Saturday, November 3, 2012

The shrub whose leaves were chewed by monks

The chaste tree is a small tree or bush native of the Mediterranean region and western Asia. It is cultivated in most sub-tropical areas of the world and has become naturalised in many regions. 

It is believed to be indigenous in the Maltese islands being more frequent in Gozo than in Malta. It grows best in humid valleys which retain water for at least a part of the year. A dense grove can be found at Dwejra in Gozo. The chaste tree is well known for its medicinal properties but the trees at Dwejra were probably planted for their branches which being pliable can be woven to make baskets and fish traps.

In summer the chaste tree produces beautiful bluish purple flower. The black pepper-like seeds become ripe in the autumn.

In Maltese the chaste tree is known by several names. It is called siġra tal-virgi, għadiba and bżar tal-patrijiet. The latter name is similar to another English name – monks pepper. 

This name was given to it because in the past it was believed that a potion made from the pepper-like seeds had the property of reducing the sexual desires.

In fact it is said that in the Middle Ages it was chewed by monks to help them remain chaste. The scientific name of the chaste tree is Vitex agnus-castus. Vitex is derived from the Greek word vieo meaning to weave while agnus and castus are chaste in Greek and Latin.

Whether its anti-aphrodisiac property is true is still to be proven scientifically but other medicinal properties have been investigated. 

Research has shown that chemicals in the berries have a progesterogenic effect and extracts from the plant are used in the management of premenstrual stress syndrome and cyclical breast pain. Extracts can be bought from pharmacists as agnus-castus. 

This article was published in The Times on 11.07.2012

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