Millions of bottles of witch hazel are sold each year. One of the few readily available commercial medicines made from a wild native plant, it is a distillation of the leaves, twigs and branches of Hamamelis virginiana. In the United States, it has been sold for more than 150 years.
Theron Pond first realized the financial promise of this small woodland tree. He was a pharmacist from Utica, N.Y., and the man behind Pond’s Cold Cream. In the 1840s, he befriended the Oneida tribe and learned they used witch hazel for treating wounds and burns.
After experimenting with different extracts, in 1846 he marketed a product called “Golden Treasure” that was promoted for treating burns, bruises, sprains, rheumatism, toothaches, sore throats and insect stings. Today, witch hazel is used mainly as a mild astringent and skin toner.
The “witch” in witch hazel has nothing to do with broomstick-riding hags. It derives from “wych,” meaning a tree with bendable branches. This made it an excellent choice for dowsing rods, or witching sticks. Early Americans used it extensively for this purpose when searching for new farmland. It has also been used to dowse for salt, gold, silver and other minerals and metals.
One of its common names is snapping hazel. In summer, its ripe capsules explode with a loud pop, expelling the edible black seeds up to 20 feet away. The leaves turn yellow in autumn, and it blooms around Halloween.
It symbolizes chastity and changeability. It could also mean “a spell is on me.” Carry a sprig of witch hazel to heal a broken heart.
Many Native American tribes used it for various purposes. A tea relieved throat irritations and reduced fever. Steam baths soothed congestion due to heavy colds. A compress made from leaves or bark treated skin irritations, bleeding, bites, burns, poison ivy rash and arthritic joints, just to name a few.
It was quickly adopted as a medicinal herb by European settlers and by 1860 was listed in the “Pharmacopoeia of the United States.” By then, it had traveled back to England and the rest of Europe.
Though it can be cultivated, it is mostly wild harvested in the United States. Leaves are picked in summer for extracts and ointments. Branches are cut and stripped in the spring to make decoctions (very strong teas which extract the essence of the plant) and tinctures (medicines made by dissolving a drug in alcohol).
Witch hazel – we owe it all to Mr. Pond.
– A reference librarian, Lisa Karen Miller has been gardening and researching plant lore for many years. Have plant lore to share? Email email@example.com.