Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hemp, Chastity, Monks = Vitex

As I mentioned in my last post, I was recently on vacation in Fire Island, NY. I noticed nearly every other house had this shrub or small tree bursting with purple spike flowers. I overheard someone call it "Butterfly Bush" but I knew it was not Buddleia davidii as the flowers and leaves were different. I came to learn that this small deciduous tree was none other than Vitex agnus-castus. Some of its common names are Vitex, Hemp tree, Sage tree, Monk's Pepper, Chaste tree, Mexican lavender and Texas Lilac.

It gets the name Sage tree from the aromatic foliage which is typically gray-green to dark green above and lighter underneath. The leaves are palmately compound with 5-7 fingerlike leaflets and so it is often called Hemp Tree because the leaves bear strong resemblance to the leaves of the marijuana or hemp (Cannabis spp.) plant. 

The flowers bloom all summer long and are followed by fleshy fruit that contains four seeds that are sometimes used as seasoning, similar to black pepper, hence the common name Monk's Pepper. But what does a monk have to do with pepper seasoning, you ask? Well, that name refers to the medieval belief that utilizing potions made from the berries helped monks maintain their vows of chastity. And so, since it was believed to quell the male libido, it got the name Chaste Tree.

It is drought and salt resistant and easy to grow in well drained soil. Makes sense why everyone had it on their property near the beach!


  1. Hello Kate,
    Here, In Hungary many gardens have Vitex. We call it "Barátcserje" in Hungarian, which means Monk's Shrub. I like it especially because of its late flowering and nice color.
    I really like your blog, your pictures and your style of writing!


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