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Plant of the Month: December 2017

Chaste Tree
Vitex Agnus-castus L.
LABIATÆ ; Mint Family

My book Trees of Seattle does not include Chaste Tree, because most in the city are shrubs. This article explains that the species is capable of becoming a small tree in Seattle rarely; in warmer climates, it can do so easily.
    Genus Vitex contains about 250 species, widespread, but for the most part in tropical and subtropical regions. They vary from trees to shrubs. Most are evergreen. My personal familiarity is limirted to Vitex Agnus-castus, because it is able to survive in temperate, frosty regions, and is planted commonly for ornament.
    Native in SE Europe and NE Africa to central Asia, the tree was long believed by Europeans, rightly or wrongly, to be an antiaphrodisiac. Other names, Cloister pepper and Monk's Pepper, suggest that its peppery seeds were used to dampen the amorous desires of religious orders. Other names include: Sage Tree. Mexican Lavender. Abraham's Balm. Hemp Tree. Lavender Tree.
    The trunk is short usually, with shreddy chunky bark. The foliage consists of opposite leaves divided palmately into 5 to 7 leaflets, dark green above, gray-green beneath, and strongly aromatic of sage. In late summer or fall, it bears at twig ends a profusion of scented, slender flower clusters, blue mostly, but some pink or white. Then little fruits ensue. Roy Genders wrote of them thus: "they are fleshy and crimson-red in colour, whilst the seeds have a pungent lemony perfume when dry." The fall foliage color is late and muted yellowish.
    In extremely cold winters, the plant freezes to its roots and resprouts every summer. In frost-free areas, it can become an immense shrub, or be pruned into tree shape. Five of the largest specimens recorded are:

65 feet tall; Padua Italy, in 1938 after having been planted in 1550.

30 feet tall, its trunk 4 feet 10 inches circumference, its branches 36 feet across. Richland County, South Carolina 1984.

26 feet tall, its trunk 9 feet 3 inches circumference, its branches 37 feet across. Johnson City, Texas 2003.

22 feet tall, its trunk 5 feet 1 inch circumference, its branches 29 feet across. Brownwood, Texas 1982.

18 feet tall, its trunk 7 feet 7 inches circumference, its branches 41 feet across. San Antonio, Texas 1991.

    Chaste Tree is tolerant of much sun, heat and dryness, but is not upset at rainfall and coolness.
    Its leaves have been used as a spice and its seeds as a pepper substitute. More than 50 additional Vitex species have been reported eaten by humans.
    The blooming and autumnal specimen photographed below, is Seattle's largest as far as I know, at 19 feet tall. It is at 2029 E Howe Street, but is apt to be removed soon, which is the main reason I am profiling it. If you know of another large Seattle Chaste Tree, I will be grateful to be informed about it.

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<i>VitexAgnus-castus1</i>

Vitex Agnus-castus ; in August; photo by ALJ

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Vitex Agnus-castus ; in August; photo by ALJ

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Vitex Agnus-castus ; in October ; photo by ALJ

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Vitex Agnus-castus ; in Tucson, Arizona in winter ; photo by ALJ




Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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