Blue–Blooming Vitex and Plumbago: Butterflies Love ‘Em, Deer Don’t
For indigo blossoms, butterfly habitat and deer resistance, few plants beat Vitex and Plumbago, two adapted bloomers recently added to the Texas Superstar® plant program.
Started in 1989, the Aggie–inspired Texas Superstar® program applies Texas A & M horticultural smarts to some of our best–known plants, developing and culturing them to be even more desirable, marketable and successful for Texas gardens. When you see the Texas Superstar® tag, you know the plant’s a good bet.
This summer Plumbago and Vitex join this elite group—like getting their own “star” on the Lone Star State’s “plant walk of fame.”
Plumbago is a tender perennial with profuse blue flowers. It loves the heat, doesn’t mind our long, humid summers, and is reasonably drought tolerant. A white–blooming version is less prolific, while blue plumbago puts out non–stop from summer until first frost.
Disease–, pest– and deer–resistant, Plumbago is also known as Skyflower because of its sky–blue color. It blooms even in considerable shade. While a native of South Africa, it’s well adapted to South Texas conditions and will keep your yard full of butterflies all summer.
Plumbago responds well to pruning. It will flower profusely after being cut back or after a growth flush, since it bears flowers on new wood.
Vitex, our other Superstar, is also known as Texas Lilac or the Chaste tree. A native of China and India, it naturalized throughout the U.S., as long ago as 1670.
For people living in the warmer parts of the South, the ‘Lilac Chaste Tree’ has been the shrub of choice to mimic the much beloved lilacs that are restricted to cooler regions. It grows best in full sun and in a location that drains well—loves the heat, and is so tough that even the Texas Department of Transportation plants it on highway medians.
Vitex is a spectacular butterfly–attracting plant, hummingbirds love it, and it’s deer–resistant, although bucks will brush their antlers on its branches if the plant is allowed to grow large.
So, you’re probably asking, what’s not to like about Vitex and why isn’t it planted in every yard in town?
That’s where the Superstar horticulturists step in. The old Vitex had small spikes of flowers that were pale lilac, mauve, off–white or light pink. The blooms were small and unimpressive. Horticulturists now have identified and tested improved varieties such as ‘Montrose Purple’, ‘LeCompte’ and ‘Shoal Creek’ which have 8– to 12–inch long spikes. These varieties will all be marketed under the name, ‘Texas Lilac’ Vitex.
The bloom spikes on these improved varieties are not only large and beautiful, they’re fragrant and provide long–lasting cut flowers.
But, once the bloom spikes have provided several weeks of spectacle, black and dark–brown seeds result. Not only do these seeds prevent additional bloom spikes, they may, in some regions, produce a mutant seedling population that will not be as glamourous as the parent plants.
What to do? Deadhead, of course. If you want to enjoy the full monty of these spectacular blossoms you must prune the spent blooms. Diligently. The challenge is that Vitex is extremely fast growing. It can grow into a small tree if not cut to the ground yearly.
The seed pods of ‘Texas Lilac’ Vitex must be removed after EVERY bloom cycle – it will be blooming again in less than a month. The entire plant should be cut back to the ground EVERY winter. If you live in an area with a large deer population, the deer rubbing their antlers on the Vitex will “prune” the plant to the ground for you, or at least remind you to cut the ravaged stems back.
For those who seek a medicinal plant for a SuperStar, Vitex fills the bill. Vitex agnus castus belonged to the official medicinal plants of antiquity and is mentioned in the works of Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Theophrast.
Other fun facts about Vitex and Plumbago:
Children often make “earrings” with the sticky Plumbago flowers – letting them stick to their earlobes. The Plumbago bloom produces sticky, gland tipped hairs on the flower calyx. The seed capsule retains the stickiness which presumably helps disperse the seed by attaching to animals. The top of the capsule splits opens and drops the seed out.
Plumbago is used traditionally to treat warts, broken bones and wounds. It’s also taken as a snuff for headaches and as an emetic to dispel bad dreams.
Vitex can be found in the writings of Hippocrates, 4th Century BC. He recommends the plant for injuries, inflammation and swelling of the spleen.
Hippocrates recommends using the leaves in wine for hemorrhages and the “passing of afterbirth.”
Vitex has also been cited for its astringent activity, and has been recommended it for wild animal bites, swelling of the spleen and for dropsy.
The English name for Vitex agnus castus, “chaste tree”, is derived from the belief that the plant would suppress libido in women. In Greek cities, festivals in the honor of Demeter included a vow of chastity by the local women.
In Europe, the Catholic Church developed a variation on this theme by placing Vitexblossoms of the plant at the clothing of novice monks to supposedly suppress their libido. The common name “Monk’s Pepper” refers to the medieval belief that utilizing potions made from the berries helped monks maintain their vows of chastity. There is nothing in contemporary scientific literature to suggest that it actually does suppress the libido.