Vitex agnus castus
Botany and Production
Vitex agnus castus, commonly called the chastetree or monkspepper, belongs to the family of Verbenaceae. The plant, though called chaste'tree' is really a much branched deciduous shrub, loosing its leaves when the fruits are ripe. It grows up to 3 meters high and is originating from and distributed around the Mediterranean Basin. The plant prefers low altitudes and is often found along the shores of lakes, by the sea and along riverbeds. The stalked palmate leaves consist of 5 to 7 narrow pointed entire leaflets, dark green and glabrous above and white felted beneath.
The inflorescences are terminal, thickly branched, consisting of 10 to 20 or more pairs of congested cymes, superimposed on a common axis. The flowers which appear from June to September are small and sweet scented and arranged racemose in long terminal spikes. Their colour varies from white over pink- lilac to deep blue.
The fruits are small, the size of small peppercorns, purple- black, hard and ripen between late September and November in Crete.
The ripe fruits are traditionally used to produce an extract, which is sold especially in Germany. The fruits however, contain an essential oil as well, which we were the first ones worldwide to distill.
To develop a new essential oil, not previously produced, requires a lot of trials. We have made this plant and its essential oil the subject of a MSc Thesis (completed 1997), and studied the collection and distillation parameters and requirements thoroughly, in order to obtain a truly fine oil. For example regarding collection, populations yielding sufficient quantity and desirable quality unfortunately are very rare to be found.
When Vitex agnus castus is flowering, the leaves are still abundant. When the small fruits start to ripen, the plant commences shedding its leaves. When the fruits are fully ripe, most leaves have withered.
Even though many Vitex agnus castus populations live in some initially perfect seeming conditions, abundant and vigorous around a lake or along riverbeds, their fruits yield only a neglectable quantity and quality of essential oil. It took us many trials, collections and distillations, to identify the living conditions of this plant, which favour the production of essential oil in their fruits.
We have studied the oil of V. agnus castus in particular, because the plant possesses some interesting medicinal activities for women. After many trials, we have found where and how to harvest, how the fruits can be most gently distilled, and that a gentle distillation duration of 24 hours is necessary in order to liberate the numerous sesquiterpene and diterpene compounds sufficiently to produce a truly entire, fine oil of Vitex agnus castus fruits. Vitex agnus castus fruits liberate their oil very slowly and continuously during the process. It is the most difficult and time consuming oil to distill.
The oil has an agreeable, interesting somewhat peculiar topnote, reminding of cannabis and eucalyptus. After a few minutes, its heart is revealed as an aromatic floral, warm but fresh, somehow peppery sweet spicy fragrance with lemon-like, woody undertones.
The oil of V. agnus castus is a very complex one regarding the less volatile fraction, if properly distilled.
We collect the fruits when fully ripe in September-November in Crete, along the coast of Sfakia. The collection of the ripe fruits in the Wild is an activity that requires much patience, in order to collect just a few kilos of fruits. This collection is, amongst all, our most time consuming collection of the year. Not only is the harvest tedious, taking us weeks to complete, but also the yield is low. So we can only produce a limited quantity, a few kilos of this precious oil every year. However, this harvesting time is precious to us, since we collect at some of the most beautiful, remote places in Southern Crete...see also under Collection.
Collecting Vitex agnus castus fruits near the beach
Since this oil is not known or available on the marked, we did a detailed analysis of the chemical composition. Cretan V. agnus castus oil is composed of sabinene (25%), 1.8 cineole (19%), trans-β-farnesene (7%), α-pinene (6%), trans-caryophyllene (4%), terpinyl acetate (4%), γ-terpinene (2.5%), β-myrcene (2%), β-pinene (1%), α-terpinene (1%), terpinen-4-ol (2%), τ-cadinol (1%), torreyol (1%), germacrene D (0.9%), α-terpineol (0.8%), p-cymene (1%), α-thujene (0.8%), caryophyllene oxide (0.7%), spathulenol (0.5%), α-gurjunene (0.4%), limonene (0.6%), along with minor quantities of viridiflorol, ledol, nerolidol, δ-cadinene, γ-muurolene, allo-aromadendrene, α-humulene, bergamotene, cis-β-farnesene, β-citronellol, cis- and trans-sabinene hydrate, trans-β-ocimene, and α-phellandrene (around 0.15-0.25% each). In the higher boiling range, diterpenic structures were observed, however, could not be individually identified.
