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 Herbal Medicine: The Chaste Tree--Vitex agnus-castus
The Monk's Protector

Herbal medicines are the precursors of many common drugs prescribed in clinical practice in modern western industrial countries today. Further, herbs and herbal products are still an important part of the primary health care systems in many parts of the world--in countries such as China and Mexico, and throughout South America and Africa. Common use and interest in herbal medicine is also growing in some industrial countries such as the United States and Germany. Throughout recorded history, some of the same herbal medicines commonly used today were recognized and prescribed by ancient doctors--handed down from unknown antiquity.

One such plant was called agnos by the ancient Greeks, over 2,000 years ago; then agnus castus throughout the middle ages and renaissance. Today one can still buy these small spicy fruits in European herb markets by the same name.

The ancients ascribed many magical powers to this plant, and it was considered an important healing herb among the common people during the following centuries. Throughout Europe, where herbal medicine has more of an unbroken tradition than it does in the United States, agnus castus or "vitex" as it is usually called here, is often used to help relieve the symptoms associated with female hormonal imbalances such as the depression, cramps, mood swings, water retention and weight gain associated with the menstrual cycle (PMS-associated symptoms). In European herbalism and medical practice, Vitex extracts are also prescribed for uterine fibroid cysts and to help alleviate the unpleasant symptoms of menopause.

The lack of modern controlled studies is surprising, given the herb's extremely long history of use as a hormone balancing remedy and a legendary remedy to help subdue excited libidos among those who would remain chaste. Identification and standardization of active constituents still await interested researchers. This work may be soon forthcoming given the current re-awakening of interest in this ancient herb.

Botany and Natural Occurance of Chaste Tree
Vitex, a genus from the Verbenaceae, consists of about 60 species in the tropics and subtropics in both hemispheres. Vitex agnus castus is in the vervain family (Verbenaceae) and is a well-known aromatic shrub to small tree growing in the Mediterranean area to western Asia. The plant has long spires of pale lilac or rose colored flowers and small grey-brown, hard fruits, which is the part used medicinally. It is often found growing next to streams, and it loves water, but this author has seen it growing in very dry, rocky spots on the Greek islands.

Vitex usually grows from three to nine feet tall, but under cultivation can develop to 20 feet tall. The bark is white-felted, the opposite leaves are palmately compound with 5-7 leaflets. The flowers are in interrupted spikes and the corolla is two-lipped from 6-9 mm long. The fruit is a small hard reddish-black drupe with a persistent calyx.

Because agnus castus is native to Greece and Italy, it was well-known by the ancients. The name Vitex comes from the Romans, perhaps because it was considered related to the willow, Salix--both because of its leaves and its flexible branches, used like willow in wickerwork. Agnus-castus comes from the Greek agnos castus, chaste, because the plant has since those times been associated with chastity. Pliny, the Greek natural historian (AD 23-79) wrote that the Greeks called it lygos, or agnos because the "Athenian matrons, preserving their chastity at the Thesmophoria, strew their beds with its leaves."

Linnaeus described the plant as Vitex agnus castus in Species Plantarum (1753), naming De Plantis Epitome of Mattioli (1586), Royen's Florae Leydensis Prodromus (1740), Gronovious' Flora Virginica (1739-47) and Bauhin's Theatri Botanici (1623) as the authorities. Bauhin called it Vitex latiore folio.

History of Use and Folklore

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 About The Author
Christopher Hobbs LAc, AHG Christopher Hobbs is a fourth generation herbalist and botanist with over 30 years experience with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light Custom Extracts) and the Institute for Natural Products......more
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