Witch hazel is a native North American low growing shrub. It has been used throughout history as a medicinal remedy. Distillations, tinctures, and teas of the witch hazel plant have been used for centuries to treat a wide assortment of ailments. The various preparations of witch hazel include essential oils, lotions, ointments, teas and soothing creams may be found in most drug stores, as well as health food stores. The plant compounds act as an astringent which firms and tighten skin while also acting as a potent topical skin ointment that reduces itching, swelling and skin irritations.
Legends say that the plant name comes from witches recipes and ancient concoctions. In reality the origin of Witch Hazel as the name of the multi-medicinal plant is a not so extraordinary in nature. The “witch” in witch hazel is probably just a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word wych, meaning flexible. It was well known by local folks around the European countryside that branches from the witch hazel plant are very pliant. These branches of witch hazel were said to make very suitable dowsing rods and at times have mystical powers.
There are 4 species of witch hazel found in the genus Hamamelis. The plants all have simple alternating leaves with wavy edges, and bright yellow flowers that bloom in the fall. When the seeds are totally ripe, the witch hazel pods pop open and eject their seeds into the surrounding area.
Tinctures are made with the bark suspended in an alcohol solution to leach out the useful compounds of the plant. The teas, for internal use are made from leaves, bark, and flowers boiled in water. Distillation of the plant parts creates essential oil. Tinctures and distillations are intended for external use and the teas are an internal health remedy. Almost all parts of this botanical have a medicinal use: the leaves, bark, flower, twigs and fruit.
Witch hazel came to national attention as an herbal product when it was released as a patent medicine developed in the mid 1800s. Theron T. Pond of Utica, New York established an association with the Oneida Indians Nation (of New York) and developed a Witch hazel product from an old Native America recipe and marketed it. The extract was first called “Golden Treasure” (1848) and eventually after Theron Pond died and the company was sold it was called “Ponds Extract”.
Witch Hazel is found in many over the counter products for various health issues such as: insect bites, sore muscles, sun burn, rashes, skin scrapes and inflammation, dysentery, mucous infections, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, eyelid inflammation and stomach ulcers. It is really great at clearing poison ivy and poison oak skin outbreaks. You will find it in astringent skin toner products, after shave lotion and shaving cream, insect bite treatments, bruise poultice compounds and acne treatment lotions. It is one of few American medicinal plants approved as an ingredient in non-prescription drugs by the FDA.
Interesting how the “medicine” in that strange old looking bottle in Gramma’s medicine cupboard, which she always pulled out when we got an insect bite or scraped our knees, was better than the ouchy sting from the peroxide bottle my mother used.