Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Chaste Tree for Arbor Day - Herb of the Week

Arbor Day is a nationally-celebrated observance that encourages tree planting and care. Founded by J. Sterling Morton in 1872, it's celebrated on the last Friday in April.

I always celebrate Arbor Day.  When we lived in a house we planted a tree each year.  To celbrate this wonderful day I thought I would focus on an Herb Tree - Chaste Tree

Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus), also known as Chasteberry
                     is our Herb of the Week

Native to southern Europe and central Asia, chaste tree quickly grows into a multi-trunked tree about 10 to 20 feet tall and wide with a broad, spreading habit. It gets its name from the erroneous medieval belief that a potion made from it could curb the libido. That doesn't mean that chaste tree doesn't have its pharmacological uses. An extract made from Vitex supposedly does a very good job of controlling PMS.

blooming Chaste tree
But the best thing about chaste tree is the flowers. Chaste tree is one of the very few winter-hardy trees out there that sports true blue flowers (although they can also be pink, purple, or white). The variety 'Abbeville Blue.' bears large, spectacular panicles of deep-blue flowers in summer. Other selections of merit include 'Montrose Purple' (purple blooms), 'Shoal Creek' (blue-violet), and 'Silver Spires.' (white). If you buy an unnamed chaste tree tree from a nursery, buy it in bloom so you can see the color of the flowers and the general shape of the plant.

Chaste tree is a kin of Lemon Verbena (my favorite plant in the world).  However, Lemon Verbena which can grow like this many stemmed tree, only does so in places like Mexico and Guatemala.


Chaste tree was associated with ancient Greek festivals. In the Thesmophoria, a festival held in honor of Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, fertility and marriage, women (who remained "chaste" during the festival), used chaste tree blossoms for adornment, while bows of twigs and leaves, were strewn around Demeter's temple during the festival. In Rome, vestal virgins carried twigs of chaste tree as a symbol of chastity. According to Greek mythology, Hera, sister and wife of Zeus, regarded as protectress of marriage, was born under a chaste tree. Ancient traditions associating the shrub with chastity were adopted in Christian ritual. Novitiates entering a monastery walked on a path strewn with the blossoms of the tree, a ritual that continues to the present day in some regions of Italy.

To Grow

Here are some different ways to use chaste tree in the landscape:
1. As a single specimen in the lawn

2. In a row along a property line or a driveway
3. Limbed-up in a border with lower plants growing beneath it

4. As a small patio tree

Few trees are as easy to grow. It requires full sun, well-drained soil and regular moisture at first -- very drought tolerant once established.  There are not many pest issues.  About the only problem with this plant is the fact that it is not very tidy.  It needs regular pruning to produce an attractive multi-trunked tree. Prune in winter. Clean out the entire center of the tree, removing all side branches from main 4 to 5 trunks. Also remove messy, twiggy growth that tends to crowd the ends of the branches. As an option, cut entire plant to ground in winter. It will sprout in spring and bloom in summer, although later than chaste trees not pruned so severely. You can also force a second bloom in summer by removing the first flush of blooms as soon as they fade.

Chaste Tree is considered winter-hardy through Zone 6; so here in Zone 5 it may be killed to the ground in winter, but will sprout and bloom the following summer.  I also recomend mulching around the base to protect the root ball from winter freezes.  Bumblebees love this plant above all others and will even spend the night on the flowers.

To Use

Chaste tree has been used for the treatment of menstrual difficulties for at least 2,500 years. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) wrote, "If blood flows from the womb, let the woman drink dark wine in which the leaves of the chaste tree have been steeped."Use for gynecological conditions is also noted in the works of Pliny and Dioscorides (1st century A. D.), as well as Theophrastus (3rd century A.D.). "The trees furnish medicines that promote urine and menstruation," wrote Pliny, "They encourage abundant rich milk. . ."

As the flowers of summer fade, small dark purple berries follow. In the past these berries have been dried and used as a rather weak substitute for pepper and as an ingredient in Mediterranean spice mixtures. In the 6th century, the ground dried berries were touted as a must for monks trying to maintain their vows of chastity (thus, the common name Monk's Pepper). Vitex is now considered a vital herb for regulating and relieving menstrual problems and infertility. For a good discussion of the medicinal properties of Vitex,  check in Andrew Chevalier's book The Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. This book will guide you through the steps of  harvesting and preparing remedies from your garden. 

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