The most famous species of this genus is undoubtedly the Agnocasto, a plant considered aromatic. It is also known as the “pepper tree” or “monks’ pepper” and since ancient times has been widely used and consequently cultivated for its medicinal qualities.
The name of the genus comes from Latin (like that of the vine) and means “to weave”. It probably refers to the branches of the shrub, which are very thin and flexible. In ancient times, and still today in some places, they were used for the production of baskets or chairs.
The name agnos, on the other hand, derives from its hypothetical anaphrodisiac capacity, which is therefore useful for keeping maidens virginity: in fact, it combines the privative alpha with gonos, that is, “without children”. Still today in English it is called tree of chastity to remember the Greek custom of spreading the scented leaves of the plant on the beds of the most flamboyant during the feasts in honor of Ceres.
It also seems that even the seeds had the property of calming the fires of youth, both in men and women.
Family and gender
Vitex agnus castus
Type of plant
Shrub up to 4 meters high with deciduous foliage
Full sun, half shade
Rather rustic (down to -15°C)
Not demanding, well drained
Purple, blue, pink, white
Only in the first years or in case of very prolonged drought
From June to October, depending on exposure and climate
Manure in autumn, granular fertilizer in spring
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This shrub is rustic and resistant, prefers sunny locations, but can also be planted in a semi-shady place, while a poorly-lit exposure causes an uneven flowering. It is not afraid of the cold and can be grown outdoors even in regions with a very harsh winter climate.
The ideal exposure for the vitex is undoubtedly the full sun. In this condition it will surely be able to bloom abundantly and it is possible that it will continue to emit stems until autumn.
However, it also tolerates partial shade quite well, without affecting the flowering too much.
However, we must bear in mind that the more we live in the North, the more we recommend a sunny position, while in the southern regions that condition will not be essential.
Agnocasto (in Latin vitex agnus castus) is a deciduous shrub belonging to the family Verbenaceae. The genus vitex actually includes more than 200 species of trees or shrubs, most of which come from the Mediterranean basin or tropical areas.
The agnocasto is particularly native to all coastal regions of the Mediterranean and the Near East, preferably wetlands, very often sharing the area with tamarisks. Once it was not difficult to find it on the banks of rivers. In recent years, however, both the deforestation and cleaning practices of the riverbeds of rivers have made this meeting much more rare.
It is a widespread shrub (or sometimes a small tree) not very compact, with opposite leaves, composed of 5 or 7 lanceolate fragments arranged in a radius. The colour can range from deep green to greyish-glaucous. The flowers, long lasting and very perfumed, are collected in panniculus-like inflorescences, erect and thin, about 15 cm long, at times ramified, on the branches of the year.
They appear from the beginning to the end of spring, even if it is not particularly rare that the plant continues to produce new ones, in a less accentuated way, even till autumn.
The species has purple-lilac flowers, but there are also cultivars with white, pink or blue inflorescences.
If left on the plant they lead to the development of black berry fruits, which contain the seeds.
It is precisely these that have become very popular in the pharmacological and phytotherapeutic fields, taking in fact the name of “false pepper” or “monk’s pepper”. They have a very strong taste, while the leaves and flowers give off an aroma that is pleasant for both man and insects. It is in fact a plant very suitable for attracting bees and butterflies.
The agnocasto tends to be satisfied with the rains, even if it is advisable to water sporadically the recently planted specimens, during the warm months; it may be necessary to intervene by supplying water during particularly dry periods. At the end of winter, at the foot of the shrub, it spreads the slow release granular fertilizer or the mature manure, slightly burying the compound.
The agnocasto loves fresh soils, but generally, after a few years of life, tends to become very autonomous and will therefore be superfluous our water supply.
The advice is to intervene during the first two years from planting with abundant irrigation but very far from each other. In this way the plant will be stimulated to form a deep root system and well branched, capable of withstanding even the most persistent summer drought.
Consequently, it is advisable to intervene on an adult plant only in the event of a prolonged lack of precipitation, especially if we notice evident suffering.
Plant in a very well drained soil, avoiding water stagnation; any soil can be indicated for the chaste, even the common garden earth. It is a very tolerant shrub in terms of substratum and usually has no difficulty in adapting and growing in different conditions.
