Saturday, July 1, 2017

Blooming chaste tree: perfect foil for agaves and aloes

In our backyard, there is a beautiful tree that is visible from the dining room window and from the sidewalk on the south side of the house. People invariably ask what it is, and when we tell them it’s a chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), they get a blank look on their face—either because they have never heard of it before, or they can’t quite figure out what chastity has to do with it. I had no idea either so I did some research. I love what I found on Wikipedia:
In ancient times it was believed to be an anaphrodisiac, hence the name chaste tree. Pliny, in his Historia Naturalis, reports the use of stems and leaves of this plant by women as bedding "to cool the heat of lust" during the time of the Thesmophoria, when Athenian women left their husband's beds to remain ritually chaste. […] Chaucer, in "The Flower and the Leaf," refers to it as an attribute of the chaste Diana, and in the 16th century the English herbalist William Turner reports the same anaphrodisiac properties of the seed, both fried and not fried. 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 the complex mechanism of action it can be probably both, depending on concentration of the extract and physiologic variables (see below).
A few years ago somebody posted a note on our local Freecycle site looking for chaste-tree berries, and she did come by and collect some from our tree. I wonder what she was using them for?


We bought our chaste tree as a tiny plant in a four-inch pot, and in the 15 years it’s been in the ground it has grown into compact 15 ft. tree that provides beautiful filtered shade.
Native to the Mediterranean and hardy to zone 7, the chaste tree does superbly well in our climate and deserves to be grown  more widely. It's at its most beautiful in mid- to late-June when it's covered with flower spikes that bear a superficial resemblance to butterfly bush (Buddleja). Some chaste tree varieties have flowers that are violet, others are almost white, but my favorite is the kind we have with vibrant purplish blue flowers.

During the day, the tree is abuzz with all kinds of bees, including large black carpenter bees. I love ducking under the branches, now weighed down by the blossoms, and being surrounded by a symphony of bee sounds.

All the photos below were taken from the sidewalk along the south side of the house. I think the chaste tree harmonizes perfectly with the 'Sonoran Emerald' palo verde (Parkisonsia 'Sonoran Emerald'.




The coral flower spikes are from red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)

The silver pom-pom in the foreground is a cushion bush from New Zealand (Leucophyta brownii)

Soon this branch of the chaste tree will have to be removed to make room for our 'Hercules' tree aloe (Aloidendron 'Hercules')


Our "desert bed" has never looked as good as it does now

So many of my favorite plants in one spot!
  

Does anybody else have a chaste tree?


20 comments:

  1. It's a gorgeous tree and yet another of the many plants I've long coveted. I have a Vitex trifolia, more of a shrub than a tree and still mid-sized. It's pretty but nowhere near as flashy as your Vitex.

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    1. Friends of ours have a chaste tree, and through heavy pruning they have turned it into small multi-trunked tree that looks like a living sculpture. With regular trimming, you can keep it quite compact.

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  2. Your tree is really pretty. Excellent combo with the Palo Verde. Yellow and purple bring out the best in each other. It was a tree I considered planting since it's not a big tree, but I hesitated on reading about reseeding...have you had any problems with seedlings sprouting?

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    1. Reseeding: If you'd asked me six months ago, I would have said that I've only found a handful of seedlings over the years. But after we had the chocolate bamboo next to the chaste tree removed and the rhizomes ground out, there has been an explosion of seedlings in that area. The seeds must have been dormant for a long time but after the soil was disturbed, they sprouted. The seedlings are easy enough to pull out, and after I've mulched that area, I don't expect this to recur.

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  3. How long do those blooms last, or their floral display? From afar it reminds me of ceanothus which is so popular here.

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    1. Yes, I can see the resemblance to ceanothus.

      The blooms last about a month, depending on how hot it is. Not long enough for me, but it's quite a spectacle while it lasts.

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  4. They are decently popular here. (Though I think crepe myrtles will always be king here.) Its even occasionally used along the side of some road and highway projects. We have a few 'Shoal Creek' in our backyard. They are just getting big enough that we can really start to enjoy them. Such a great plant.

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    1. 'Shoal Creek' is very pretty. The flower color is quite different from ours--lilac rather than purplish blue.

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  5. There was a Vitex here in one of the beds when we moved in, right next to a Buddleia. It was very tall and rangy, nowhere near as full and luscious as yours. I took it out because it looked so sickly. I took out the Buddleia too. I think on balance the rest of the changes I've made to the garden, providing a wide variety of flowers for bees and butterflies, have made up for the removal.

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    1. Vitex agnus-castus is one of those trees that really need heavy pruning to make them look good (the same goes for buddleia). We're getting much more aggressive about shaping ours. In fact, another round of pruning is in order after it's done flowering.

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  6. It's a beauty, and the idea it grew from a 4" pot into a specimen of seemingly lovey proportions makes me head hurt.

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    1. I know! It came from our favorite area nursery, Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville. Virtually all our lavenders and Mediterranean plants are from there.

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  7. I have wanted a Vitex for years , but there is simply nowhere for me to put it at the present. Yours is splendid !

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    1. Yeah, trees aren't as easy to squeeze in as other plants. Unfortunately!

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  8. Rhapsody in blue! So good with the palo verde too. And that's about the best-shaped leucophyta I've seen.

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    1. That Leucophyta grew that way on its own. It's too close to the sidewalk but I don't think I can move it now...

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  9. Your Hercules sure looks healthy!! I need to repot mine. Love that Vitex color... wow!

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    1. 'Hercules' loves being the ground. I can't believe how much it's grown!

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  10. Looking forward to seeing your Chaste tree in October when you host Calhort to coffee in your garden. I look forward to finally getting to see it first hand!

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    1. Looking forward to it as well!

      Our chaste tree won't be in bloom then, but it looks good even when it isn't.

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