The story of the ‘Women’s Tree’

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Vitex agnus castus against a blue August sky, Tostat, 2016

There is a small, spreading tree which I grow on Shitty Bank next to the ruisseau.  When I planted it there 9 years ago, it probably only measured about 0.5m high.  Now, it is a magnificent, spreading, but also delicate, small tree, up to maybe 4m high and wide,  that flowers abundantly in July- September, sending strong shoots of flowersprays out at an angle from the trunk of the tree.  These lilac, mid-blue flower sprays are a magnet for bees, butterflies and other insects- almost as popular with them as the more traditional buddleia.  It copes very well with heat and dryness, but it also loves to be close to water, which is why the plant near the ruisseau is bigger and bolder than the one planted elsewhere in a drier spot.  It’s name?  Vitex agnus castus.

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Vitex in the landscape of Shitty Bank, with close neighbour, Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ and Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavendelturm’ in the foreground, Tostat, August 2016

But, I have always been intrigued by it’s many common names, such as ‘The Chaste Tree’, or in Germany, ‘The Monk’s Pepper Tree’.  I am indebted to Christopher Hobbs, whose site is a mine of interesting detail, but to summarise, this small tree has been used medicinally from the earliest times.  The ancients revered the small, hard, dark fruits which were taken in the form of a tincture or drink made from the more concentrated fruits or new leaves, according to Pliny.  It was used to treat women suffering from menstrual or menopausal hormone imbalance and discomfort- and, interestingly, for men who wished to calm their sexual appetites, hence the name ‘Monk’s Pepper’.  However, Christopher Hobbs quotes a well known 19th century, French herbalist, Cazin, who took the view that the treatment was more likely to arouse passions than calm them!

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An early flowering sprig, Tostat, July 2016

In the garden, it slowly opens up from tight, woolly grey buds into individual florets that last for weeks.  It’s ability to weave through other plants and not be too dominant is a big asset for the smaller garden.  It has proved very hardy with me, reliably holding on through -10C for a fortnight, for example, but I suspect that, despite liking to be close to water, it would be excessive winter wet that might make it turn up its toes.  So, free draining soil, a slope or added grit would handle that. And it has no need for rich soil, and probably, the thinner and rockier the better.  It is not a fast or showy grower, but here in Tostat, it is a stalwart of the late summer bulge when the scene can look pretty tired by August until September rains kick in.  This year has really tested that point.

A companion plant, which is not well known but should be for those of us with difficult, hot situations is Elsholtzia stauntonii.  Successfully posing as a normal shrub or shrublet, this tough plant in fact can cope with any amount of dryness and hot sun, and, with me, returns reliably on deceptively fragile looking stems each late Spring.  In fact, beware: the fragile stems can look very like a spot of couchgrass or weed, so remember where you put it!  A very good blog article on habit and with good photographs is available here at Robert Pavlis’ Garden Fundamentals.  I read about it on Annie’s Annuals emailing and grew mine from seed about 4 years ago, and in the toughest position, they are doing fine, now about 1m tall and flowering soon.   It takes it’s time to grow, but given how much harshness it can take, it has all the lush, green foliage you would expect of a woodlander.

And outside, the garden fries at 36C, the return of the Spanish plume, and no rain forecast of any note.  As for me, I am indoors.

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Elsholtzia stauntonii, flowering in September last year, Tostat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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