Vitex: The Chaste Tree
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
Ancient Medicine (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans)
The ancients valued vitex highly for many health problems, and used its branches for making furniture. Pliny, the great writer and compiler on natural history, said the seeds taste like wine when a drink is made of them, and were taken to reduce fevers and stimulate perspiration. The drink was used in similar ways common today in European herbalism: to promote menstruation, “to purge the uterus” and to promote the free flow of milk in new mothers. According to Pliny, vitex was highly revered as one of the most useful medicines of the times. Because of their hot nature, the seeds of Vitex were taken to dispel “wind” or flatulence from the bowels, to promote urine, check diarrhea and greatly benefit dropsy and splenic diseases. The remedy was considered efficacious as an antidote to the bites of spiders and snakes. Pliny mentions two kinds of agnus castus– one that is small and shrubby and the other a small tree with speckled flowers. The Greek historian wrote that the smaller one was the more effective for snake bites. One drachma of the seed, or two of the most tender leaves, were taken in wine, or in vinegar and water. A tincture of fruits, or an herbal wine seem to be an effective way of taking vitex, as the oldest and best-studied vitex product is a liquid tincture.
Throughout history, vitex has been associated with sexual passion. Pliny claims that vitex “checks violent sexual desire.” The blossom and tender shoots mixed with rose oil clear away headache “due to intoxication.” A fomentation and decoction “takes away the more severe type of headache, purges the uterus, and the bowels, if drunk with pennyroyal.” Finally, an interesting application, though perhaps not so useful today–“It is said that those who keep a twig in their hand or in their girdle do not suffer from chafing between the thighs.” Maybe it was the Roman feasts that made this a real problem.
Dioscorides, the greatest and most reliable of the ancient herbalists writes more in his De Materia Medica (about 55 A.D.), about vitex than many of the hundreds of other herbs he includes in the work. Most remarkably, his account of its properties are exactly those that are the major modern indications: “it both brings down the milk and expels ye menstrua–being drank …in wine [and]..a decoction of the seed [is for] inflammation about the womb.” Mixed with pulegeum (pennyroyal) he further recommends it for headaches, perhaps attendant with menstrual difficulties. He stresses that externally (as a poltice or fomentation) it is of service in inflammations, venomous bites and wounds. Dioscorides also quotes from earlier authors that vitex has a warming, binding faculty and that the “seed [is] as of pepper.” He echoes earlier works, too, in hinting that the origin of the legends about vitex being able to curb sexual appetites derived from women placing the foul-smelling branches and leaves upon their bed to deter amorous men.
Middle Ages (Arabians, Salerno, Saxon Leechdom)
After the Roman period, herbalism did not continue to develop in a very critical or sophisticated way–most writers copied and recopied the Codex of Dioscorides and the works of a few other ancient medical writers. Of course, the day-to-day use of herbs by the common people continued throughout the period. Novel written herbals from this period (100 – 900 AD) are very rare, existing only in manuscript form, and few, if any, have been reprinted , so they are not generally available. About 850 AD, original medical and pharmaceutical ideas again began to flourish in Persia, during the “Golden Age of Arabic science.” These ideas and evolutionary writings were preserved in the works of several notable authors on medicine, materia medica and pharmacy; and about the same time, the first herb books were written down in medieval Anglo-Saxon (in England) by “leeches” or doctors who used herbs and other cures, in their “leechbooks.”
Agnus castus was apparently known by the Persians, as seen in two of the translated works on materia medica, The Medical Formulary of Al-Kindi from the last half of the 9th century, and The Medical Formulary of Al-Samarquandi from about 1200 AD. The Persian name was Faqad, banjakusht or fanjakusht. Al-Samarqandi mentions its use with other simples to “cure insanity, the stroke of madness and epilepsy.” Levey, the researcher and translator of these two Arabian works, adds that the fruits are currently sold in Egyptian bazaars as “a calming agent in hysteria.” Al Kindi mixes agnus castus with other herbs to make a “black remedy” to cure insanity, madness and epilepsy.
Vitex did not grow naturally in England, so it may not have been known at the time of the Anglo-Saxon leeches, around 900 to 1450. It is not mentioned in the Leech-book of Bald or the Herbarium of Apuleius.
The Renaissance (The Age of Herbalism)
After the Persian period, which ended about 1450, the Renaissance began to flower in Europe, which was especially fortuitous for herbal medicine especially after the invention of the printing press–about 1455.
Among the earliest herbals of the Renaissance (in English) is Banckes’ Herbal (1525), which is generally presumed to be a compilation from other, older sources. Vitex is given as much space as most of the other herbs, so it must have been well-known in England before 1500, at least–although the uses Banckes quotes about Angus castus, such as “it will keep men and women chaste,” drunk with fennel seed, “it will destroy the dropsy,” or washing a man’s head will cure “an evil that is called lethargy” are not very revealing. Also, the herb is said to be good to “defy [dispel] the hardness and stopping of the milt” [spleen]. Vitex is described as having yellow flowers and bear black berries, so he may never have actually seen the plant.
