Vitex agnus castus
More bush than tree, this graceful bush looks a bit like a cross between a buddleia and a hemp plant, with its purple flower cones, and soft, five-fingered leaves. Nomen est Omen, as the saying goes, and this is certainly true of this misconceived member of the Vervain family. Its common names, 'chasteberry', 'monkspepper' and 'chaste lamb tree', all suggest its virtuous nature and possible use to quench the desires of the flesh. Indeed, historical records are full with such recommendations, albeit, some make claims to the contrary. Monks used it to suppress all wicked urges and nuns would line their bedding with the leaves in the hopes that the herb would help them maintain their innocence and withstand their own sexual desires. Funny though, that in Morocco the very same herb was used to the opposite effect. In order to penetrate the mystery it is necessary to examine the historical context: In the days of antiquity Agnus Castus played an important role in the female mysteries of Demeter and Persephone/ Kore celebrated during the festival of Thesmophoria, which honoured the cycles of renewal and fertility. During the 3 day 'women's only' festival it was customary to use Agnus Castus leaves as bedding since they were thought to increase fertility and enhance a woman's receptivity to the life-giving powers of the Goddess. Due to the fact that men were absent from these festivities Agnus Castus later became wrongly associated with chastity, rather than fertility. Dioscurides even goes so far as to suggest the plant's ability to induce chastity was due to its scent, which he surmised, would keep any potential suitors at bay. Furthermore, the classical Greek name 'agnos' had a similar ring as the word 'hagnoacute;s', which translates as 'chaste', and so the conclusion that 'agnos makes hagnos' followed quite naturally. When translated into Latin this word spins a further association - 'agnos' to Roman ears sounded very close to their 'agnus', which translates as 'lamb' and in turn conjured up the image of an innocent, chaste little lamb, which enjoys continued popularity as one of the best loved popular icons of Christianity, and from which Agnus Castus derived its other, curious common name 'Chase Lamb Tree' - a convoluted path of mistaken identity for herb that was originally associated with fertility magic.
Despite this 'chastity' connotation, Agnus Castus always enjoyed the reputation as a well respected woman's herb that was known to regulate the ups and downs of the monthly cycle. It appears that it does so by influencing the pituitary gland, which in turn regulates the reproductive hormones. The German Commission E confirmed this historical use and classifies Agnus Castus as a safe herb to use in any conditions that are caused by hormonal imbalances, such as PMS, bloating, tender or painful breasts, moodiness, depression, headaches, acne etc as well as menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes and night sweats. Studies have also shown that women who have difficulties conceiving because of hormonal disturbances may benefit from the use of Agnus Castus.
Agnus Castus can be used in the celebrations of the female mysteries and to honour the Goddess Demeter and Persephone. It can be used in fertility magic and initiation rituals or to reaffirm one's vows of commitment to the Goddess. It increases psychic receptivity and is supportive magical herb during times of spiritual transformation and renewal, where it will help the practitioner to get in touch with his/her core self.
CAUTION Agnus Castus should not be used during pregnancy.