Used as a substitute for pepper since Antiquity, but also renowned for its medicinal and aphrodisiac properties, the Vitex agnus-castus is also known by its other names, such as ‘chastetree’ or ‘monk’s pepper’. In addition to its many properties, it has a very unique look, with asymmetrical woody parts, soft green foliage and its bluish bloom in summer.
Vitex comes from Latin “vieo”: to weave, due to the fact that in classical Greece, twigs were used for basketwork. Agnus-castus, “chaste lamb”, refers to it being used since antiquity to protect women’s – and later the clergy’s – chastity.
Description and flowering period
Vitex agnus-castus is a fast-growing shrub, rapidly reaching 2 meters in height and up to 10 meters for subjects that are over 100 years old. The deciduous, palmed, compound leaves have 5 lance-shaped toothed leaflets (all 5 leaflets stem from the same point on the leaf-stalk), their overall shape reminds that of cannabis leaves and they release a peppery scent. Flowering occurs over the summer. The flowers are between purple and blue and are borne in dense erect clusters. They are sweetly perfumed and produce nectar which attracts bees and butterflies. The fruits are small fragrant round berries which turn reddish-brown once ripe. They are edible but have a bitter peppery taste.
It requires a free-draining soil that prevents excess humidity, a sunny location sheltered from strong winds and frosts. The species is drought tolerant.
- Medicinal: It is used to treat PMS and female breast pains, also known for its diuretic properties, its effect against ulcers and abscesses; used to treat rheumatisms in Asia and headaches in Nepal.
- Food & drink: Its roasted berries form the basis of a spice mix called “Monk’s pepper”, used as a pepper alternative in the Middle-East. Traditional
- Crafts: Its leaves and flowers were used to obtain a yellow dye, its young branches were used to stabilise soils and its wood was used as firewood.
Although it has nowadays been consigned to oblivion, Monk’s pepper was formerly present in all Mediterranean gardens. Furthermore, crucifixes made of its wood were traditionally worn by monks and nuns to keep the devil and sexual desires at bay. For this same reason, dried leaves and flowers of Vitex agnus-castus were placed inside the beds.
Translated by: François Saint-Hillier – MNHN