Plant of the Week: Chaste tree

The High Line's planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line's rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today. This week we share one of our gardeners' current favorites with you.


Vitex agnus-castus
, or chaste tree, has appeared in writings by authors from Chaucer to Pliny, credited as suppressing libido in women and men alike, meanwhile supplying them with an excellent material for wicker basket-weaving to pass the time. Its beautiful lavender flower spikes bloom from late spring through early fall, and some say its foliage bears the scent of sage. Native to the Mediterranean region and parts of China and India, the chaste tree has been naturalized to the American Southeast since the late 1600s, where it functions nicely as an alternative to lilacs preferring cooler climates.

Pliny mentioned it in his Historia Plantarum, or Enquiry into Plants, one of the key natural history tomes of ancient times, which attempted one of the first biological classifications of plants. Vitex takes its name from the Latin vieo, meaning "to weave or bind," referencing its use in basketry in ancient Mediterranean civilizations. The plant is more famous though for its connection to chastity; its epithet agnus-castus is a play on the Latin and Greek words for chaste, translating to "pure lamb." Its berries and leaves are reported to act as an anaphrodisiac, keeping monks and ritually chaste women free from temptation. Reasons for this effect have been attributed to its impact on human opiate receptors. While this hasn't been absolutely confirmed by science, its power has long been trusted: in "The Flower and the Leaf," Geoffrey Chaucer – bringing forth giggles from high school students the world over – wrote of it:

"See ye not her that crowned is, " quod she,
"All in white?" –"Madame," quod I, "yes:"
"That is Diane, goddess of chastite,
And for because that she a maiden is,
In her hond the braunch she beareth this,
That agnus castus men call properly,
And all the ladies in her company,

"Which ye se of that hearb chaplets wear
Be such as han kept alway hir maidenheed"...

Multi-stemmed and vase-shaped, standing 3-15 feet tall, the chaste tree works beautifully in borders but can also be trained to the shape of a specimen tree with a single trunk and a taller stature. Vitex prefers partial to full sun and well-drained soil; it succeeds very well in droughts, and can be an excellent choice for a xeriscape if established with care. The purple flowers are a major pollinator attractor and a great addition to a cutting garden. Substantially dense and showy, it can work well to define an area and limit visibility.

PLANTING TIP
The plant can suffer root rot in too-moist soils. Can self-seed readily and become weedy; can also be propagated by layering lower limbs or taking softwood cuttings. Shrub can be coppiced in winter; pruning should be done in late winter as well, as flowers bloom on new growth. Deadheading will promote a floriferous season.

WHERE TO SEE THIS PLANT
23rd Street Lawn and Seating Steps

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