Originally Published June 2011
When I first moved into my home about 19 years ago, the yard had very little in the way of landscaping and trees. Today I have several varieties of oak trees scattered around the front and back yards plus I have a few ornamental trees and shrubs here and there. Included in the ornamental trees and shrubs I possess are various crape myrtles, wax myrtles, nandinas, spireas, Texas sage and one noble Vitex. I describe the Vitex as noble not because of its status or stature, but because of its reliable endurance through the tough, hot summers of the southern U.S. – all the while blooming in regal, purple adornment.
If you Google the Vitex or Chaste Tree, you’ll see that a lot of folks consider it comparable to crape myrtles, and I must agree. The Vitex is a good alternative as it, too, is a small, fast-growing, flowering tree. It also thrives in very similar conditions as crape myrtles, i.e., warm, sunny areas with average to low rainfall statistics. If you happen to reside in or travel through the southern part of the U.S., take time to observe the landscaping of some of the newer developments such as malls, hospitals and other large public centers. You’ll most likely see a few Vitex trees intermixed with the typical pink and white crape myrtles.
So why would you wish to plant a Vitex in your yard?
For a “cooler” variety of summer color – and for the butterflies and bees.
While there exists white and light pink blooming varieties – and I’ve seen both in the wild – the lilac hue of a Vitex is amazingly vibrant, yet soothing during the hot summer months. My 19-year old tree is “frosted” with 8 – 10 inch purple spires right now. However, the newer varieties available in nurseries these days have been developed to burst with even more blooms than those varieties, like mine, of the past. Not only are Vitex blooms beautiful, the leaves are also quite nice. Their palmate, silver-gray appearance also offers a soothing, cooling effect in the Texas heat when adjacent to the lilac flowers.
Speaking of the blooms, they must be absolutely intoxicating to butterflies and bees. My tree is buzzing with life right now. Butterflies of all varieties can’t resist stopping by the lilac blooms as they flutter over my fence. And the bees, well . . . I sometimes have to quickly dart out of their way because some of them can be quite territorial and vehemently guard their slice of the tree. And while I have not witnessed a hummingbird at my Vitex, I have been told by several of my mutual Vitex proponents that their tree lures in these little flying jewels as well.
Vitex is a deciduous (loses its leaves in winter) small tree/shrub that is hardy through Zone 6 and warmer. It is of the Verbenaceae family, which includes other fragrant blooming plants such as verbena and lantana. Vitex is drought tolerant, but remember that even drought tolerant plants need a little extra care when first planted. Thus, it is best to plant the Vitex in the fall as you would any other tree or large shrub. Once established, it will do well in hot, dry, and full to mostly full sun conditions. Although you can prune and shape a Vitex to just about any form you wish, it is wise to provide ample space where it can truly stretch out. In the natural, Vitex can grow up to 25 feet tall and become more than 15 feet wide.
Depending on the look you wish to achieve, you may wish to prune the Vitex into a small tree (again, think crape myrtle) or leave it to its natural bushy state. Most articles I read regarding Vitex care suggest that regardless of the form you prefer, the Vitex should be tidied up annually to keep it from getting lanky. Personally, I trim dead limbs from the bottom half of my Vitex in late fall/early winter and then I prune any new, errant shoots in late spring. In addition, some folks like to deadhead their Vitex after blooming. This is entirely up to you as deadheading or trimming during the growing season does not harm a Vitex and it indeed blooms on new growth. The practice is thought to promote additional blooming during the year. Since I can no longer easily reach the top of my tree (it is about 20 feet tall) mine goes without a mid-summer trim and seems to bloom and re-bloom just fine.
Now for the negative . . . surely you knew there would be at least one negative, right? I hate to sound like a broken record, but again, like the crape myrtle, the Vitex sheds. After blooming, the Vitex goes to seed and creates little round berry-like seed pods, similar to peppercorns. These pods and seeds will shed into your bird baths, ponds, fountains and yes – if you are lucky to have one – your swimming pool. Thus, I suggest planting your Vitex a reasonable distance away from any water features in your yard. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t shed any more so than a crape myrtle and the pods are not (usually) harmful to man or animal if touched or ingested. It is just simply best to plant a Vitex several feet away from waterways to avoid any seed pods ultimately clogging pumps and such.
Incidentally, on the subject of ingesting, the Vitex is also called Chaste Tree and Monk’s Pepper because monks of ancient times would make tea from the berries to drink in hopes the tincture would suppress their fleshly urges. In these same ancient times Vitex preparations were also used to calm gynecological ailments. While there is no evidence to date that Vitex acts as an anti-aphrodisiac, it is indeed still used today as an herbal remedy for minor gynecological symptoms such as PMS. (Here’s my usual legal disclaimer – I am not a doctor and this post does not suggest or promote that anyone should use Vitex for health purposes. Please consult your doctor or health practitioner if you decide to pursue Vitex or any other plant as a health remedy or supplement.)
Well, I’ve saved the best for last – the photos! I hope as you putter around your landscapes this summer that you can envision the perfect spot to plant a noble Vitex this fall. I assure you, you’ll be pleased next summer if you do.
Until next time,