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Witch Hazel and Its Many Uses

November 2, 2018 GMT

All Hallow’s Eve is quickly approaching, and once again it’s time for trick or treat. We soon will have ghosts, goblins and the like dotting our doorsteps. How could I pass up the opportunity to talk about a plant with witch in its name?

Witch hazels include multiple species from the Hamamelis genus. Hamamelis translates to “together with fruit.” This means fruit and flowers occur on the plant at the same time. This is a bit odd. These are large shrubs and three species are native to North America (H. virginiana, H. vernalis and H.ovalis).

The University of Virginia shares an interesting article online about witch hazel. They tell us there is an extensive folk history associated with this plant. “Native Americans on the east coast were known to use it as a cold remedy, eye medicine, and kidney aid.” Early settlers also used the leaves to make medicinal tea. Witch hazel branches were used as divining rods to locate underground water sources. They called this activity “water-witching” which gave rise to the plant’s common name.

Apparently, this process of using branches to find something has quite the history. Germany in the 1400s used a similar dowsing technique to look for underground precious metals. And in the 1600s, the French even attempted to track down criminals and heretics. They probably didn’t use witch hazel in particular, but it is an intriguing concept or interesting superstition depending on your point of view: mlbs.virginia.edu/organism/hamamelis_virginiana .

Extracts derived from the witch hazel leaves and bark are commonly used today in cosmetics, lotions, ointments and soaps. It is one of the few plants approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The University of Vermont states witch hazel is used for sores, burns, minor lacerations, itching and hemorrhoids. Some research shows the extract works as well on skin inflammation as 1 percent hydrocortisone: ctl.w3.uvm.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/uvmtrees/witch-hazel-intro/witch-hazel-modern-med .

Dr. Andrew Weil shares some additional uses for witch hazel extract. He says it is used topically for insect bites, sunburn, poison ivy, acne and other skin irritations, as well as a skin cleanser and toner. He recommends we look for it on the drugstore shelf next to hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol: drweil.com/vitamins-supplements-herbs/herbs/witch-hazel

For an even more extensive list of witch hazel uses, check out Dr. Josh Axe’s site: draxe.com/witch-hazel

If you are interested in growing witch hazel, some local nurseries sell the shrubs. One nursery in particular was highlighting a Vernal Witch Hazel. This shrub grows up to ten feet high and twelve feet wide. I like growing medicinal plants. However, a major drawback of growing witch hazel here is that it needs a lot of water — resource we are sorely lacking.

Kelley Rawlsky has an M.S. in horticulture and is the director of Bringing People and Plants Together, an organization dedicated to bringing horticulture education and therapy to the community. For more information: PeopleAndPlantsTogether @gmail.com or follow us on Facebook.