Herbs for Women: Vitex Agnus Castus

| December/January 1998

  • Vitex in full flower
    Photography by Steven Foster
  • Frost-nipped vitex shrub, Brixey, Missouri
  • Aloe
  • Vitex in full flower
  • German chamomile
  • Magnolia
  • Saw palmetto
  • Echinacea

Vitex, or chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus)—celebrated by women in ancient Greek festivals and on holy days as a symbol of marriage, chastity and fertility—gives contemporary women cause for celebration, too: it can safely and effectively relieve the monthly misery of difficult menstrual cycles. Research confirms the wisdom of the ancient medicinal uses of vitex, and in Europe it is the preferred treatment for premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

The Herb

Vitex is a shrub or small tree native to western Asia and southwestern Europe. Introduced to the United States as an ornamental in the early nineteenth century, it has become naturalized in the southeastern states and as far north as Maryland. Typically, plants grow 9 to 17 feet tall, but specimens in the Deep South may reach 25 feet. The 1/8-inch round fruits have a pungent scent and flavor and have been used as a substitute for black pepper (hence the common names Indian spice and wild pepper).

Other common names—chaste tree, Abraham’s balm, chaste lamb-tree, safe tree and monk’s-pepper tree—refer to the belief that eating the fruits reduced sexual desire, an assertion debated for centuries. Andrew Duncan concluded in the The Edinburgh New Dispensatory (1789):

"These seeds have been celebrated as antiaphrodisiacs, and were formerly much used by monks for allaying the venereal appetite; but experience does not warrant their having any such virtues."

Ancient Uses

Among the ancient Greek and Roman writers who extolled the use of vitex to treat gynecological conditions was the first-century Roman naturalist Pliny, who noted, “The trees furnish medicines that promote urine and menstruation. They encourage abundant rich milk. . . .”

In festivals honoring Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, fertility, and marriage, temples were strewn with vitex boughs and leaves. Women adorned themselves with vitex blossoms and refrained from sexual relations during the holy days. The goddess Hera, protector of marriage, was born under a vitex, and the Roman goddess of the hearth, Vesta, was exalted by virgins carrying twigs of vitex as symbols of purity. To the present day in some parts of Italy, novitiates entering the monastery tread a path strewn with vitex blossoms.

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