Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bee-ing on a frenzy

I have been on a frenzy lately trying to attract bees to my yard. My Citrus, Tomatoes, Peppers, Cucumbers, Squash, etc, all need to be pollinated. I have been strategically placing pots of flowers all around the yard. It has worked to some degree. What I should have done was just wait until the Chaste Tree Flowered. The amount of bees feeding on the tree is amazing! This magnificent specimen of a tree/shrub is also know by the name Sage Tree, Hemp Tree, Monk's Pepper and Vitex. Botanically it is known as Vitex agnus-castus. I have the cultivar "Shoal Creek". It is now in full bloom.

Vitex is hardy in Zones 6-10. Though in Zone 6 additional protection against the extreme cold may be needed. It will grow in practically any well draining soil, both acid and alkaline soils, and is even tolerant of salt spray. It likes full sun to partial shade. It is a rapid grower on its own, with some fertilizer and mulch, it is even faster. Want an idea of the pace these things can grow? Let's say you want to maintain the plant at the size range of say six feet, plants should be cut within a few inches of the ground every winter. It will sprout and bloom by June. That's pretty fast in my book!
If left to it's own accord, the Vitex will average about 20 feet tall and 10-15 feet wide.
The flower spikes are, on average, 6-10 inches long. They can be lilac, pale violet,or almost blue. There is one variety that has white flowers. These are rather drab looking however. It flowers in the Spring, through the Summer and Fall sporadically. You can get it to reflower more often by clipping off the spent flowers or "Deadheading". Plus, it has a pleasant scent. This tree is VERY attractive to bees,(as I mentioned earlier), butterflies and hummingbirds. You may want to plant it where you can really enjoy the show.
It is drought tolerant, Deer resistant, not usually bothered by any other pests, and makes a very attractive specimen plant. It is deciduous, meaning it will lose it's leaves in the Winter, just keep that in mind if you were hoping for any kind of cool Winter interest. Propagation is by seed in the Spring and Fall or by cuttings which are easy to root in warm weather. Supposedly, Vitex reseeds itself into landscaped beds and can become somewhat weedy. I have not personally had this problem, so take that with a grain of salt if you are worried about it being invasive.
The Vitex is not native to the states, having been introduced from the woodlands and dry areas of southern Europe and western Asia, back in the early 19th Century. It was known in English gardens as early as 1570.
There was even some ancient medicinal remedies. The Chaste tree has been used for the treatment of menstrual difficulties for at least 2,500 years. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) wrote, "If blood flows from the womb, let the woman drink dark wine in which the leaves of the chaste tree have been steeped". Sorry guys, this was probably bordering on TMI.
Even as recently as 1992 there has been studies on the effect of Chaste Tree extracts and PMS. If you want to read more on this, Check out: http://www.stevenfoster.com/education/monograph/vitex.html

At the beginning, I mentioned that the Vitex has numerous names, including Hemp Tree. Due to its leafy resemblance to marijuana (Cannabis sativa), friends will do a doubletake when they spot this plant in your garden. Depending on background and viewpoint, they will either be bitterly disappointed or utterly relieved when they discover that it's not.

Happy Growing!

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