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Witch Hazel Hamamelis Virginiana Article and Photos

by Steven Foster

An antique bottle sat in my grandmother's bathroom labeled "witch hazel." It always piqued my curiosity. Was this some sort of strange brew, a grandmother's secret potion? I asked her about it. She said it was simply a toiletry. I knew nothing more. Then one day on a cool New England autumn day, the trees already bare of leaves, I walked in the woods behind my grandmother's house. There on a woodside hill next to the old pond sat a small, fork-branched shrub decorated in tight clusters of spider-like yellow flowers. "What's this?" I wondered. Clutching a branch, I took it to my grandmother. "Witch hazel," she said. I was surprised. A plant not a potion! I had always thought of witch hazel as a clear liquid cosmetic stocked in grandma's medicine cabinet. Now I had a new association for a name I had always known.

Witch hazel's name upholds mysterious connotations. In colonial America, the shrub's flexible forked branches were a favorite "witching stick" of dowsers used for searching out hidden waters or precious metals. This has nothing to do with witches, but rather originates from the old English word for pliable branches "wych." In England dowsers call an elm (Ulmus glabra) the "witch hazel tree." When early British settlers arrived in the Americas, they fancied our witch hazel as the logical replacement for dowsing chores, given its pliable, crooked branches.

Although it's not a hazel (Corylus species) the source of hazel nuts, the leaves have a striking resemblance to those of the common American hazelnut Corylus americana. This brings me to an embarrassing moment early in my career. I was invited to give a lecture at a medical school on medicinal plants. Several years earlier, I had photographed the leaves of "witch hazel" and showed the slide while discussing the herb. A botanist friend came up to me after the lecture, and quietly let me know that I had shown a photo of American hazelnut leaves - not the leaves of witch hazel. Since then I have never accepted a plant's identity at face value. Plant identification keys are a constant companion in my camera bag.

Botany and History

Botanists deem the common witch hazel Hamamelis virginiana. The generic name, Hamamelis, comes from a name that Hippocrates applied to the medlar (a small hawthorn-like fruit). The name combines two Greek word roots meaning fruit (apple) and "together," referring to the plant's habit of producing flowers at the same time the previous year's fruits mature and disperse seed. The fruits are worth a mention. Witch hazel produces a capsule-like fruit enshrining two shiny hard black seeds with white, oily, edible interiors. These nutty seeds were savored by Indians of the South. The flavor is like that of pistachio nuts. Witch hazel has a mechanical seed dispersal action. When mature, the seed capsules explode apart with a cracking pop, catapulting the seeds up to ten yards from the shrub. Remember this if you bring a bouquet of witch hazel twigs indoors when flowering in autumn. The seed capsules of the previous year are there at the same time. When they heat-up in the warm confines of a home, they will explode!

In a range extending from Nova Scotia, west to Ontario, and south to Texas, and Florida, common witch hazel flourishes on shaded north-facing slopes, along fence rows, country roads, and the stony banks of brooks. Another North American species, vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), found only in its native haunts along creek beds in the Ozark plateau, blooms in early winter, hence the name "vernal". On winter hikes in the Ozarks, I delight to the treat of a lovely floral fragrance in the dead of winter. Nearby, a vernal witch hazel is covered in its delicate, often red-tinted blossoms. Some vernal witch hazel flowers are dark red, a rare but natural form H. vernalis f. carnea.

Any shrub that blooms in winter, even when temperatures are in the single digits, will certainly attract the attention of horticulturists. Ironically most witch hazel in American horticulture come from east Asia. Two species of witch hazel, are commonly grown in American horticulture. One is Hamamelis japonica, obviously from Japan. Another is Hamamelis mollis, a Chinese species. They have also been hybridized to produce an unusual winter or early-spring blooming ornamental deemed Hamamelis x intermedia.

Witch hazel was widely used by American Indians as a medicinal plant. The bark was used by the Osage to treat ulcers of the skin, sores, and tumors. The Potawatomi placed the twigs on the hot rocks in a sweat lodge to bathe and soothe sore muscles with the steam. The Menomini boiled the twigs in water, then rubbed the decoction on their legs to keep them limber, or to treat a lame back. Among the Iroquois, witch hazel had many uses including a strong tea for dysentery, to treat colds and cough, as an astringent and blood purifier among others. The Mohegans used a decoction of the leaves and twigs to treat cuts, bruises, and insect bites.

The earliest works on American medicinal plants included witch hazel, primarily noting its use to treat eye inflammations, hemorrhoids, bites, stings and skin sores, diarrhea and dysentery, and many other conditions for which a plant high in tannins would produce relief by virtue of its astringency. Herbalists consider it one of the best plant medicines to check bleeding, both internally and externally. A tea made from the bark or leaves is given to stop internal bleeding. The same tea was injected into the rectum to allay the pain and itching of hemorrhoids, which today comes to the consumer in the form of "pads" or ointments for hemorrhoid treatment. A poultice of the fresh leaves or bark was considered useful for relieving the pain and swelling of inflammations. Dipped in a cotton ball, witch hazel water is dabbed on insect bites to calm pain and relieve itching. I find it especially soothing on chigger and tick bites, as well as mosquito bites, and poison ivy rash.

