Vitex agnus L.
A deciduous shrub of free, spreading habit; young shoots covered with a minute grey down. Leaves opposite, composed of five to seven radiating leaflets borne on a main-stalk 1 to 21⁄2 in. long, leaflets linear lance-shaped, 2 to 6 in. long, 1⁄4 to 3⁄4 in. wide, tapering gradually towards both ends, not toothed, dark green above, grey beneath with a very close felt; stalks of leaflets 1⁄4 in. or less long. Flowers fragrant, produced during September and October in whorls on slender racemes which are 3 to 6 in. long, sometimes branched, and borne in numbers on the terminal part of the current season’s growth, at the end and in the leaf-axils, the whole forming a large panicle. Corolla violet, tubular, 1⁄3 in. long, with five expanding lobes; stamens four, protruded; calyx funnel-shaped, downy, shallowly lobed. Bot. Mag., n.s., t. 400.
A native of the Mediterranean region, where it grows in river-beds, often with tamarisk and oleander; and of Southwest and Central Asia; in cultivation in Britain by the 16th century. Near London it needs the protection of a wall, given which it is quite safe; a plant lived at Kew on a west wall for over sixty years. It flowers freely in warm seasons, and its crowd of panicles is sometimes very effective. The entire plant has an aromatic, pungent odour.
f. alba (West.) Rehd. – Flowers white. In cultivation since the 18th century. Award of Merit when exhibited from Kew on September 1, 1959.
f. latifolia (Mill.) Rehd. V. agnus castus var. latifolia (Mill.) Loud.; V. latifolia Mill.; V. macrophylla Hort. – Leaflets relatively broader than normal, to about 1 in. wide. First recorded in the 16th century. Cultivated plants are vigorous and slightly hardier. Award of Merit 1964, when exhibited on September 15 by the Crown Estate Commissioners, Windsor Great Park.
Agnus Castus is an old generic name, used for the present species in pre-Linnaean times. The Greek word for the plant was ‘agnos’ and is of unknown, perhaps pre-Hellenic derivation. But the same word as an adjective meant holy or chaste in Greek, and it is probably from the apparent identity of these two words that the plant became a symbol of chastity in ancient Greece. In later times, no doubt for the same reason, the seeds were regarded as antaphrodisiac, though Philip Miller thought that judging by the taste and smell the plant was more likely to provoke lust than to allay it. Pomet, in his Histoire des Drogues (1694), was also sceptical. To quote from the English translation of 1712: ‘This plant bears … the name of Agnus Castus, because the Athenian Ladies who were willing to preserve their Chastity, when there were places consecrated to the Goddess Ceres, made their Beds of the Leaves of this Shrub, on which they lay: But it is by way of Ridicule that the Name of Agnus Castus is now given to this Seed, since it is commonly made use of in the Cure of Venereal Cases, or to assist those who have violated, instead of preserv’d their Chastity.’ The fact that in Latin ‘agnus’ means lamb made the plant sound even more innocent, and explains the name ‘Chaste Lamb tree’, also used for it.