Witch Hazel

Hamamelis virginiana

by John Brouwer

Last month I wrote about honey locust which uses defensive weaponry (large thorns) to defend itself. Witch Hazel has offensive weaponry, a built in single shooter which can shoot a seed up to 30 feet. It, of course, uses this strategy to ensure that seedlings don't compete with the parent.

Witch hazel is a shrub growing up to 15 feet. It is unique among plants in that it flowers in the fall and early winter. The yellow flowers appear at the same time as the seed pod matures. Many home homemakers have made the mistake of gathering the flowering branches for an indoor winter display. The warm indoor temperatures mature the seed pods which then pepper the room and its inhabitants with seed shot.

Diviner use the forked branches of witch hazel to locating water. Each hand holds a branch of the fork and the stem is held horizontally as the diviner walks across the land. As he crosses a water source the stem moves downward pointing to the spot in the earth where the well should be dug.
Witch hazel's other attribute is medicinal.

Contemporary medicinal uses for witch hazel are rooted in human history. It was an essential element of native medicine which pioneers adopted for their use.

Today Witch Hazel extract is one of the few herbal remedies approved by the medical establishment and can be bought in most pharmacies. Its medicinal properties come from the unique tannin found mainly in the bark which is very astringent. Various tinctures, extracts, decoctions, lotions, ointments, and poultices are applied externally to inflammations, burns, swelling, itching, insect bites and stings, bruises, abrasions, poison ivy, diaper rash, eczema, muscle aches, broken capillaries, bleeding gums, varicose veins, tumors, cysts, and hemorrhoids, and to cuts and wounds to stop bleeding and prevent infection.

The witch hazel industry is based in Connecticut where farmers contract directly with E.E. Dickinson Co. to grow and harvest witch hazel. Branches and stems are cut to the ground in the fall. Portable chippers chips fill trucks which take the material to the distillery where the chips are steam distilled. The resulting extract is bottled and shipped to your local pharmacy.

Home-made extracts should use only the bark as it is the bark that concentrates the tannins and flavoids. The bark is stripped off and soaked in 50 % grain alcoho1for 48 hours.

This spring witch hazel was planted alongside the Canada Trail. Its history with water divination associates positively with the region's drinking water well just across Westmount Road. As these plants mature they will provide a unique yellow flower display for trail users in early winter.

April 2010