Surely, in order for it to grow at its best, we must guarantee it a habitat similar to that in which it is found in nature, therefore a fresh soil, but well drained, with a good quantity of siliceous sand and gravel.
He may have some problems with soils that are too heavy and too compact. These can cause radical asphyxiation or rottenness. In that case it will be better to intervene at the time of planting by creating a good draining layer of gravel on the bottom and possibly mixing the soil with a fair amount of sand and soil improver in order to lighten it.
The small dark seeds should be sown in spring or autumn; let’s remember that the young plants obtained from seed should be planted only after a couple of years of cultivation in a sheltered place. During the summer, it is possible to take semi-woody cuttings from the branches which have not carried flowers.
If you want to obtain new seedlings you can proceed either by seed or by cutting.
In the first case, it will be necessary to take the wilted fruits and extract the seeds from them. They can be planted both in autumn and in spring, but always in a warm greenhouse, with at least 18-20°C constant. The germination usually takes place in a few weeks, but the initial development of the small plants is rather slow. Therefore, it will be better to keep them in pot in a sheltered location till at least the second spring. They may then be transferred to the final dwelling.
The cuttings must be made by taking semi-woody segments of about 20 cm with some apical leaves by the end of the summer and placing them in a very light and draining compound, for instance of sand and perlite. They are to be kept always humid and in a warm, but rather shaded, zone. The ideal way to promote rooting is to cover them with a transparent plastic bag, remembering to ventilate at least once a day to prevent the onset of mould.
Once the plant begins to vegetate and the root system is well developed, it can be transferred to a richer substrate and proceed with subsequent pruning to support the tillering of the specimen.
Pests and diseases
poorly draining soil or heavy summer rainfall can lead to root rot. It is a very healthy shrub that is rarely attacked by insects or other pathogens. As we have said, we only need to pay special attention to the substrate if it proves to be particularly heavy.
In that case, it is of paramount importance to proceed with a planting that allows an optimal draining of the water.
The agnocasto is a rather cold resistant shrub. It usually has no problems down to -15°C and is therefore suitable for the whole national territory, with the exception of mountain areas above 800 meters.
However, we must bear in mind that it is a plant that loves the heat and is able to give its best, especially on the coasts or in the Centre-South.
In order to have abundant and colourful blooms, it is advisable to intervene at least twice a year: the first time at the arrival of winter, then in October-November, spreading a good quantity of mature floured (or pelleted) manure so as to cover the foot of the plant. During the cold season, thanks to the rainfall, the product will penetrate the soil enriching it, lightening it and making it more vital.
The beginning of spring will be the right time to spread instead a few handfuls of slow release granular fertilizer (characterized by a good amount of phosphorus and potassium). This and what is left of the manure must be incorporated into the ground by means of a slight hoeing.
One of the few treatments this plant requires is pruning. Since it is a shrub that blooms on branches of the year, our goal is to encourage the creation of new branches as much as possible.
This will be followed by rather drastic cuts, leaving at most two or three buds from below, in February-March.
This work will also help us to maintain a compact form, encouraging the growth of new branches in both the upper and lower part.
Among the cultivars of vitex agnus castus more interesting, in addition to the species, we can report:
– Latifolia which can reach 3 metres in height, with blue flowers. It is characterized by leaves and panicles larger than those of the species.
– Rosea with pink flowers, up to 3 meters high
– Sunrise with white inflorescences, also up to 3 metres.
In cultivation, much more rarely, is also found the vitex negundo. Coming from China, it is similar to the agnus castus; characterized by typed leaves, however, it is smaller, graceful and with a lighter green vegetation. The racemes develop on the branches of the year and also have purple flowers. Suitable for small gardens and also for large pots.
Agnocasto: Therapeutic uses
Agnocasto is used in medicine and herbal medicine for its many medicinal qualities.
Dust from its dried berries can have effects on the endocrine system, particularly the pituitary gland.
It is recommended to relieve menstrual pain, to regularize the appearance of the female cycle, to make less annoying symptoms related to menopause (such as irritability, breast and abdominal tension, sudden sensation of heat).
- The vitex agnus-castus, commonly known as ‘agnocasto’, is a shrubby plant that belongs to the family of ‘ver
visits : vitex agnus castus