By Shon Cameron, SGG Head Gardener
This month’s plant choice is known by many names including Monk’s Pepper, Abraham’s Balm, Chaste Berry, Texas Lilac, Chaste Tree, or Vitex agnus-castus. However, in this case the genus name is its most usual common name: Vitex.
There are 18 known species, most of which are tropical or sub-tropical. The two most commonly used ornamental types in the U.S. are Vitex agnus-castus and Vitex negundo. There is, however, conflicting information on the country of origin as some say China, while others India or the Mediterranean region.
Vitex was introduced here in the U.S. in 1670. After escaping cultivation, it has naturalized in the warmer regions of our country. Originally described by Linnaeus, “the father of taxonomy”, in his book Species Plantarum released in 1753, the name is based on the Latin term vieo which means to weave or tie up. This term references one of the plants uses which is making baskets out of the flexible wood.
The common name Chaste Tree was given to the plant, when it was believed that ingesting a potion made from its berries would suppress libido. Of course, that helps explain why the Catholic Church would place Vitex blossoms on novice monks to help repress their earthiness, and birthed one of the common names, Monk’s Pepper.
The flowers of Vitex are spike shaped, come in several shades from lilac to white, and are great butterfly and magnets. It is an excellent alternate to the cooler weather lilac so prevalent in the Midwest and northeast U.S. Loving the heat, it grows best in full sun and prefers well-drained soil. This butterfly and hummingbird magnet has spiked shape flowers occurring in shades from lilac to white and is used as a landscape replacement for the cool weather loving lilac. This plant grows best in full sun, with well-drained soil, and loves the heat. Those criteria help to make it a perfect addition to this area as we have plenty of sun and heat.
Improved varieties such as Montrose Purple, LeCompte and Shoal Creek have larger flower spikes (up to 12 inches long) and will bloom for several weeks. If you chose to prune the tree to keep it small, you can deadhead the spent flowers, and the plant will send out a second flush of inflorescent later in the summer. A big FYI, if you crush the hemp shape leaves they give off a fragrant odor that can be used to keep mosquitoes at bay – naturally.
Give this pet plenty of room to mature. In a good location it’s fast growing, and will quickly reach 12-15 feet tall to a maximum of 25 ft. high and usually twice as wide. If your landscape needs a smaller version – you can cut it to the ground every year or prune it back hard and it will stay more like a butterfly bush. It will then take on the shape of a small tree or shrub and flower profusely.
As for us here at the Gardens, we are blessed with several incredible full grown specimens. Ours can be seen on the corner of the driveway just past the Hiram Butler house and just at the end of the perennial garden. Come by and see ours in all their glory and add these beauties to your landscape!
(A Happy Footnote: Deer don’t like to eat this tree.)Tags: Abraham’s Balm, Chaste Berry, Chaste Tree, Monk’s Pepper, Texas Lilac, Vitex agnus-castus