Chaste Tree or Monk's Pepper: Sumptuous Nectar for Five Butterflies from Admirals to Skippers

by DerdriuMarriner

Native to the Mediterranean, Chaste Tree or Monk's Pepper (Vitex agnus-castus) homesteads now in both the Old and New Worlds. Its nectar particularly is sought by butterflies.

Vitex agnus-castus is commonly known as chaste tree or monk's pepper.

An Old World native of the Mediterranean region, chaste tree has been successfully introduced into the New World.

Five butterflies which are attracted passionaely to chaste tree are
•American copper (Lycaena phlaeas),
•common buckeye (Junonia coenia),
•painted lady (Vanessa cardui),
•red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), and
•silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus).

closeup of Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus) flowers

Stutensee, Karlsruhe district, Baden-Württemberg, southwest Germany: 49° 5′ 47,62″ N, 8° 31′ 6,80″ E
Stutensee, Karlsruhe district, Baden-Württemberg, southwest Germany: 49° 5′ 47,62″ N, 8° 31′ 6,80″ E

Vitex agnus-castus (chaste tree)

 

Vitex agnus-castus is commonly known as chaste tree, chasteberry, lilac, and monk's pepper.

This Mediterranean native, originating in a wide swath from southern Europe through western Asia, flourishes in temperate, subtropical, and tropical areas. The United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) Hardiness Zone Map for North America, which classes plants according to the coolest temperature at which they remain viable, categorizes Vitex agnus-castus in Zone 6, with a maximum coldness of -10° to 0° Fahrenheit (-23.3° to -17.8° Celsius), to Zone 10, with a maximum coldness of 30° to 40° F (-1.1 to 4.4 C).

 

Distribution of Vitex agnus-castus in the United States

VIAG Vitex agnus-castus L. lilac chastetree
VIAG Vitex agnus-castus L. lilac chastetree

 

In the United States, Vitex agnus-castus has been introduced successfully into parts of the mid-Atlantic region, the Pacific northwest, and across the south from west to east, as well as the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., and offshore in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The nineteen continental states which claim Vitex agnuscastus as part of their landscape are Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

 

closeup of Vitex agnus-castus leaves

Texas State University-San Marcos, Edwards Plateau, central Texas
Texas State University-San Marcos, Edwards Plateau, central Texas

Externals: What Vitex agnuscastus looks like

 

Vitex agnus-castus is an aromatic shrub or small tree. Its maximum spread measures 15 feet (4.5 meters). Its height is similarly proportioned at 15 feet (4.5 meters).

Its leaves are digitated (Latin: digitus, "finger, toe"), that is, spread out like fingers, into five to nine leaflets. This digitation is casually reminiscent of marijuana (Cannabis sativa), although closer inspection reveals differences in coloring, outline, etc.

 

underside of Vitex agnus-castus 'Abbeville Blue' leaves

Gossler Farms, Springfield, west central Oregon
Gossler Farms, Springfield, west central Oregon

 

Uppersides of leaves are grey green to dark green. Leafy undersides are lighter in color and, covered with down, have a pleasant softness.

Dusty white buds open as blue to violet pastels or as deep purple or even as dusty white. Inflorescence (Latin: florere, "to flower"), that is blooming, occurs as panicles (Latin: panus, "thread wound around the bobbin of a weaver's shuttle"), which feature multiple flowers, each on its own pedicel (Latin: pediculus, "little foot"), that is, small stalk, in ramified clusters on main branches called peduncles (Latin: pedunculus, "footstalk").

As a drupe (Greek: δρύππᾱ, druppa, "overripe olive"), Vitex agnus-castus fruit has a fleshy outer skin which surrounds an inner shell or pit. The fleshy fruit darkens to purple at maturity and encloses four seeds within its pit.

