Chaste tree is a beautiful, deep-green, graceful-looking shrub with leaves resembling the five-fingered hand of the goddess. Originating in northern Africa, chaste tree is esteemed as a supreme female tonic, but its historical use is as an inhibitor of male libido.
Known as monk’s pepper, chaste tree berries can subdue male sexual desire, and it was added to the food of monks and priests in European monasteries during the Middle Ages. Its species name, agnus-castus, means chaste twice: Greek agnos and Latin castus both mean chaste. In Italia, vitex flowers are laid on the ground before the feet of novices as they enter the convent.
Chaste tree has several common names in Southern Italia: legano, aino, agno casto, and pepe falso. It grows wildly in riverbeds, swamps and wet lowlands throughout our area. The leaves and fruits have been renowned for their emmenagogue and anaphrodisiac properties. An infusion or a tincture of the leaves and fruits is used to quiet nervous irritability and as an antispasmodic for the digestive system.
The flavonoids, glycosides and micronutrients found in chaste tree berries exert a powerful influence on the endocrine system. Chaste tree is especially nourishing to the pituitary gland, which controls and coordinates the menstrual cycle. The berries stimulate the production of luteinizing hormones (LH), enhance the progesterone cycle, inhibit the release of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and normalize the estrogen cycle. Consistent use of chaste tree berry can help regulate menstruation, relieve emotional swings associated with premenstrual or menopausal tension and assist women dealing with abdominal bloating, breast swelling or tenderness and cravings for sweets.
Women in the midst of menopause find chaste tree berry eases menopausal flooding, helps eliminate night sweats and hot flashes, lubricates dry vaginal tissue and helps relieve depression.
It’s an ally to young women beginning their moon cycles, as well. A client with irregular menses wasn’t sure she was ovulating. After taking 20 drops of chaste tree berry tincture twice daily for several months, her moon cycle stabilized and her ovulation became apparent to her.
Because chaste tree berries restore hormonal balance, they enhance fertility and help normalize reproductive functioning for women coming off birth control pills, after giving birth or after a miscarriage or abortion. Chaste tree berries also stimulate the production of prolactin, making them an excellent ally for nursing mothers. This not only insures an abundant supply of milk, it helps women rebuild strength and vitality.
Consistent use of chaste tree has a strong anti-inflammatory effect on the endometrial tissue and can be a significant help in shrinking fibroids in the uterus. One woman reported that it not only reduced the size of her fibroid considerably, its effects extended to widening her too-thin hips as well!
Although it is primarily thought of today as an herb for women, chaste tree is beneficial for men too. James Green, in The Male Herbal, says it can be an important ally for men during their midlife changes.
Chaste tree berries have some effect on acute symptoms, but its strength comes from long-term use. It is most effective when used regularly for 3 months to two years in large doses. The usual dosage is 20-40 drops of fresh or dry berry tincture up to 4 times per day. I’ve also ground a teaspoonful of dried berries to sprinkle over food once or twice daily. Chaste tree berries’ history of use extends back at least 2,000 years with no reports of harmful side effects. However, too high a dosage causes the sensation of ants crawling on the skin, so start off on the low side of the dosage level and work your way up, as needed.
Flower Essence Chaste tree aids us in finding our unique path to health, guided by the wisdom of the body.
Magical Lore The seeds have traditionally been used to cultivate chastity and the leaves to honor and invoke Ceres/Demeter, the great Mother Goddess of Grain. Greek matrons would make chains of the leaves and use them to decorate their couches during ceremonies to the goddess. The seeds and/or leaves are placed in a magical bag and placed under the pillow to promote dream remembrance.
Culture I find chaste trees easy to start from seed. I scatter the seed in flats, cover with compost and wait for the seedlings to emerge. The first pairs of leaves are singular, resembling mint. The fifth pair is triple-lobed. Not until the eighth pair do the familiar five-lobed, hand-like leaves that characterize the chaste tree appear. In the language of plants, I see this as a mirror of the three stages of women’s lives: maiden, mother and crone. Mature chaste tree bushes grow from six to twelve feet tall. They will become large, wide, unwieldy bushes unless you prune them every year. Since chaste trees are native to Africa, here in Maine we can’t be sure our vitex plants will winter over, so we used to dig them up, put them in our root cellar to safely sit out their dormant period, and then replant them into the garden the following spring. These days we keep a couple of chaste tree bushes growing in our greenhouse and they winter-over just fine, returning year after year. I tincture the dark-purple chaste tree berries fresh or dry and lay freshly gathered berries out to dry on shallow baskets.