After an herbicide incident killed a mature shrub in the midst of a hedge row, we decided it was time for a fresh start for the front yard.
Starting from scratch, we knew we wanted lots of warm-season color while needing the landscape to look interesting throughout the year. A large island bed cried out for a small specimen tree to anchor the companion plantings.
Not wanting the same old overused summer-flowering crape myrtles, I chose blue flowered Vitex agnus-castus (Chaste Tree) for the space. This Mediterranean native was brought to the American colonies in 1670. It became popular in southern areas where it was used in place of lilacs, which want a cold winter to bloom beautifully.
I love this tree!
The Latin name agnus-castus means spotless or pure lamb. Sacred to the goddess Vesta of Vestal Virgin fame, the tree was believed to curb libido. Pliny the Elder, a great source for details on daily life in imperial Rome, informs us that just strewing the leaves about the bedchamber does the trick. In the Middle Ages potions made from the fruits or foliage were used for the same purpose. Today Vitex continues to be used as an herbal treatment for women’s reproductive issues.
Vitex is a rapidly growing deciduous, multi-trunk tree with a spreading growth habit. The mature height ranges from 15 to 20 feet with a width of 10 to 15 feet. The fragrant flowers may be blue, purple or white depending on the cultivar. If buying an unnamed tree, it is best to choose it while flowering so you will know what color you are going to have in your garden.
Vitex flowers are very attractive to bees and butterflies. Blooming begins in early summer and continues through August if spent blossoms are removed. The interesting aromatic foliage is gray-green in color. My husband finds it faintly reminiscent of rosemary. Cold hardy to Zone 6, this tree has no notable disease or pest problems. It does require full sun and good drainage.
Wow. With so many attractive traits, why don’t we see more of these trees in area gardens? Aside from deadheading to prolong flowering, this tree requires annual pruning to perform well. As with modern roses, it blooms on new wood. Before the tree leafs out in spring, one must do some vigorous pruning, thinning out older branches to encourage new growth.
In late winter, clean out the center, removing side branches from the main four or five trunks. A top dressing of compost or a balanced slow-release fertilizer at this time is also a good idea.
After the leaves fall in autumn, the tree “skeleton” provides winter interest and gives
my resident tree surgeon plenty of time to plan which branches to remove in March.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.