Consider the Vitex

As summer is ushered in here, I’ve noticed a lot of plants that are blooming earlier than usual, perhaps due to our rainy spring and early onset of hot weather. I see crape myrtles in full bloom in some of the gardens I visit, for pity’s sake – usually they have the grace to wait until July or August, stretching out the summer season a bit.

One of the early bloomers I’m seeing these days is Vitex agnus-castus, or the chaste tree. To be honest, the first example I saw of this shrub when I was studying woody plants at the National Arboretum didn’t impress me a lot. Touted as an alternative to butterfly bushes (which are not my favorite plants because they are so awkward in winter), I wondered why they would be considered superior. Then I came across this specimen in the garden of the William Paca House in Annapolis, and I understood.

Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree, William Paca House

A Vitex trained as a small tree in the Paca House

The shape, the color, the leaves, all combined to create a gorgeous impression. The blossoms have a spicy fragrance that does indeed attract butterflies as well as hummingbirds, apparently.

The Vitex is hardy to Zone 7 (or possibly 6, in protected sites). Around here, one usually sees it as a shrub. The other day I saw it anchoring the corner of a mixed border bed in a lovely sidewalk garden area in the District of Columbia not far from where I live. Most of the blossoms you see here are on new growth, as the Vitex is a “cut-back” shrub.

Vitex agnus-castus

A Vitex shrub at the corner of a mixed border, providing summer color on a hot day.

But sometimes, when a Vitex is extra happy, it can grow to tree size. One night recently, on my way home, I saw just such an example, and stopped to photograph it.

Vitex agnus-castus, Chaste tree

A tree-sized specimen in northwest Washington DC.

The garden owner was outside watering a new azalea, and was kind enough to talk to me. Having lived in the house only three years, she didn’t know how old the Vitex was, but obviously treasured it. She said the past winter had been hard on it, causing them to lose some of the interior branches, and that in past years the blooms had covered virtually the entire tree, creating a spectacular effect. I can believe it, given how great the tree looked even in its current state.

I’ve planted Vitexes for a number of clients, and will continue to do so. For a little background on its origins and stories behind its name, click here. But more importantly, spread the word to those friends of yours thinking about planting butterfly bushes – suggest that they consider a Vitex, instead.

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8 Comments on “Consider the Vitex”

  1. Cindy Says:

    Hi, There’s a nice old tree-size Vitex in the west back corner of The Old Stone House in Georgetown.

    • Melissa Says:

      I’ll check it out the next time I’m down there – thanks for the tip! I saw one in a garden adjacent to Evermay, I think it was Dumbarton House, in Georgetown last year.

  2. Jeff Says:

    I had a Vitex in my Hamptons Garden for years. Bloomed after several severe prunings. Does need sun. Stopped blooming once the overhead canopy shaded it so I removed it. That tree size is superb. Maybe I’ll try one where I would normally plant a tree. I haven’t seen any real big ones in the nursery though. Guess I’ll start small.

  3. gaininja Says:

    Do you think these would be hardy in the UK, too? I guess our winter is as cold as yours!

    • Melissa Says:

      I’ve seen it discussed on UK gardening sites. As long as the winter temps don’t get below minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (not sure what that is in Celsius), you should be fine!

  4. Margaret Reed Says:

    The first time I saw a Vitex in a Pittsburgh nursery I fell in love with them!!! They are so much more dramatic than a Butterfly bush. I did not know that they should be cut down yearly or that they could become a tree, maybe that will only occur further south.Love your blog!!

    • Melissa Says:

      Thanks for the kind words. Where we maintain them for clients, I don’t cut them all the way to the ground, but I do cut them back to a juncture in the shrub that makes sense visually. Good luck with yours!

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