A Tree to Conquer Passion
Pliny is a notorious historian, Chaucer a fabled story-teller. The writings of both authors constitute some of the most precious books among more than 9 million special collections conserved and studied in the Huntington Library. Writings of both men tell us about real and mythical lifestyles, and each author makes allusion to the famous Chaste Tree, native to Mediterranean Europe.
With chaplets green on their fair foreheads placed:
Of laurel some, of woodbine many more;
And wreaths of Agnus castus others bore;
These last, who with those virgin crowns were dress'd,
Appear'd in higher honour than the rest.
The Floure and the Leafe, Anon
Chaste Tree was assigned the scientific binomial Vitex agnus-castus by Linnaeus, based on its ancient names. Pliny had referred to the plant as Vitex, because it was used to weave baskets. Other early authors applied the Greek agnus and the Latin castus, both words indicating purity, or even chastity. Pliny echoes those other writers in considering the plant as an “anaphrodisiac” (a substance thought to lower the libido), suggesting it should be used for bedding material “to cool the heat of lust.”
Chaste Tree is a good shrub for Southern California gardens, thriving with modest irrigation and providing cool gray and blue hues to the landscape. At the Huntington, the plant can be found both in the Herb Garden and along the Brody California Garden allée. We sometimes call it Monks’ Seed, since chewing the peppercorn-like seed was once recommended as an aid in celibacy. One might challenge its efficacy.