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Vitex agnus-castus

Common Names: hemp tree, chaste tree, monk
Family: Verbenaceae (verbena or vervain Family)

The chaste tree is a beautiful little deciduous tree or large shrub with a showy summertime flower display. The leaves are 3-4 in (7.6-10 cm) in diameter and palmately compound with 5 to 7 fingerlike leaflets. Also called sage tree, the foliage is likewise aromatic and is typically grey-green to dark green above and lighter on the undersides. The leaves also bear a striking resemblance to those of the infamous marijuana or hemp (Cannabis spp.) plant which provides yet another common name, hemp tree. When in bloom, due to the similarity of the flowers, the chaste tree is sometimes mistaken for butterfly bush (Buddleia). The chaste tree is a sprawling plant that grows 10-20 ft (3-6 m) and about as wide. Branched flower clusters are produced on new wood in late spring and early summer in a great flush that makes the tree look like a hazy purple cloud. It continues to bloom sporadically until early fall. Not only is the tree strikingly beautiful when in full bloom, but it is also fragrant and attracts pollinating bees and hummingbirds make hungry visits. Flowers are followed by a fleshy fruit that contains four seeds that are sometimes used as seasoning, similar to black pepper (monk’s pepper is another of this species’ common names). Flower color ranges from violet to blue to deep purple. There is also a white form but to me they look dingy and uninteresting compared to their showier kin.

The variety Vitex agnus-castusvar. latifolia has shorter, broader leaves. In my experience it is a tougher version of the species. A while back I planted one far out in my front pasture – I rediscovered it not long ago and was pleased to see that, although still small of stature, it has endured six years of drought unattended. What a survivor! This variety is also said to be hardier and is recommended for use in the cooler parts of its range.

Chaste tree is native to woodlands and dry areas of southern Europe and western Asia. Because of its many admirable attributes, the chaste tree is a garden favorite wherever in the world it can be grown.

Easy to grow in almost any soil that has good drainage! Even tolerant of salt drift. The chaste tree can take care of itself, but can be pushed to faster growth with light applications of fertilizer in spring and early summer and by mulching around the plant. If pruning is desired to control the size, it should be done in winter, since blooms form on new wood. It is hardly ever disturbed by pests or disease but is susceptible to mushroom root rot and nematodes.
Light: Sun to shade.
Moisture: Moderate to moist, well drained soil.
Propagation: By seed in the spring and fall or by cuttings which are easy to root in warm weather.

The showy chaste tree makes a particularly effective specimen – use it as the centerpiece of a lawn or in large containers. Plant near patio or deck where it can be seen but not too close though as it attracts crowds of hungry bumble bees. It makes a colorful addition to a mixed border if kept pruned to shrub size. Chaste tree probably looks best unpruned, leave it to sprawl and it will eventually for a large green sphere of foliage and flower. Leaves have medicinal use, and seeds can be used for seasoning.

Drought resistant and easy to grow, this beauty is a winner that would look great in your yard or garden. Marvel at the fragrant fluorescent flowers glowing against the rich green foliage. Due to its leafy resemblance to marijuana (Cannabis sativa), friends will do a doubletake when they spot this plant in your garden. Depending on background and viewpoint, they will either be bitterly disappointed or utterly relieved when they discover that it’s not…


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