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