Vitex

Also, Known As:

  • Chaste Tree
  • Chaste Berry

Vitex agnus-castus

Family: Lamiaceae

Even though it’s sometimes considered a classic “women’s herb,” the Renaissance name for vitex fruits was “monk’s pepper,” so called for their ability to decrease the libido of the abbey’s residents when sprinkled on their food. Since they probably needed it often, the monks no doubt had the “habit” of carrying it, well, in their habits! Herbalists and medical researchers alike now believe that vitex has the ability to regulate the reproductive hormones, so it has acquired a reputation as a true hormonal tonic.

Description:

vitex herb

This lovely deciduous shrub, which has been known since ancient times, can grow to be a small tree in hot climates. It is cultivated as an ornamental in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Vitex has distinctive, aromatic leaves that are divided into lance-shaped leaflets, and in summer, it bears abundant purple or lavender flowers on spikes. The flowers are followed by small reddish to brownish burgundy berries in the fall, but these only develop where the growing season is long and warm.

Tincture:

Make a tincture of the aromatic fruits {the berries} in strong alcohol {150-proof or stronger vodka}. Take 1 to 2 droppers in the morning around breakfast, or for a stronger effect, try 1 to 2 droppers at night. Avoid taking more than 4 to 5 droppers a day. We recommend only making and using tinctures of vitex: Teas are not the best way to prepare this herb because the active compounds are not particularly water soluble, and the tea is not delicious by any means. For commercial products, including standard extracts, follow the label instructions.

Healing Properties:

Aside from the Chinese herb dang qui {Angelica sinensis}, vitex is the classic female herb and is often recommended by herbalists for relieving unpleasant symptoms of PMS. Clinical studies verify its ability to relieve cramps, breast tenderness, and mood swings associated with the menstrual cycle, even when compared with conventional pharmaceuticals. In addition, vitex is certainly worth a try as a first treatment before taking one of the SSRIs {selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, primarily known as antidepressant medications, such as Paxil, Prozac, and Zolof} or other drugs, because the side effects are minimal.

Vitex extracts are known to act through the stimulation of the pituitary gland to regulate a number of important sex hormones, including progesterone, which it increases. Imbalances of these hormones have been clinically associated with symptoms of PMS, such as breast tenderness. Other symptoms for which vitex is recommended include irregular or excessive menstruation, late periods, spotting, uterine fibroids, and even hot flashes, though studies are not very conclusive in regard to the latter. The tincture is also recommended for relieving acne in teenagers, with variable success.

Safety:

The side effects of vitex are minimal, based on a number of clinical trials and long traditional use. Both research and clinical experience show that regular use of vitex might interfere with the effectiveness of birth control pills. Don’t take it if you are using a progesterone supplement, and avoid its use during pregnancy.

In the Garden:

This Mediterranean plant needs full sun and well-drained soil. It tolerates both drought and heat, but it’s also hardy to -10 degrees F and can withstand windy locations. However, if you’re in a four-season climate, it may not flower or bear fruit. Try to give it the sunniest, warmest site you can. And don’t fertilize this one: Rich soil results in pale flowers. If you want to keep the plant small and bushy, prune it back in late winter. It’s a great deer-resistant addition to your garden.

You can start vitex from seed if you scarify, stratify, and/or soak it in warm water and then sow it on the surface of the soil without covering it. But taking cuttings from spring and early summer growth is the easiest way to propagate this plant.

Harvesting Vitex:

You can use the leaves in cooking and in spice blends, and some people use them medicinally, as well. But we recommend harvesting the berries for your herbal remedies. Pick them in the fall, when they turn from tan to a purplish color and separate easily from the stems. Make sure you harvest them before autumn rains and cold weather cause them to mold or blacken on the tree. Separate the berries from the stems before you dry them rather than after.