What attracted the attention of witch hazel as an herbal product was a patent medicine developed in the mid 1800s. In the 1840's, Theron T. Pond of Utica, New York established an association with the Oneida Indians of the state. He learned from a medicine man that they held a shrub in high esteem for all types of burns, boils, and wounds. It was witch hazel. Pond learned as much as he could of the extract, and finally after several years, in 1848, Mr. Pond and the Medicine Man decided to market the extract, under the trade name "Golden Treasure". After several moves and sales of the company, a manufacturing facility was established in Connecticut, and after the death of Theron Pond, the name of the witch hazel preparation was changed to "Pond's Extract".

Witch Hazel Today

The witch hazel industry is still centered in Connecticut with the E. E. Dickinson Co., the T. N. Dickinson Co., and the American Distilling and Manufacturing Co., producing most of the witch hazel extract sold on the American market. Much of the harvest still comes from the woods of northwestern Connecticut, where landowners contract directly with the manufaturers. Harvest begins in the autumn. Branches are cut to the ground, but resprout, producing a new harvest in a few years. Portable chippers allow for on site processing. It is then taken to the factories for distillation in stainless-steel vats. The witch hazel is steam distilled for thirty-six hours, then re-heated, condensed and filtered. Alcohol is added as a preservative.

Witch hazel "extract" is a steam distillate of the recently harvested twigs of the shrub, with about 14 percent alcohol added. This is the witch hazel "water" that reaches most pharmacies in America. In Europe, however, a water-alcohol extract of witch hazel twigs and leaves is more commonly used. Witch hazel is also used an astringent ingredient in a wide range of personal care products including deodorants, after shave lotions, cloth wipes, soaps, creams, and other products.

Depending upon how a preparation is made witch hazel products contain varying amounts of active compounds such as flavonoids, tannins (hamamelitannin and proanthocyanidins), small amounts of volatile oil, and other components, which may be responsible for its astringent action and to stop bleeding. Tannins have been characterized as hamamelitannin and a number of proanthocyanidins. The bark contains 31 times more hamamelitannin than the leaf extract, so place part used in preparation is important. In distilled witch hazel products much of the tannin content is lost.

A recent study shows there may be more at work in witch hazel than has been previously known. A specially filtered fraction of the extract, containing mostly proanthocyandins, was found to have significant anti-viral activity against Herpes simplex virus type 1. The same fraction was also found to have a strong antiphlogistic (inflammation-reducing) effect. In contrast, fractions high in hamamelitannin were found to have weaker antiviral or antiphlogistic activity. The significant of this study is that it shows that compounds other than tannins may play a role in witch hazel's recognized antiphlogistic effects, as well as newly recognized topical antiviral activity. Such studies serve to improve products available to consumers by helping manufacturers refine extraction processes to enhance the best possible therapeutic results.

Antioxidant, radiation-protective, and anti-inflammatory activity have been confirmed. Recently hamamelitannin and proanthocyanidins isolated from witch hazel were evaluated for their mechanisms of action in reported anti-inflammatory activity. It was found that some proanthocyanidin fractions inhibit inflammatory mediators derived from arachidonic acid and inhibited the formation of platelet-activation factor, a chemical mediator of inflammatory processes. When it is quelled, so is inflammation. Strong antioxidant activity against superoxide (a highly reactive form of oxygen), released by several enzymes during the inflammatory process may also play a role in witch hazel's anti-inflammatory effects. In a recent study, Japanese researchers sought plant compounds that protect cells in skin tissue from damage against harmful forms of oxygen. Witch hazel was found to have strong activity against reactive oxygen in skin tissue. The scientists proposed that witch hazel extracts should be further researched for their potential application in anti-aging or anti-wrinkling products to apply to the skin.

Although most herbs are sold in the United States as dietary supplemenst, witch hazel is one of very few American medicinal plants still approved as an ingredient in non-prescription drugs by the Food and Drug Administration. Witch hazel is approved as an over-the-counter astringent in the external analgesic (pain-relieving), skin protectant categories, and as an external anorectal, primarily used for symptomatic relieve of hemorrhoids (as pads, ointments, or suppositories). In Germany, the bark and leaf are approved for treatment in mild diarrhea, inflammation of the gums and mucous membranes of the mouth, and mild irritation or local inflammation of the skin, hemorrhoids, and varicose veins. There, witch hazel is considered astringent, inhibits-inflammation, and locally styptic.

For over 200 years, witch hazel has been valued for astringent, tonic, and mild pain-relieving qualities, used in treating hemorrhoids, itching, irritations, and other minor pains. Few clinical studies have been conducted, but every generation of Americans, since the formation of the United States, has had witch hazel preparations in their medicine cabinets. Thanks Grandma!