No formal testing on the oil. However, the drug itself is clinically tested non-toxic even at high concentrations. None of the components present in the oil show by themselves toxic activity. In recent years, numerous studies have assessed Vitex agnus castus to have no, or mild and reversible adverse effects. These mild effects include nausea, rash and headaches, in which case the use should be discontinued.
Because of its hormone balancing activity it is sometimes theoretically hypothesized to interfere with oral contraceptives. There is no clinical evidence to support these theories. We have neither seen this in practice, nor is it likely regarding the different mechanisms of action.
Over the years, we have found that Vitex agnus castus essential oil is, just like its tincture, a valuable remedy for women. It does not offer men much.. except its external use for pubertal acne for both sexes.
Principle of Action
V. agnus castus is known to exert remarkable hormone balancing activity on especially the female hormonal system. It is balancing the two female gonadal hormones by binding to dopamine (DA1 and DA2) receptors, and thereby suppressing hyperprolactinaemia.
A Vitex agnus castus biotope in the process of fruit ripening along a riverbed in southern Crete
Collecting the fruits in 1994, mother and son, now, in 2009... father and grandmother...
Vitex agnus castus is a typical medicinal plant with a long history in folk medicine.
Hera, wife of Zeus and the protectoress of matrimony in Greek mythology, was said to be born under a chastetree, which subsequently became a symbol for chaste and monogamy in marriage.
Already 400 BC., Hippokrates recommends the drug for injuries, inflammations and enlargements of the spleen. Thucydides (460- 395BC), in his "Historia Plantarum" describes soldiers using Vitex to plaid shields, "for it was not possible to procure arms in an uninhabited country" and Homer tells us, that Odysseus used its branches to fence in his boat, to defend it against the wave, and to tie his men under the bellies of rams to escape the Cyclops, "that monster with its heart set on lawlessness"...
Dioscorides in his "De Materia Medica", ca. 79AD, reserves a remarkable space for the portrait of Vitex agnus castus. After a detailed list of names given to this plant all over the then known world, he returns to the Greek name Αγνος, meaning purity. He says, " it is called so, because the women participating in the feast of thesmophoriae use it to "spread on their beds", or because "when drunk as extract, as they say, it frees from the desire for sex".
The thesmophoriae in ancient Greece were festivals held by only women in honour of Demeter and were ceremonies to promote fertility. The women prepared for the ceremonies by abstaining from sexual intercourse and by ritual bathings. The festivals three days in October, the women would spend together outside the towns in makeshift shelters, or for Athenian women at the Thesmophorion, in the hills near Athens. The women adorned themselves with chastetree flowers and spread the leaves on their bedsteads.
Further he mentions "the seed, like that of pepper, brings heat, helps those bitten by animals and those retaining water and those that have chronic period troubles and inflammations about the womb". It brings milk when drunk with wine, as tea cleans the intestines, soothes hemorrhoids and relieves headaches. Additionally he mentions the drugs usefulness in treating lethargic as well as mad people.
According to Pliny the Elder (AD. 23-79) V. agnus castus was highly revered as one of the most useful medicines of the times. He claims that it checks violent sexual desire, takes away the more severe type of headache, purges the uterus and the bowels. Because of their hot nature, the seeds were taken to dispel flatulence, promote urine, regulate diarrhea and greatly benefit epilepsy and spleen disease.
It is remarkable, that the indications of Vitex agnus castus have changed preciously little over the centuries since these first records.
In the Medieval the chastetree was greatly advocated, especially to help monks to keep their vows. Hence the common name chastetree or monks pepper. The shrub was planted in each monastery herb garden, and the spicy seeds served as condiment in the monastery kitchen. Mattioli recommends it to "take away the desire for Venus-deals", nuns washed their "secret places" with an infusion of the leaves, and men and women wore amulets made from its wood, it is reported.
