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Vitex, Chaste Tree, Chasteberry, Monk’s Pepper
Verbenaceae – Verbena family
Berries primarily, sometimes leaf and flower.
Vitex is an adaptogen to the reproductive system, best known for its effectiveness in treating a variety of hormone-related issues in women by normalizing the menstrual and hormonal cycles. Specifically, it is reputedly used as an emmenagogue, galactagogue, possibly aphrodisiac (although historically reputed to be an anaphrodisiac), and to prevent miscarriage. In explanation, Dr. James Duke explains that it has a progesterone-like action, “decreasing the estrogen to progesterone ratio, thereby benefiting in premenstrual syndrome [PMS], which may result from excessive estrogen,” (Duke 194). “Research suggests that chasteberry works primarily on the pituitary gland to stabilize and balance the hormonal fluctuations women experience every month. By increasing the body’s secretion of luteinizing hormone [LH], it reduces prolactin and increases both progesterone and follicle-stimulating hormone [FSH],” (Duke II, 72).
Vitex is used anytime hormonal levels/rhythm have become imbalanced, such as following usage of birth control medication or trauma to the reproductive system; in recuperating from cervical issues; PMS; heavy menstrual bleeding; irregular, too frequent, suppressed, or absent (amenorrhea) menstrual cycles; dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation); endometriosis; menopausal difficulties; infertility; insufficient lactation; breast pain (mastalgia); acne (especially as a result of hormonal balance issues, as in teenagers); yeast infections; and even candida imbalance. Regarding its use in treating PMS and its symptoms, Steven Foster says the following in illustration of chasteberry’s efficacy, “A 1992 survey of German gynecologists evaluated the effect of a vitex preparation on 1,542 woman diagnosed with PMS. Both physicians and patients assessed effectiveness, with 90 percent reporting relief of symptoms after treatment averaging 25.3 days,” (Foster II, 98).
Vitex does contain flavonoids and alkaloids, “However, no single component is apparently responsible for the herb’s activity; various compounds are most likely acting together to bring about its effects,” (Foster III, 99). A little evidence suggests that chasteberry flowers contain the plant world’s equivalent of human testosterone, which would theoretically stimulate, rather than deter, sexual desire,” (Duke II, 72).
A deciduous shrub (often pruned into a small tree), Vitex is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe and Asia and has been widely naturalized to areas of the southern United States. It is a beautiful ornamental, growing upright clusters of aromatic purple flowers that bloom between April and October, then developing small hard berries that ripen to a dark color and look like peppercorns. Drought tolerant, chaste tree enjoys full sun and thrives in dry to moist soils, especially along streambeds, riverbanks, or coastal areas (Foster 270).
Berries should be collected in autumn when fully ripe – they will be dark in hue; use them fresh or dry them for later use.
It’s best to take vitex in the morning when progsterone levels are naturally the highest in order to work within a woman’s circadian rhythms. Most commonly, a tincture of the berries is used.
Steven Foster writes:
“…the goddess Hera, a champion and protector of marriage and married couples, was said to have been born in the shade of a chaste tree… When the Greeks held festivals honoring Demeter, the goddess of fertility, women who remained ‘pure’ during the festival adorned themselves with chaste tree blossoms… In Rome, vestal virgins often carried chaste tree twigs as a sign of their self-imposedd chastity. Later, this symbolic link between herb and chaste behavior was adopted by the Christian church in much of Europe… the dried fruits were ground and used as a pepper substitute in monasteries, fostering one of the herb’s common names: ‘monk’s pepper,’” (Foster III, 99).
The name “vitex” is derived from virilium, which means plaiting, referring to the historical use of its branches in building wattle fences and weaving baskets (Duke 193).
Chaste tree berries have been, “used for more than 2,500 years for menstrual difficulties. In medieval Europe, seeds were thought to allay sexual desire, hence the names Chaste Tree and Monk’s Pepper,” (Foster 270). Furthermore, “Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) wrote, ‘If blood flows from the womb, let the woman drink dark wine in which the leaves of the vitex have been steeped.’” And Pliny (A.D. 23-79) wrote, “‘The trees furnish medicines that promote urine and menstruation,’” (Foster II, 98).
