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.
There 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?