But it became also a symbol for the hidden part of monastic life according to some... Arnaud de Villeneuve, an important studioso of the 13th century, mentions the "washing of the private parts with a decoction of Agnus castus, in order to make them more ready for pleasure". So it seems that 'the desire for Venus deals' in some was suppressed, while others seemed to achieved the contrary effect. In any case, it seems that the chastetree was considered a plant of fertility and desire as well as chaste and purity.
From the 1600's on it was widely used as a common folk remedy for female hormonal imbalances and to stimulate the flow of milk in nursing mothers. In the Renaissance, these indications survived from the oldest known herbals on, and included the chaste-preserving quality, the usefulness for flatulence and menstrual disorders, the relieve of headaches, pain and the curing of bites, inflammations, and its usefulness in treating madness, epilepsy, and lethargy.
Extracts of the fruits are commercially available especially from Germany, and have been clinically tested in numerous studies. Its action was clearly found to increase the production of luteinising hormone, and subsequently to be beneficial in the treatment of mastopathia, mastalgia, PMS and numerous menses abnormalities. This hormonal activity is not a direct one, there are no hormone-like components per se in Vitex agnus castus. However, it was found that compounds present in the fruits bind to dopamine (DA-2) receptors, thereby reducing prolactin levels. Numerous clinical studies during the last many years, controlled and uncontrolled, have given evidence to this claim. The components responsible have not yet been identified, however, it is postulated, that diterpenic compounds from the fruits might have prolactin inhibiting dopaminergic activities.
The most remarkable action of chastetree fruits thus is a hormone balancing one in the female hormonal system. Many of our contemporary female ailments are based on an imbalance between oestrogen and progesterone, and especially an oestrogen domination. This imbalance is a main cause in several female complaints.
We have, over the years, found it extremely useful with patients in several female conditions related to imbalances in the hormonal system. Painful and irregular menstruation, infertility, Pre Menstrual Syndrome (PMS), including depression, irritability, headaches, anxiety, bloating and breast tenderness, as well as in cases of ovarian cysts,during menopause for hotflashes and emotional imbalances just to mention a few.
The above mentioned indications are known consequences of progesterone deficiency, or an imbalance between estrogen and progesterone. Recently much attention has been focused on the pollution of the environment with estrogen like substances (xeno-estrogens), which add to estrogen domination over progesterone in the body. Additionally, many women today have at some time taken contraceptive pills, or hormone replacement therapy (HRT) during menopause. It is well known today, that the almost epidemic increase of cancers, osteoporosis and infertility in western countries in the last decades in many cases can be directly linked to an estrogen dominance.
Vitex agnus castus is highly advocated for diseases related to hormonal disorders, and side effects have not been noted. In fact, it is mentioned, that the only 'side-effect' noted was pregnancy...And in fact, over the years we have worked, quite a few babies were born to couples which had years of difficulties getting pregnant...
Regarding dosage, Vitex agnus castus is usually taken once a day, morning fasting. The dose of the essential oil is one drop daily (1 drop is equivalent to 1/25 of a ml), in case of the tincture 0.5-1ml with some water. The German Commission E monograph recommends the daily intake equivalent to 30-40mg of the dried fruits. Vitex agnus castus, with emphasis on its hormone balancing activities, is not an acute remedy. It will have to be taken for three menstrual cycles at least, in order to evaluate its efficacy in balancing.
Vitex agnus castus essential oil can be used in a massage oil blend for women (2%), which can be used for a whole body balancing massage, or used for semi-acute localised problems such as sore breasts, menstrual pains diluted 5-7% in a carrier oil and applied with circular, clockwise movements to the affected area.
The oil seems to reconnect women with their feminine strength and balance. Too precious to be evaporated in an aroma-lamp, the oil is better used as an addition to bodyoils.
In our experience, Vitex agnus castus fruits, in all preparations, is a contemporary very important aid for women to take care of their 'hormonal hygiene', their physical and spiritual balance...