In other cultures and traditions, vitex was used for epilepsy and insanity in Arab tradition, and in Ayurvedic medicine, it was considered to be abortifacient, diuretic, heating, and alexiteric (Duke 194).
Vitex is contra-indicated for use during pregnancy or any kind of hormone replacement therapy. “Rare side effects include early menstruation following delivery (resulting from activation of the pituitary), as well as rare cases of itching, rashes, and gastrointestinal symptoms. In clinical trials, side effects have been reported in fewer than 2 percent of patients,” (Foster II, 99).
Since I was running low, this weekend I made tinctures of both Echinacea root and Vitex agnus castus. One of the great things about tinctures is that they are simple to make, and these strong medicinals have a very long shelf life – depending on whom you ask, anywhere from two to ten years, allowing for good storage conditions.
Here are some pointers on making tinctures for your own use at home (these are not “industry standards,” but general guidelines for your personal household apothecary).
For tincturing from dried plant material, brandy is a good tincturing menstruum. Decide how much tincture you want to make – a pint, a quart, etc. – and fill that jar 1/4 full if using dried root, 1/2 full for all other plant materials (leaves, flowers, berries, etc.). Regular canning jars are fine for this – just be sure to use undamaged lids and rings to prevent leakage. Next, add brandy until the jar is completely full to the brim; you want as little air in the jar as possible.
The dried herb will absorb some of the liquid overnight, so be sure to come back the next day and top off the jar with additional brandy, as necessary. Steep your tinctures for six weeks in a cool, dark place, turning every one or two days to continue mixing the herb in the menstruum. I like to start my tinctures at the new moon, finishing them at the second following full moon – a good, traditional way of tracking the time and working with the natural cycles.
If you’re tincturing dried berries or seeds, such as a Vitex (chaste tree) berry tincture, you will want to strain off the berries after a week or two, mash them up a bit in a food processor or mortar and pestle, and then return the berries to the menstruum to continue steeping. Again, this just ensures that you are extracting as much medicine from the plant as possible.
After six weeks, strain off your tincture from the plant material, using a piece of cloth to squeeze as much liquid from the herb as possible. You can compost the leftover herb. Label your tincture clearly (including the date), and store it in a tinted glass container in a cool, dark place. Congratulations! You’ve made a tincture!
If making a tincture from fresh plant material, there are a few differences to the process:
- Fresh plant material needs to be dry on the outside, no residual raindrops or dew sticking to the flowers or leaves, so make sure the herb is harvested when conditions have been sunny and dry and after the dew has lifted.
- You need to consider the water content of the plant material – if it has a high level of moisture, you may want to use a menstruum with a higher alcohol content, such as vodka or grain alcohol.
- Chop your herb finely and fill your jar almost to the top with the plant material.
Do you have any experiences or advice about home tinctures that you’d like to share?
January of 2009 – I was 29 and finally figuring out what I wanted to be when I grow up.
Which is to say, I was figuring out who I was, who I wanted to be, what I wanted from life. And the word that continually came to mind was “integrity.” I became tired of living a divided, compartmentalized life, where the person I was at work was different than the person I was at home, or with my friends, or in my garden, or visiting family. I didn’t want to be divided anymore.
What did I want? To get dirt under my fingernails every day. To work hard, to experience the seasons naturally as they occurred, to help my community, to build a life in which all aspects thereof support and strengthen one another.
I began studying herbalism at home in the spring, using Christopher Hobbs’ Foundations of Herbalism course; and this past September I began studying with Sacred Plant Traditions, an herbalism class in Charlottesville, VA.
The purpose of this blog is educational – to challenge me to apply myself, explore ideas, continue learning and questioning: herb research, philosophy, stories, recipes, lore, meditations and materia medica – my goal is to post something at least once a week. Keep my feet on the path.
And I invite you to contribute as well, whether you are a fellow student, an herbalist, a health professional, a gardener, a cook, a generally inquiring mind – feel free to share your stories, insights, thoughts, and lessons.