 

closeup of berries, flowers, and leaves of Vitex agnus-castus

Mt. Coot-tha Botanical Gardens, Brisbane, southeastern Queensland, northeastern Australia
Mt. Coot-tha Botanical Gardens, Brisbane, southeastern Queensland, northeastern Australia

Ethnobotany: Pepper substitute and chastity

 

Leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds have a long medicinal and therapeutic history, which oftentimes has focused on the plant's purported anaphrodisiac (Greek: ἀν-, an-, "without" + Άφροδίσιος, Aphrodisios, "pertaining to Aphrodite [Greek goddess of love]”), that is, desire suppressing, properties. Whereas so often form and function are intertwined in nature, Vitex agnus-castus seems to contradict this aphorism. While projecting an externally perfect beauty that pleases the senses, Vitex agnus-castus inherently, through its internal chemical composition, chastens and dulls certain sensations.

One of the plant's common names, monk's pepper, references the use of its seeds as a pepper substitute in monasteries, where it was assumed that the added benefit of its intrinsic anaphrodisia also was appreciated.

 

Vitex agnus-castus in the landscape

Stutensee, Karlsruhe district, Baden-Württemberg, southwest Germany: 49° 5′ 47,62″ N, 8° 31′ 6,80″ E
Stutensee, Karlsruhe district, Baden-Württemberg, southwest Germany: 49° 5′ 47,62″ N, 8° 31′ 6,80″ E

In and out of garden: a popular refreshment

 

With its aesthetic proportions and harmonious coloring, Vitex agnus-castus blends beautifully into gardens. Chaste Tree is a popular perch and nectar source for butterflies as well as for moths, such as Hummingbird Moth (Macroglossum stellatarum), and hummingbirds, such as ruby throats (Archilochus colubris).

Five regular pollinators which place Vitex agnus-castus high on their nectar source list are

  • common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia),
  • American copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas),
  • painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui),
  • red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), and
  • silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus).

 

characteristic markings of Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia)

view in low-lying brush
view in low-lying brush

 

Junonia coenia is commonly known as common buckeye butterfly.

In North America, Junonia coenia’s northern range extends, in spring and summer, to southern Canada westward into the province of Manitoba. Junonia coenia’s range includes most of the continental United States, with heavy populations in southern states from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Junonia coenia enjoys open spaces with low vegetation in a variety of settings, from fields and gardens to roadsides, trails, and shorelines.

 

Artis Zoo, Amsterdam, northwestern Netherlands
Artis Zoo, Amsterdam, northwestern Netherlands

 

Junonia coenia are eminently recognizable with two orange epaulets, flanked by dark bars, and two dark spectacular eyespots, rimmed successively with yellow and deep brown, on each forewing.

Two eyespots appear on each hindwing as well, with the upper, larger spot traversed by a magenta crescent.

Wingspan is 1.625 to 2.750 inches (4.2 to 7 centimeters).

In addition to Vitex agnus-castus, Junonia coenia favors aster (genus Aster), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), chickory (genus Cichorium), and anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).

 

American copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas)

Dresden-Heller, Free State of Saxony (Freistaat Sachsen), east central Germany
Dresden-Heller, Free State of Saxony (Freistaat Sachsen), east central Germany

 

Lycaena phlaeas is commonly known as American copper butterfly. In North America, Lycaena phlaeas range from Nova Scotia southwards to Georgia, Tennessee, and Arkansas and westwards to North Dakota. Lycaena phlaeas also flits across Europe, Asia, and North Africa.

Lycaena phlaeas welcomes a range of habitats, including fields and pastures as well as roadsides and pastures as well as roadsides and rocky woodlands.

 

underside of American Copper Butterfly

Saxony, east central Germany
Saxony, east central Germany

 

Its forewings shine fiery orange-red, dotted with black spots. Hindwings are grey effectively contrasted with orange-red margins.

Its wingspan petitely measures .0875 to 1.375 inches (2.2 to 3.5 centimeters).

In addition to Vitex agnus-castus, Lycaena phlaeas enjoys nectaring anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), asters (genus Aster), mints (genus Mentha), and oregano (Origanum vulgare).

 

Painted Lady Butterfly (Vanessa cardui)

Wauponsee Glacial Trail, Forest Preserve District of Will County, northeastern Illinois
Wauponsee Glacial Trail, Forest Preserve District of Will County, northeastern Illinois

 

Vanessa cardui is commonly known as painted lady butterfly.

