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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Shitty Bank isn’t so shitty….

The site of Shitty Bank 2003
The site of Shitty Bank 2003

This is the site of Shitty Bank when we first saw it in 2003.  There is no bank, and it’s not that…bad! Dried out as a result of a huge heatwave that hit France for a month in August 2003, but otherwise fine.  This is was where we decided to put the swimming pool that we built 3 years later, mainly because it was flat, a bit screened by a big hedge from our really nice neighbours, and it was a sun-trap.  So in it went, and with it came a massive heap of spoil, rubbish soil with huge river stones in it, and not much else.

What to do? Well, I had recently read Beth Chatto’s great book about gravel gardening…a new subject to me having previously gardened in Scotland. And so, emboldened by her experiment in gardening with what she’d got, an old carpark space, I decided to do the same with our bank of spoil. An old friend came to visit, laughed, and promptly christened it ‘Shitty Bank’. The name stuck.

Lessons learnt:

– if, like me, your ground is poor and stoney, it will take a couple of years for plants to get their feet down and really take off. So patience really is a virtue.

– don’t bother with ‘small and interesting’ plants…go for rough, tough stuff that will see off all the bindweed and other weeds, or at least sit on them. The ‘small and interesting’ things just get lost in the bigger things and don’t make it. I love Nepeta tuberosa, and did have a good clump which I grew from seed, but rain and other plants pushed it out, and now I have it in a kinder place.

– do plant beautiful and tolerant plants. Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ loves it. She started as a one-foot weakling and is now 3m high x 4m spread.  A few years ago, we had quite a wet summer and the bindweed was growing to serious strangulation point.  So, in the winter, we crawled underneath and anchored black tarpaulin material as tightly as we could around the underneath of the rose.  This has been quite effective and reduced the bindweed by about 80%. With us, this rose is in bloom for easily 10 months of the year.

Rosa chinensis 'Mutabilis' changes from deep pink to peach to yellow as the flowers age..
Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ changes from yellow to peach to deep pink as the flowers age..

– another toughie, which is now a small tree, is Vitex agnus castus, which has fabulous purple blossom in late summer.

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Vitex agnus castus flowering amongst Eryngium agavifolium

– and I wouldn’t be without, though it doesn’t last long, I love the way the colour in the flowers fills up like a cartoon blush, and it does happily colonise everywhere….Echinops sphaerocephalus ‘Arctic Glow’.

Echinops sphaerocephalus 'Arctic Glow'
Echinops sphaerocephalus ‘Arctic Glow’

And, although like everything else in the garden, there is constant change as plants, and me, change our minds about each other, and each year brings new weather challenges, Shitty Bank does a good job and I have learnt that it survives pretty well now with one really good tidy-up of bramble, bindweed and their pals each year. And now, the plants are big enough to fend for themselves.

Small footnote: I grew my Nepeta tuberosa from seed from Derry Watkins at Special Plants, near Bath, back in 2005.  She is a fount of wisdom, and her brochure is a torture to read- you could choose everything.  Her seed is always good.  If she was down the road from me, I would be penniless.

Early Shitty Bank: Rosa sanguinea, Phlomis purpurea (pink), Stachys byzantina,  yellow Asphodeline lutea, Euphorbia characias wulfenii
Early Shitty Bank: Rosa sanguinea, Armeria maritima Dusseldorf Pride  (pink), Stachys byzantina, yellow Asphodeline lute, Euphorbia characias wulfenii