After Bancke’s Herbal, a series of what are called “the great herbals” were published over the next 100 years; namely, in Germany, by Boch, Fuchs, Brunfels and in England, Turner, Dodoens (English translation from the Dutch), Gerard and Parkinson and in Italy, Matthioli. Culpepper’s famous herbal was published just after Parkinson’s (late 1600s), and drew heavily on the other, older herbals.
Gerard, one of the greatest of the Renaissance herbalists, gathered herbal uses from the ancients, folk uses of the time and uses from professional herbalists and wrote them down in his famous Herbal. His information tends to be fanciful and practical, both. On the fanciful side, he considers that vitex will have the same effect whether it is taken in powder, tea or whether “the leaves be carried about the body.” As is usual throughout this period, Gerard mentions that it is the remedy for those who would live chaste. On the practical side, he also extols it as a cure for “windiness of the stomach,” or flatulence. Those who drink an infusion of the fruits in wine (a wineglass full at a time) can also expect that it will “cureth the stoppings of the liver and spleen“. Gerard also encourages its use as a “female” herb. He writes that the seed and leaves are good against pain and inflammations of the uterus, and that the seed drunk with pennyroyal will bring on the menses and as a poultice, cure a headache (which is a quote from Dioscorides).
Official Medicine in Europe (1618 to the early 1700’s)
Vitex was official in some European pharmacopeias, including the influential first Pharmacopoeia Londinensis of 1618, but quickly was dropped from official status, and by 1713, Alleyne, in his New English Dispensatory, reporting on official drugs, could only say, “…not now in esteem, or scarce ever made or used in the shops.” In 1790 the only major official pharmacopeia it could be seen in was that of Dispensatorium pharmaceuticum Brunsvicense (1777). Currently, it is not listed as official in any pharmacopeias in Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopeia.xx?
The Modern Age
Vitex was well-known in the early 1700’s in England, and the belief of the ancients that it was efficacious to quell excess sexual passions was often quoted, but it wasn’t much used in medical practice by “the moderns.” James, in his Pharmacopeia Universalis (1747), asserts that the common belief of the current practitioners was that the herb was only repressive to the passions in people who were excessively hot, because of its drying nature, which might act to dry up excess “seed,” but that because of its hot nature, it could actually be a stimulant of sexual desire where the person was “cold:” “Persons languid in this respect are to be stimulated and roused.” It is interesting that many of the energetic properties of vitex and other herbs were ascribed to them, in some cases quite close to ones given in current Traditional Chinese Medicine.
To summarize, vitex was revered for many ailments, such as colic, gas and other digestive problems in areas where it grew naturally, namely around the Mediterranean area. In England, it was considered to be useful for the above conditions based on the writings of the Greeks and Romans–it had a very strong reputation, which carried through for centuries. The English began to lose interest in it about the 1700’s and didn’t get excited about it again until the middle 1900’s, at which time it became known as a valuable herb for female reproductive imbalances. For instance, Vitex cannot be found in any of the English herbals from the early 1900’s, such as Leyel’s herbals or Potter’s. Grieve, in her famous A Modern Herbal, gives Vitex a scant paragraph or two, saying that “a tincture (of the fresh, ripe berries are used] for the relief of paralysis, pains in the limbs, weakness, etc.”
In Germany and France, the herb was more used and had less of a drop in popularity than in the more distant England. For instance, in the 1880’s in France, the fruits were said to be bitter and aromatic, a promoter of good digestion, diuretic, carminative and to remove “visceral obstructions.” The author of a French medical herbal work of the late 1800’s, Cazin, mentions that the use of vitex to cool the passions was well-known; also mentioned is a famous syrup, “an infallible remedy for maintaining chastity and repressing the ardors of Venus,” made from the seeds by a contemporary priest “endowed with great piety and an apostolic zeal.” He goes on to say that the remedy was distributed in the convents to subdue passion, but he doubted it had that effect. Rather he considered that it had “a very stimulating property.”
Folk Medicine vs. “Official Medicine”
It is somewhat revealing that Vitex agnus castus has not been listed in the official medicine books to any extent, indicating that it has been most used in folk medicine. It was revered and widely used in Greek, Roman, Persian medicine and during the middle-ages, throughout Europe, dropping from official ranks in the middle 1600’s. From there, it was widely used as a common folk-remedy for female hormonal imbalances and for stimulating the milk flow until present, as is reviewed above. In the early part of the 1900’s, it began to be investigated chemically and in the 1950’s, pharmacologically in the clinic and laboratory. It is currently seeing a new wave of popularity in England, other parts of Europe.
Vitex was not known or used in American medicine, either in “official” medicine or in folk medicine and even the most comprehensive of the Eclectic medical works, the Felter-Lloyd revision of King’s American Dispensatory, only mentions it in passing. However, it is currently receiving interest in herbal-based clinical practices for a variety of female disorders, and products containing Vitex are widely available in natural food stores and herb stores across the country.
