Even though often referred to as Chaste
Tree, Vitex is really a multi-trunked
shrub that grows fairly slowly to about 15 feet. In the picture on the
right, this mature Vitex cascades all the way to the ground making a
spectacular show every summer.
Lemon Verbena and Vervain, in
the family Verbenaceae, Vitex is originally from the Mediterranean
and western Asia. Where winters are marginal for the
plant's survival (Zone 6), the bush may die back to the ground. Here in
where winters are usually in the mid to lower 20's, it goes dormant,
losing its leaves,
but usually does not lose its branches. Any branch that might not make
it through the winter is pruned out once the bush has broken dormancy which
can be quite late in spring.
Vitex leaves are hand-sized
and consist of
five to seven fingers that are dark green above and silvery underneath.
While fairly drought resistant, Vitex grows faster and looks
watered regularly. Grape-colored flowers cover long panicles that can
elongate up to 12 inches. Starting in early summer, flowers begin opening from the bottom
of the flower stem and continue up the stem over the course of four
or five weeks until the bush is completely blanketed in eye-popping bloom. Harvesting these flowers early in the bloom
cycle is the best way to preserve them for craft use. They may be used
fresh or hung upside down in small bunches for drying.
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