The oil has quite a peculiar strong spicy fragrance, and it is our experience, that people’s reactions are quite strong- they either like it or dislike it, and it seems that who likes it, needs it. The fruits of the chastetree have a strong, spicy, somewhat peppery smell and are reported to check violent sexual desire in man, whereas they balance a woman’s sexuality. Probably, Vitex reconnecting a woman with her inherent harmony within, with her own hormonal balance, also affects the man or men in her life positively... and as such the fragrance, however, seems to balance sexual desire between man and woman. In this respect, we can consider it an aphrodisiac after our experience, but try for yourself, we are all different and even more so in the combination as a couple.
Regarding skin care, Vitex agnus castus is useful in hormone related pubertal acne. Here it can be used for both male and female young individuals. Adding a drop of Vitex agnus castus essential oil to your daily (non perfumed, non greasy) skin creme, or to a washing lotion or tonic can improve the condition. Also acne as well as hormonal related periodical or chronic skin disorders in adults can benefit from this topical treatment. With acne it is especially important to address issues like diet as well. However, especially in young girls and women, a health care practitioner also has to assess other symptoms of hormonal imbalance, in which case a topical treatment could well be accompanied by a systemic approach.
The oil seems to help with insect bites, directly applied, as well as repelling them.
Vitex agnus castus, chastetree, fruit essential oil is not commercially produced for understandable reasons. Larger scale cultivation of the plant is not economically interesting, as the shrubs will take many years of development before any substantial harvest of the fruits could take place. Wild-crafting, on the other hand, as is evident to us, is a long and tedious job to collect enough fruits for distillation.
But the most important factor is, that it is not all populations, and especially not the seemingly abundant and voluptuous populations which are well spread around the Mediterranean, which produce a distillable amount of essential oil in their fruits. Then its also the needed prolonged distillation time of 24 hours which generally is prohibitive for commercial production.
So far, these reasons leave us to be not only the first, but also still the sole producers of genuine Vitex agnus castus fruit oil. However, the oil is much sought after, and we cannot produce to the existing demands, which is why we chose now to offer the oil mainly in small quantities directly to individual customers. Even then, we are usually out of stock for some months before the next harvesting takes place from late September on and until distilling during December.
For that reason, we would like to inspire others to produce this precious oil as well, and we are open to sharing our knowledge and experience with any distiller who would like to produce this oil in an honest way, for the benefit of the many which we have to turn down.
On the other hand, the leaves and twigs contain an essential oil as well. Collection of this vegetative plant material is much more efficient, bushes are just cut down during their leafing season. Leaves can be distilled for a much shorter period of time. We have tried the leaf oil, but unfortunately, it can in no way be compared to the fruit oil. It is the fruits which rightly enjoy a reputation since thousands of years until modern times. In modern pharmacopoeias the herbal drug is specified to the fruits as well.
To 'stretch' a fruit oil with leaves, would mean two separate collections, as the leaves are withering when the seeds are fully ripe. So an oil labeled 'fruits and leaves' is a misleading nomination and can only refer to collections of plant material from bushes in their leafing stage which might include flowers, some green unripe fruits and probably a few ripening fruits as well.
As mentioned earlier and also under Collection, we really enjoy these weeks of chastetree fruit collection..they take place in some of our favorite, most beautiful and remote parts of the Cretan south coast, near to the sea. We are camping just by the beach in different places for days in a row during these weeks from late September until November.. The weather is perfect, warm but not too hot, the winds have calmed and the colours of nature, sea and sky are magical.
The days start with a swim in the Libyan sea, on hot days we can dip in the sea during breaks in collection, fish for sea urchins or natural sponges, in the evenings we can light a fire by the beach... Friends and family come and visit some times, give a hand with collection and stay for a peaceful evening far away from civilisation and a night under the stars..
Here we share some impressions of the south coast..
Near Frangokastello, goats roaming
Three goats along the cliff
A Vitex Bonsai, living on a piece of rock just by the sea, a shrub gone minimalist
Our favorite beach during a wavy day
Watching the sunset after a days work, soon lighting a fire on the beach
Here we finally are on our way back over the mountains with our harvest, going to the distillery...
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