CHASTE TREE - FOR CELIBACY AND A WOMEN'S HERB FOR HEALTH
CHASTE TREE, VITEX AGNUS-CASTUS
The chaste tree or chaste berry tree has its origins in western Asia and the shores of the Mediterranean. It was well-known to the ancient Greeks and Romans and used in religious festivals as well as in medicine. The chaste tree is a shrub which can grow to heights of around 25 feet, but is also one that fits well in gardens, as it looks a little like an overgrown lavender bush. It is a member of the Lamiaceae family and of the verbenas, so is a relative of lemon verbena and vervain. Its name means “chaste lamb” from the Greek, agnos, lamb and castos chaste.
It was grown in English gardens by the 1550s and John Gerard writing in the 16th century mentions it as being good for obstructions of the liver and spleen, as well as for women’s complaints. He thought that the seeds and leaves were good for inflammation of the uterus, and that the seeds, when used in combination with pennyroyal could bring on a woman’s periods, and thought this remedy was a good emmenagogue.
The chaste tree has either white or blue through to violet flowers, which are replaced by berries which look a lot like peppercorns. It grows wild along river banks and the berries, or seeds have been used for a variety of medical purposes. It is cultivated now in many parts of the world, and is used in some herbal remedies and supplements.
Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine (460-377 BC) wrote “If the blood flows from the womb, let the woman drink dark wine in which the leaves of the chaste tree have been steeped.” It has long been used for women’s menstrual disorders, including for PMT/PMS and sore breasts and nipples. It is also beneficial for menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes (flashes). It is believed that it helps to regulate hormone levels by acting on the pituitary gland, and it has a similar effect to dopamine the “happy” substance. Pliny, another of the ancient writes, wrote “it checks violent sexual desire” meaning it decreases men’s libido. Thus it became known as Monk’s Pepper (Piperum monarchorum) as they sprinkled the powdered berries liberally on their food to remain celibate, or at least not to have carnal desires. In some parts of Italy today, novice monks who enter the monastery for the first time, still follow the ancient tradition of walking along a path strewn with the flowers and twigs of the chaste tree.
Dioscorides in his Materia Medica, written in 1 AD wrote that it was good for inflammation of the womb and to encourage lactation, although modern medical researchers suggest that lactating mothers should avoid its use. Ancient physicians believed that its seeds were useful to relieve flatulence, and these were used both in the fresh and dried state.
In ancient Greece the chaste tree was used in decorating the temple of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, fertility and marriage during her festival, the Thesmophoria. (Demeter was the mother of Persephone, who was abducted by Orpheus and who had to remain in Dis or the Underworld for 6 months of every year because she had eaten six pomegranate seeds, and so we have the seasons.)
In Rome the vestal virgins carried its twigs and wore the flowers, as a sign of their chastity. According to Greek mythology, Zeus’ wife and sister, Hera, the goddess of marriage was born under a chaste tree.
The plant contains bioflavonoids such as kaempferol which are at the highest levels in the leaves, and the volatile oils from the plant have a spicy aroma, although they contain similar constituents to citrus fruits such as lemons and citrons, having in them limonene, linalool, citronellol and other ingredients including pinene.
It should not be taken during pregnancy or lactation as not enough scientific research has been done on it. However, the German Commission E has approved it for some menstrual problems, and research into its properties is ongoing. It would seem that it could have anti-tumour effects, as well as having anti-inflammatory properties. It also seems to have antioxidant qualities.
It is combined in homeopathic remedies with many other plants. For example, it is used with dandelion to promote lactation, and has been used in this way for centuries, although scientists have not yet researched its safety. In combination with lavender it is said to raise the spirits, and with Saint John’s Wort it is believed to have the ability to lift a mild to moderate depression. It has been prescribed with valerian root for stomach cramps, and the best tisane is made with the berries, crushed, or the flowers, mixed with a little ginger root, chamomile flowers and a little liquorice root, which all improve the flavour, and help with digestion, stomach pains and cramps.
Some scientific trials have shown that the chaste tree’s extracts can reduce the frequency of epileptic seizures in animals, and improve their bone mineral density, although research has yet to be carried out on human subjects.
The chaste tree is mentioned in John Dryden’s (1631-1700) poem, “The Flower and the Leaf or The Lady in the Arbour: a Vision.”
Beneath the circles, all the quire was graced
With chaplets green on their fair foreheads placed;
Of laurel some, of woodbine many more;
And wreaths of Agnus castus others bore;
These last, who with their virgin crowns were dress’d
Appear’d in higher honour than the rest.”
The chaste tree has been associated not only with chaste women but of chaste men, and it was said that the male head of household would not have excessive carnal desires, if this plant was in his garden. Women however have no reason to fear it as it helps with their menstruation, may improve their fertility and also lifts depression.