Archive for January, 2009


Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Vitex Vitex angus-castus is often simply called “vitex” but it has a number of more colorful common names: chaste tree/chasteberry or monk’s pepper. This shrubby tree is also a common home and commercial landscape plant, dotting yards and parking lots throughout the Southeastern U.S. It can grow to heights of eight to ten feet but can be kept in a desired shape with spring pruning according to [Dirr]. The flowers appear in summer in the anthocyanin color ranges (but commonly some shade of lilac) on spiky racemes about three to six inches long. The palmate leaves are dark green in color with a fine, wrinkled texture and slightly silvery on their undersides due to fine hairs.

Traditionally, the berries and aromatic foliage of this shrub were recognized as an anaphrodisiac. The common name “monk’s pepper” refers to the use of the small berries (botanically they are actually [drupes]) as a libido suppressant in the early Christian church. Dr. John Riddle, an authority on ancient and medieval pharmacology, reports many interesting uses in his very approachable book [Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West] (I can’t recommend it enough!). Besides being an ancient abortifacient, vitex was used in pre-Christian fertility or purity rituals and also to treat priapism.

VitexThere is some modern research about how compounds derived from vitex species affect mammalian fertility: vitex was shown to prevent nearly one hundred per cent of egg implantation in [mice] as well as decrease sperm production in male [dogs]. There are also current clinical trials using vitex to treat PMS symptoms. You can even buy vitex herbal supplements in the forms of tinctures or teas, or make your own.

I don’t advocate self-prescribed alternative medicine, but vitex is not regarded as poisonous and if your plants are pesticide- and disease-free you can make your own vitex preparations at home. Pregnant women should not use vitex-containing products because of the potential for complications for both the baby and the mother. Vitex can also react with hormone therapies and hormonal birth control and even some other medications.

Neat how a plant so powerful and rich in folklore could be sitting in your front yard, yes?

Common Fleabane

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) is an Eastern U.S. roadside staple. This shrubby member of the Asteraceae features shaggy, daisy-like flowers and slender stems dotted with stiff hairs. The disk flowers always mature from green to yellow and the ray flowers are white and slender. The tomentose leaves clasp the stem (sessile) and lack petioles.

Fleabane doesn’t have a particularly rich medicinal history, though it was at times used to treat dysentery and ulcers in the old world. It has also been called “Job’s Tears” because it was believed Job used a tea of this plant to treat his own ulcers ([]).

Traditionally, fleabane was burned and smoked in a pot like an incense to ward off fleas and other insects–much like the function of a citronella candle. Similarly, pasture animals do not typically eat fleabane due to its reportedly unpleasant flavor.

English early modern botanist and apothecary [John Parkinson] did reccommend that fleabane “bound to the forehead is a great helpe to cure one of the frensie,” (as quoted in [The Old English Herbals] by E.S. Rhodes).

Other species of fleabane bloom in the range of the anthocyanins but particularly purples and blues and do not feture sessile leaves.


Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Be on the lookout for winter-blooming hellebore species. This typically low-growing, herbaceous perrenial sports showy, petal-like bracts that can persist well into the spring–much longer than its small flowers. Their color spectrum includes greens, creams, and even flushes of red and purple. The foliage is extremely frost-hardy and variable in its generally slender shape and verdance.

Hellebore (Helleborus spp.) also has a lengthy history in folklore. Known alternately as “witch weed” and “Christ rose”, toxic hellebore (active alkaloid: helleborin) has been used in folk healing as well as poison-making. Its frost-resistance and winter blooms were thought to be evidence of magical constitution. Hellebore tinctures were also used as a treatment for “winter melancholy” for this very reason–an original treatment for what we’ve developed as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Ingesting helleborin causes diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea–it was never used as a purgurative for the weak, even in antiquity.