The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas, and helps us to interpret the history of the human use of plants. 

Seed harvest is underway, as a part of herb gardening at the Ozark Folk Center State Park. This week I am yet again thankful to Elizabeth Warner and Billy Joe Tatum for planting a Vitex agnus-castus in the original country herb garden here at the park. This huge shrub is also called chaste tree, monk’s pepper and summer lilac.
 
Vitex has five-pointed, palmate leaves unfurling from multiple, dark green and purple shoots. New shoots attained a height of seven feet or so in one growing season; mature trunks reach up to twenty feet or so. In June and July, flower spikes develop at the tips, revealing delicate indigo flowers born in whorled racemes. Vitex flowers can vary in color from shades of dark indigo or purple to lavender and sometimes, white. Bees work the flowers; in fact, it is considered a superior pollen plant by beekeepers. As the flowers declined, green seeds similar to small peppercorns form and become grey at maturity.
 
Those seeds germinate in about nine months, if planted in a fine growing medium and kept consistently moist. Volunteer seedlings occur under and around the parent plant. This can cause vitex thickets if the seedlings are not rooted out—and gives vitex the reputation of being an invasive species in some regions.
 
The seeds are used medicinally to balance female hormones. Traditionally, the seeds have been taken in tincture, capsules or infusion to treat premenstrual syndrome, symptoms of menopause and a host of other female disorders. The extract is also insect repellent. I believe that vitex tincture got me through the change of life with a minimum of discomfort. I harvested the seeds while they were still green, mashed them in a mortar with a pestle and then used the following recipe.
 
Vitex Seed Tincture
1 cup fresh, pounded vitex seeds
1 cup 190-proof ethanol alcohol (Everclear® or Gem Clear®) and 1 cup distilled water OR 2 cups 90-proof vodka
 
Place seeds in a clean jar. Cover with the menstruum of ethanol alcohol and water or vodka. Keep in a cool dark place. Shake twice daily. Macerate for 2 to 6 weeks. 
 
Filter the tincture through unbleached muslin or cheesecloth. Squeeze the marc very hard to extract the last bit of liquid. Store finished tincture in a labeled, dark glass container.
 
Additionally, vitex was planted in English gardens to encourage the virtue of chastity. Monks made walking sticks from the branches and ate the powdered seeds to aid them in keeping vows of celibacy. In Greece, the leaves were strewn on couches to encourage chastity.
 
Excessive use of the medicine causes formication, a nerve condition that feels like insects are crawling under the skin. Headache and nausea have also been reported. I did not suffer any side effect when I used the tinctured seeds to reduce hot flashes and irritability. Friends who have used vitex have reported that it helped with insomnia during menopause. Pregnant women and those with hormone sensitive conditions should not use vitex unless under the supervision of a health-care practitioner who is knowledgeable about herbs. As with all new medications, do your research and do no harm.
 
I invite you to come see our beloved chaste tree now, in full bloom, serving pollinator insects of all kinds and gracing the entrance to a place where good things happen. If I don’t see you in the future, I’ll see you in the pasture!