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Vitex rotundifolia L.f. 1782
pronounced: VY-teks roh-tun-dih-FOH-lee-uh
(Lamiaceae – the lavender family)
common name: Beach Vitex
Vitex was the Roman name for the Chaste Tree, now known botanically as Vitex agnus-castus. From classical Greek and Roman times this plant was known as an anaphrodisiac†. In ancient Greece, it was called αγνος (ágnos), which apparently the early Christians confused with 'αγνος (hagnós), chaste, and with the Latin agnus, lamb, the Christian symbol of purity. So the plant received several sacred names in various languages, but all meaning ‘tree of chastity’. It also had several names referring to Abraham: Abraham’s Tree, Abraham’s Bush, and Abraham’s Balm. It was, in mediaeval Christian monasteries, the equivalent of the bromide that British soldiers for generations reckoned the authorities put in their tea to suppress their sexual urges. The actual Latin word vitex came from vitilis, made by plaiting; the flexible branches of the Chaste Tree being used for plaiting wattle fences, much the same as willow branches are still used today. Rotundifolia is from two Latin words, rotundus, round, and folium, a leaf.
This is a beach plant found in Hawaii and throughout the tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans. It is a sprawling shrub up to a couple of metres in diameter, but only 15 or so cm high when growing in the sand. It will reach well over 1 m in height and 4 m in diameter when protected from wind and salt spray.
Here on Magnetic Island, it is found growing amongst the beach morning glory on the foreshores. The photographs were taken in Picnic Bay, on the shoreward side of the beach vegetation. The plant spreads widely over the sand, rooting at the nodes, making it an excellent contributor to beach stabilization. It grows particularly well below the Picnic Bay Mall, where it benefits from being on the edge of the lawn sprinkler system, and thus receiving a certain amount of fresh water that both nurtures it and washes its leaves.
The roundish leaves are grey-green to silvery-green, and up to about 5 cm long. When crushed, the leaves have a spicy fragrance, and the stems, towards the inflorescences, have the square cross-section typical of the mint family. The bluish purple flowers are tiny, but very pretty, and grow in small clusters at the edge of the branches throughout most of the year. The round fruits are about 6 mm in diameter, and bluish purple to black when ripe. They are almost never seen on the Picnic Bay plants, from which I assume that they are popular with the birds.
In Hawaii, both the flowers and the foliage are used in lei making.
† the opposite of an aphrodisiac
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2009
Page last updated 23rd June 2017