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Early March and spring is right around the corner. I thought it would be good to take some pictures, check in with the herbies as they venture out into the chill. Imagine my surprise when, four days after taking pictures for this post, this happened:
Ah, March. In like a lion, true to fashion. Let’s see if it goes out like a lamb?
Stay warm everyone! And if you’re on the East coast, enjoy the snow and stay safe!
This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to be invited to camp out with a bunch of herbies (“herbies” is like “foodies,” but for herb enthusiasts *grin*) at Robbie Wooding’s farm. Robbie is as warm and welcoming as you could imagine, genuinely pleased to share his home with us for a couple days. He’s been practicing herbalism for a good long time, and between him and Kathleen Maier and all the other herbies in attendance, we had a wealth of information and wisdom at the table. A veritable summer solstice bounty.
The farm has been in Robbie’s family since 1790—originally a land grant from the King of England—and his family have been there ever since.
The weekend was marked by lessons both formal and informal, long walks, plant ID, shared meals, new points of view, sustainable living alternatives, fireflies blinking long into the night. As a special treat, as if all this weren’t enough, we had a big potluck Saturday night and a wonderful bluegrass band—some of the best bluegrass I’ve heard in years.
I’ll be posting a couple more items this week related to the weekend on the farm, specifically on harvesting inner bark and drying herbs. For now, here’s a tour of some of the beautiful herbs we encountered.
Motherwort. Leonurus cardiaca.
Vitex, Chaste Tree, Chasteberry, Monk’s Pepper. Vitex agnus-castus.
What a marvelous weekend. Time for sleep. Check back later this week for more posts on harvesting inner bark and drying herbs. Till then, sweet dreams.
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).