Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus)
Chaste Tree - Vitex
Vitex agnus-castus, also called Vitex, Chaste Tree, Chasteberry, Abraham's Balm or Monk's Pepper, is a native of the Mediterranean region.
Vitex agnus-castus belongs to the family of Verbenaceae. It is one of the few temperate-zone species of Vitex, which is on the whole a genus of tropical and sub-tropical flowering plants. Theophrastus mentioned the shrub several times, as agnos (άγνος) in Enquiry into Plants. Vitex, its name in Pliny the Elder, is derived from the Latin vieo, meaning to weave or to tie up, a reference to the use of Vitex agnus-castus in basketry. Its macaronic specific name repeats "chaste" in both Greek and Latin.
The plant, is really a much branched deciduous shrub, loosing its leaves when the fruits are ripe. It grows up to 3 meters high and is originating from and distributed around the Mediterranean Basin. The plant prefers low altitudes and is often found along the shores of lakes, by the sea and along riverbeds. The stalked palmate leaves consist of 5 to 7 narrow pointed entire leaflets, dark green and glabrous above and white felted beneath.
The inflorescences are terminal, thickly branched, consisting of 10 to 20 or more pairs of congested cymes, superimposed on a common axis. The flowers which appear from June to September are small and sweet scented and arranged racemose in long terminal spikes. Their colour varies from white over pink- lilac to deep blue.
When Vitex agnus castus is flowering, the leaves are still abundant. When the small fruits start to ripen, the plant commences shedding its leaves. When the fruits are fully ripe, most leaves have withered.
The fruits are small, the size of small peppercorns, purple- black, hard and ripen between late September and November.
Vitex agnus-castus is widely cultivated in warm temperate and subtropical regions for its delicate-textured aromatic foliage and butterfly attracting spikes of lavender flowers in late summer in cooler climates. It requires full sun or partial shade along with well-drained soil.
The leaves and tender stem growth of the upper 10 cm (4 inches), along with the flowers and ripening seeds, are harvested for medicinal purposes. The berries are harvested by gently rubbing the berries loose from the stem. The leaves, flowers, and/or berries may be consumed as a decoction, traditional tincture, cider vinegar tincture, syrup, elixir, or simply eaten straight off the plant as a medicinal food. A popular way of taking Vitex is on awakening as a simple 1:1 fluid extract, which is said to interact with hormonal circadian rhythms most effectively.
The berries are considered a tonic herb for both the male and female reproductive systems. The leaves are believed to have the same effect but to a lesser degree.
Vitex agnus castus is a typical medicinal plant with a long history in folk medicine.
In ancient times it was believed to be an anaphrodisiac, hence the name chaste tree.
Hera, wife of Zeus and the protectoress of matrimony in Greek mythology, was said to be born under a chastetree, which subsequently became a symbol for chaste and monogamy in marriage.
Already 400 BC., Hippokrates recommends the drug for injuries, inflammations and enlargements of the spleen. Theophrastus (372 - 287 BC), in his "Historia Plantarum" (means History of Plants) describes soldiers using Vitex to plaid shields, "for it was not possible to procure arms in an uninhabited country" and Homer tells us, that Odysseus used its branches to fence in his boat, to defend it against the wave, and to tie his men under the bellies of rams to escape the Cyclops.
Dioscorides in his "De Materia Medica", ca. 79AD, reserves a remarkable space for the portrait of Vitex agnus castus. After a detailed list of names given to this plant all over the then known world, he returns to the Greek name Αγνος, meaning purity. He says, " it is called so, because the women participating in the feast of thesmophoriae use it to "spread on their beds", or because "when drunk as extract, as they say, it frees men from the desire for sex".
The thesmophoriae in ancient Greece were festivals held by only women in honour of Demeter and were ceremonies to promote fertility. The women prepared for the ceremonies by abstaining from sexual intercourse and by ritual bathings. The festival's three days in October, the women would spend together outside the towns in makeshift shelters, or for Athenian women at the Thesmophorion, in the hills near Athens. The women adorned themselves with chastetree flowers and spread the leaves on their bedsteads.
Further he mentions "the seed, like that of pepper, brings heat, helps those bitten by animals and those retaining water and those that have chronic period troubles and inflammations about the womb". It brings milk when drunk with wine, as tea cleans the intestines, soothes hemorrhoids and relieves headaches. Additionally he mentions the drugs usefulness in treating lethargic as well as mad people.
According to Pliny the Elder (AD. 23-79) V. agnus castus was highly revered as one of the most useful medicines of the times. He claims that it checks violent sexual desire in men, takes away the more severe type of headache, purges the uterus and the bowels. Because of their hot nature, the seeds were taken to dispel flatulence, promote urine, regulate diarrhea and greatly benefit epilepsy and spleen disease.
It is remarkable, that the indications of Vitex agnus castus have changed preciously little over the centuries since these first records.
In the Medieval the chastetree this plant has been called monk's pepper in the thought that it was used as anti-libido medicine by monks to aid their attempts to remain chaste. The shrub was planted in each monastery herb garden, and the spicy seeds served as condiment in the monastery kitchen. Mattioli recommends it to "take away the desire for Venus-deals", nuns washed their "secret places" with an infusion of the leaves, and men and women wore amulets made from its wood, it is reported.But it became also a symbol for the hidden part of monastic life according to some...
Arnaud de Villeneuve, an important studioso of the 13th century, mentions the "washing of the private parts with a decoction of Agnus castus, in order to make them more ready for pleasure". So it seems that 'the desire for Venus deals' in some was suppressed, while others seemed to achieved the contrary effect. In any case, it seems that the chastetree was considered a plant of fertility and desire as well as chaste and purity.
From the 1600's on it was widely used as a common folk remedy for female hormonal imbalances and to stimulate the flow of milk in nursing mothers. In the Renaissance, these indications survived from the oldest known herbals on, and included the chaste-preserving quality, the usefulness for flatulence and menstrual disorders, the relieve of headaches, pain and the curing of bites, inflammations, and its usefulness in treating madness, epilepsy, and lethargy.
Clinical studies have demonstrated effectivness of standardised and controlled medications produced from extract of the plant in the management of premenstrual stress syndrome (PMS), and cyclical breast pain (mastalgia). The medication is recommended in Germany.