Because of their worldwide distribution throughout temperate and tropical regions, painted ladies are nicknamed cosmopolitans.

Another nickname, thistle butterflies, derives from their devotion to the purple-tinted flowers of thistles.

 

underside of Painted Lady Butterfly

Painted Lady in August
Painted Lady in August

 

Vanessa cardui presents a pastiche of orange, brown, and black dashed with white.

Wingspan measures 2 to 2.875 inches (5.1 to 7.3 centimeters).

When not delighting in thistle, Vanessa cardui enjoys butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia).

 

Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta): endearingly settles cozily on arms, shoulders, heads, or hats of gardeners whose gardens they frequent!

Admiralfalter (Vanessa atalanta) mit geöffneten Flügeln (Admiral [Vanessa atalanta] with open wings)
Admiralfalter (Vanessa atalanta) mit geöffneten Flügeln (Admiral [Vanessa atalanta] with open wings)

 

Vanessa atalanta is commonly known as red admiral butterfly.

Ranging from northern Canada southwards to Guatemala in Central America, Vanessa atalanta colonizes throughout the entire continental United States. Temperate areas of Europe, Asia, North Africa, and Caribbean islands, Hawaii, as well as New Zealand also are considered home for Vanessa atalanta.

Habitats include farms, forests, grasslands, parks, and roadsides as well as marshes and moist fields or woods.

Vanessa atalanta endears itself to gardeners whose gardens it frequents by settling cosily on their arms, shoulders, heads, or hats.

 

underside of Red Admiralty Butterfly

Red Admitalty butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) in January
Red Admitalty butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) in January

 

Vanessa atalanta displays at the apex of its forewings pyramids of darkness, with dramatic white spots, demarcated by an orange or red band which then switches to dark brown. Its hindwings are dark brown edged sumptuously with a thick orange or red margin.

Its wingspan is 1.75 to 3 inches (4.5 to 7.6 centimeters).

In addition to Vitex agnus-castus, Vanessa atalanta relishes asters (genus Aster), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), plus healthy doses of bird droppings, fermenting fruit, and tree saps.

 

Silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus)

Searcy County, north central Arkansas
Searcy County, north central Arkansas

 

Epargyreus clarus is commonly known as silver-spotted skipper.

A New World native, Epargyreus clarus scoots across the continental United States, avoiding the Great  Basin and west Texas, and slipping across borders south into northern Mexico or north into the southern limits of Canada.

Epargyreus clarus is attracted to the openness of canyons, fields, and parks as well as foothill streamsides, and prairie waterways.

 

stages of Silver- Spotted Skipper: caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly

illustration by Willey Ingraham "W.I." Beecroft (b. 1870)
illustration by Willey Ingraham "W.I." Beecroft (b. 1870)

 

Under its scientific synonym of Epargyreus tityrus, the Silver-Spotted Skipper's "rather interesting" life history is described charmingly:

". . . .It might seem simple enough to say that some insects are leaf-rollers and others are tent-makers, but as a matter of fact in the case of the Silver-spotted Skipper we have an insect which starts its larval life as a leaf-roller and finishes it as a tent-maker . . . .

". . . . In less than a week each egg hatches into a little caterpillar with a very large head and a comparatively large body, tapering rapidly toward the hind end. This little creature cuts out from one side of the leaf a small round flap which it turns over and binds in place by silken threads to make a home for itself. This little home shows considerable variation in its construction but it usually has an arched dome held in place by strands of silk running from the eaten fragment to the surface of the leaf. . . ." (Clarence M. Weed, p. 270)

 

underside and upperside wing view of Silver Spotted Skipper, feeding on kudzu (Pueraria)

"Silver spotted skipper Epargyreus clarus on kudzu"
"Silver spotted skipper Epargyreus clarus on kudzu"

 

Epargyreus clarus has brown to black wings. Forewings are scored with luminous gold spots while the underside of the hindwings each have metallic silver bands that flash visibly during flight, which is a fast, erratic pattern of skipping from place to place.

Wingspan is 1.75 to 2.625 inches (4.5 to 6.7 centimeters).

In addition to Vitex agnus-castusEpargyreus clarus savors butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), and honeysuckle (genus Lonicera).

