Vitex agnus-castus is a small tree or large shrub native to Eurasia and the Mediterranean basin. It is a tough little plant that manages to survive alkaline soil, dry conditions and is even somewhat salt-tolerant. It blooms in early summer and the lavender flowers remind people of lilacs. In fact, it is sometimes called a Texas Lilac in the Southwest. It rarely tops 30 feet in height and more often measures in at around 15 feet, so it is a great choice for patio plantings and entryways. Since it is hardy to USDA Zone 6 and even into Zone 5 where it freezes to the ground, but resprouts each spring, it can be grown in a large part of North America. Given its hardiness and lack of pests, it is curious that is isn't used more in landscaping. The little tree lends itself to an attractive multi-trunk shape with a rounded crown and if the lower limbs are kept pruned, many plants that thrive in dappled shade or partial sun can be planted underneath.
It is often called a chaste tree or monk's pepper because of a curious legend associated with it. In medieval times, it was thought that the seed pods were an anti-aphrodisiac and celibate members of the clergy consumed them so as to ward off lustful feelings. There is no scientific evidence that the vitex tempers amorous desires, but the myth persisted for centuries. However, there are some medicinal uses that can be verified. The leaves are anti fungal and anti microbial, so binding wounds with them appears to help. Also, tea from the seed pods and leaves seems to soothe women's ailments such as PMS. Even today, European natural pharmacies offer extracts and essential oils to treat the various complaints associated with PMS or menopause.
The word vitex is derived from the Latin vieo which means 'to weave' and that gives us a clue as to another use for this little tree. The pliable young branches make excellent baskets and the vitex was often sheared back each autumn so that new shoots would sprout from the stump in the spring. This practice is called coppicing was common throughout Europe as a method of producing a number of useful wood products. People still practice it today and coppiced shrubs or trees are an excellent way of harvesting resources without killing the plant.
If you are a beekeeper, or want to encourage them in your garden, the vitex is a great nectar and pollen plant. All sorts of bees, butterflies and the occasional hummingbird are attracted to the blooms. Deer tend to avoid it unless there are no other options, so if Bambi thinks your garden is his personal buffet, it could be a good choice. Plant in full sun and keep watered for its first year. After that, it should fend for itself unless there is extreme drought. The blooms appear in early summer and you can prolong the show by deadheading the spent blossoms so more will be produced. It usually takes about 6 weeks for a second flush, so you will have an autumn show if you do this. It is a great way to add some color to the summer landscape and there are actually white and pink cultivars available for variety. The vitex is adaptable and easy to grow, so if you have a sunny well-drained spot, add one to your landscape.