Saturday, July 19, 2008


It seems that this week was all about perennial gardens, which made me think I'm overdue for a post about a particular tree. Or, more accurately, a tree-ish shrub or a shrubby tree. And so now I am going to post a bit about Vitex agnus-castus, or Chastetree. Other common names include Chasteberry or Monk's Pepper.

The above is a very lovely specimen from the Conservatory Gardens. As you can see, it does occupy the middle ground between tree and shrub. Pruning it pushes the plant closer to a tree form, though it would never get very big.

The foliage is striking -- palmately compound leaves in a dusky green with silvery undersides. When crushed, the leaves are quite aromatic, emitting a scent similar to sage. The shot below is of the specimen at the southern entry to City Hall Park.

Finally, you have the bluish purple spikes of flowers. This plant is pretty tough; it can handle wind and salt with a wink, and can be pruned to the ground only to grow back in a year or two.

None of this, however, relates to its common names. Vitex is called Chastetree because medieval monks, in order to temper their libidos, and thus maintaining their vow of celibacy, would eat the pepper-like seeds. The plant is still employed as an herbal remedy, though not necessarily as an anaphrodisiac.

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