 

Vitex agnus-castus flowers and leaves

Texas State University-San Marcos gardens
Texas State University-San Marcos gardens

Vitex agnus-castus: A pretty, pleasant refreshment

 

Vitex agnus-castus, perhaps in spite of its inherent chemistry, delicately and deliciously welcomes pollinators with its profuse, attractive hues and its accessible, delectable nectar. Vitex agnus castus beneficently imparts healthy sustenance to faunal pollinators, which swear unreserved allegiance to the plant's excellent offerings.

In the realm of the senses, Vitex agnus-castus comports superbly in private and in public places, having a natural, pleasant sprawl that rarely requires much, if any, pruning, and being garbed in a harmonious palette that ennobles every vista. It is only in its therapeutic uses for Homo sapiens that Vitex agnus-castus appears to be balancing pleasure with constraint. But such does not apply to butterflies, which are entrusted with sipping nectar as and when they so desire.

 

Brela, Makarska Riviera, southern Croatia
Brela, Makarska Riviera, southern Croatia

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.

 

Vitex agnus-castus fruits (berries)

monk's pepper
monk's pepper

Sources Consulted

 

"American Copper Lycaena phlaeas (Linnaeus, 1761)." Butterflies and Moths of North America. Butterfly and Moth Information Network, Kelly Lotts and Thomas Naberhaus. Web. www.butterfliesandmoths.org

  • Available at:  http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Lycaena-phlaeas

American Horticultural Society. A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. New York:  Dorling Kindersley, 1996.

"Common Buckeye Junonia coenia Hübner, [1822]." Butterflies and Moths of North America. Butterfly and Moth Information Network, Kelly Lotts and Thomas Naberhaus. Web. www.butterfliesandmoths.org

  • Available at:  http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Junonia-coenia

Flora: A Gardener's Encyclopedia. Volume II: L-Z. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2003.

Ortho's All About Attracting Hummingbirds and Butterflies. Des Moines, IA: Meredith Books, 2001.

"Painted Lady Vanessa cardui (Linnaeus, 1758)." Butterflies and Moths of North America. Butterfly and Moth Information Network, Kelly Lotts and Thomas Naberhaus. Web. www.butterfliesandmoths.org

  • Available at:  http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Vanessa-cardui

"Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta (Linnaeus, 1758)." Butterflies and Moths of North America. Butterfly and Moth Information Network, Kelly Lotts and Thomas Naberhaus. Web. www.butterfliesandmoths.org

  • Available at:  http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Vanessa-atalanta

Roth, Sally. Attracting Butterflies & Hummingbirds to Your Backyard. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2001.

"Silver-spotted Skipper Epargyreus clarus (Cramer, 1775)." Butterflies and Moths of North America. Butterfly and Moth Information Network, Kelly Lotts and Thomas Naberhaus. Web. www.butterfliesandmoths.org

  • Available at:  http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Epargyreus-clarus

Weed, Clarence M. Butterflies Worth Knowing. Illustrated by Forty-eight Plates, Thirty-two in Color. Little Nature Library. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1917.

  • Available via Biodiversity Heritage Library at: http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/37738.

 

Stutensee, Karlsruhe district, Baden-Württemberg, southwest Germany:  49° 5′ 47.62″ N, 8° 31′ 6.80″ E
Stutensee, Karlsruhe district, Baden-Württemberg, southwest Germany: 49° 5′ 47.62″ N, 8° 31′ 6.80″ E
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the end which is also the beginning

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Updated: 08/20/2014, DerdriuMarriner
 
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DerdriuMarriner on 11/13/2013

Mira, Monk's pepper flowers tend toward pastel colors of blue, lavender, purple, or violet, so their palette is quite soothing.
I enjoyed telling its story, so I appreciate your appreciation.
Me, too, I agree that monk's pepper shows well on its stems, which often display a graceful curve, as in the last photo.

Mira on 11/11/2013

Very interesting article on monk's pepper :). Love your little stories. :) Also, the plant has such an appealing color (does it come only in this color?:), and it looks so beautiful on a stem (as per your last photo).

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