During my studies I have come across this plant, chaste tree, Vitex agnus castus, quite regularly. Because many diseases that we typically see in women have hormonal causes, this is quite an important plant.
I have never found it hard to remember this plant because of its Dutch name monk’s pepper, which is also one of its folk names in English. The pepper part was understandable enough, given the appearance of the fruits. The ‘monk’ part was more difficult, until I found out that these ‘peppers’ were used in monasteries to make it easier for monks to live a celibate life. Hence, the name chaste tree in English. As often in plant lore, it reveals a plant’s purpose.
Medicinally, chaste tree is a plant that is mostly used for a specific purpose. This plant is great against all kinds of hormonal disorders in women. Think of problems related to menstruation, but also pimples, infertility and difficult breastfeeding. It can also be used in men. In addition, chaste tree is useful for simple discomforts in the digestive system.
The magical properties of chaste tree belong to similar categories. For example, the plant can be used in rituals to represent the feminine divine. Moreover, it is useful in fertility and libido magic.
Chaste tree is a plant that actually likes warmer climates, but is also common in ornamental and medicinal gardens all over Europe. In terms of size, this plant can occur as a shrub or as a small tree that can reach a height of five metres. The latter especially happens in warmer climates. In colder climates, they often die back during winter and then sprout again in the spring.
The plant has wiry branches with a pannose layer. The leaves are palmate and opposite. They are about 15 cm long, lanceolate, green on top and grey pannose at the bottom. The leaves exude an aromatic scent. The plant attracts insects and butterflies; the latter is largely due to its inflorescence.
The inflorescence consists of small, white, pink, or lilac-coloured flowers with five petals that grow in multiple whorls. Those whorls together form a long slender spike that can grow up to 30 cm long.
After flowering, fruits appear in the form of small berries that are reddish brown to almost black in colour. These berries smell a bit like peppermint and have a peppery taste. The berries contain four seeds.
The folk name monk’s pepper comes from the custom to mix the berries of this plant into the food of monks to temper their libido and make it easier for them to maintain celibacy. That is not the only sex-related use the plant had in ancient times. Among the ancient Greeks, chaste tree had a reputation for guarding virginity. Quite ironic that chaste tree can actually ensure that some forms of infertility are remedied.
The name vitex reminds us that the branches and twigs of this plant were used in basketry.
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