Use in Asia, other Cultures
Vitex agnus-castus is not used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), or in traditional east Indian medicine (Ayurveda), though it is indigenous into Baluchistan in Pakistan and occasionally grown in Indian gardens. Several other Vitex species are used in these traditional systems, especially Vitex negundo, and V. trifoliata (=V. incisa). In Ayurveda, the two are used in similar ways, but the latter plant is considered stronger. A tea of the roots (1/2 cup 2X daily) is reported to be a pleasant bitter in cases of malaria and typhus fevers and is commonly used for a number of everyday health problems.
Vitex negundo is known throughout Asia and grows abundantly in southern India, where the fruits are considered a vermifuge. V. negundo is found plentifully in North China, and in TCM the roots are employed in colds and rheumatic pains, and an infusion of the twigs is considered to be an effective remedy for headaches, dizziness, convulsions of children, coughs, mental unrest and is said to promote wakefulness. Interestingly, the seeds of the same plant (and other species of Vitex) are reported sold in Chinese pharmacies in Malaya under the name Ching tzü as the main part used in medicine, which echos the use of V. agnus-castus in western herbalism. Hooper reports that the fruits are “given for headache, catarrh and watery eyes.” The seeds of V. trifoliata are prescibed in headache and catarrh and are said to promote the growth of the beard; they are also used as a remedy for breast cancer.
A hot decoction of the seeds of vitex are used as a contraceptive, and as a hot decoction and vaginal pessary for an emmenagogue in Unani traditional medicine, according to Razzack.
History of Vitex Use at a Glance
- ca. 400 B.C. Hippocrates recommended it for injuries, inflammations and enlargement of the spleen.
- ca. 50 A.D. Dioscorides says it is good for inflammations of the womb (uterus) and for stimulating mother’s milk
- 1200 In the Persian school, Al-Kindi recommended Vitex for epilepsy
- 1633 Gerard and other Renaissance herbalists recommended Vitex for inflammation of the uterus and as an emmenagogue
- 1930 Madaus’ work was among the first modern “provings” on Vitex
- 1953 First clinical work on vitex’s galactagogue activity (using Agnolyt)
- W. Ainslie, Materia Indica (1826), (Delhi, 1979).
- J. Alleyne, A New English Dispensatory (London, 1733).
- F.J. Cazin, Plantes Médicinales. (Paris, 1866).
- Y.R. Chadha, chief ed., The Wealth of India (Raw Materials), 11 vols. (New Delhi, 1952-88).
- O. Cockayne, Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft (London, 1864.
- H.W. Felter, and J.U. Lloyd, King’s American Dispensatory (Cincinatti, 1898.
- J. Gerard, and T. Johnson, (eds.), The Herbal or General History of Plants(1633), (Reprinted by Dover Publications, New York, 1975).
- R.T. Gunther, The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides (New York, 1968).
- D. Hooper, On Chinese medicine: drugs of Chinese pharmacies in Malaya. The Gardens’ Bulletin, Straits Settlements (Singapore) 6 (1) (1929): 1-165.
- R. James, Pharmacopoeia Universalis: or a New Universal English Dispensatory (London, 1747).
- W.H.S. Jones, Pliny–Natural History, 6 vols (Cambridge, 1964).
- S.V. Larkey, and T. Pyles, An Herbal  (New York, 1941).
- M. Levy, The Medical Formulary or Aqrabadhin of Al-Kindi (Madison, 1966).
- M. Levy, and N. Al-Khaledy, The Medical Formulary of Al-Samarqandi (Philadelphia, 1967).
- C. Linnaeus, Species Plantarum, 1753, (London, 1957).
- G. Madaus, Handbook of Biological Medicine, 1938, (NY, 1976).
- L.M. Perry, Medicinal Plants of East and Southeast Asia (Cambridge, 1980).
- O. Polunin, Flowers of Greece and the Balkans (New York, 1987).
- H.M.A. Razzack, The concept of birth control in Unani medical literature, Unpublished manuscript of the author, 64 pp, (1980).
- F.P. Smith, and G.A. Stuart, translators and annotators, Chinese Medicinal Herbs (derived from the Pen Ts’ao of Li Shih-chen, 1578), (San Francisco, 1976).
- G. Urdang, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis of 1618 reproduced in facsimile (Madison, 1944).
- C. Pickering, Chronological History of Plants (Boston, 1879).
- N. Culpeper, A Physical Directory: or a Translation of the Dispensatory Made by the Colledge of Physitians of London, 2nd ed.,(London, 1650).
- E. Bretschneider, Botanicon sinicum, (Hong Kong, 1895).
- R.G. Todd, ed., Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia, 25th ed.,(London, 1976).
- E.N. Gathercoal, and H.W. Youngken, Check List of Native and Introduced Drug Plants in the United States, (Chicago, 1942).
- Pharmacopeia of the United States, 14th ed., (Easton, PA, 1950).
- D. Bensky and A. Gamble, Chinese Herbal Medicine, Materia Medica, (Seattle, 1986).
Formerly published in Pharmacy in History