer. Well irrigated plants and fertilizing early on seems to help the plant recover from the “dieback process” during our coldest months. The flowers of Vitex are 12-18 inches long, slightly less in spread, and depending on the cultivar can be shades of purple, blue, lavender, pink or white. Vitex has a rounded habit and should you decide to limb yours up, over time, you will appreciate its gray-brown bark which develops a blocky, alligator-hide type of texture. A bark descriptive that has been used by many, including myself, for Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida, Common Persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, and Sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum.
Belonging to the Verbena family, this plant type has so many new and exciting cultivars to choose from. Candidates that now have you contemplating, should you use one as a small tree, as a mixed border, as a single small specimen or as a container plant by your front door? After all, Vitex is renowned for attracting birds and butterflies. In fact, many who first see this plant mistake it for a type of Butterfly bush, Buddleia or Buddleja. Some of the smaller cultivars to look for include, ‘Blue Diddley’ and ‘Puffball’ while ‘Cooke’s Blue’ and ‘Cooke’s Purple’ are the extreme opposite, reaching heights over 25 feet. ‘Blue Diddley’ has lavender-blue flowers on a smaller 3-6 foot frame, introduced by Proven Winners. Other copious choices include ‘Arnold’s Cutleaf’ which has dissected leaflets, like a dissected Japanese maple, with blue-purple-lavender flowers. ‘Delta Blues™’ has rich purple-blue flowers in compact panicles reaching 8-10 feet tall and wide. A great cultivar touted for its richness of color and abundance of panicles on a smaller Vitex type. ‘Montrose Purple’ produces rich violet flowers in large inflorescences and has a strong growing form. ‘Silver Spire’ has cleaner white flowers than ‘Alba’ with good vigor.
Common in medicinal and herbal lore, Vitex, in recent years has been hurdling its obstacles. Commonly called Monk’s Pepper, Chastetree produces fruit, containing seed, sometimes used for seasoning, similar to black pepper. Additionally, an extract made from the fruit “is claimed to treat infertility and lessen symptoms that may occur before or during a woman’s menstrual period (cancer.gov). Breeding for more refined foliage, sharper color, disease resistance and smaller stature has helped Chastetree gain momentum. Imagine one of these “cold hardy” cultivars, “limbed up” on the corner of your home or next to your patio. A multi-stem tree with a canopy full of purple, pink or white flowers in the months when you are appreciating your outdoor surroundings the most. You could start with a small #3 or #5 container and in no time at all have yourself an appreciable small tree larger than a basketball hoop.