In hunting for the origin of witch hazel's name, I expected a juicy story about a witch named Hazel. Instead, the name comes from a traditional practice called "dowsing." Dowsing was a method of locating good sources of groundwater using Y-shaped branches. The name is believed to have come from wych, an old Anglo-Saxon word for "bend," and the Middle English wicke for "lively." Indeed, the dowsing stick is said to point downward towards the groundwater below, as though having a mind of its own. The Mohegans may have been the first to show English settlers to dowse.
It seems fitting that witch hazel is commonly found along the banks of running water. In western New York, it is rare to hike along a creek without spotting this shrub. Witch hazel's abundance in the northeastern US surely led to American Distilling's location in East Hampton, Connecticut. They are the world's largest witch hazel producer, with products like Dickinson’s. Today, they are still supplied by local wild harvesters.
Witch hazel is one of the few medicinal plants approved by the FDA as an ingredient in non-prescription medications. This is not because witch hazel is safer or more effective than other medicinal plants (FDA approvals are heavily influenced by money and politics, often at the expense of long-term wellness and public health). But, it certainly is an effective astringent.
What exactly is an astringent? Astringent plants often contain tannins. If you have ever tasted strong black tea or an unripe apple, you are familiar with the dry "pucker" sensation of astringency. Tannins bind proteins, tightening and toning tissue. When astringents come into contact with a cut on our skin, it can help to bind the broken tissue back together, and reduce inflammation. I use astringents more gentle than witch hazel for inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, or to tone other body systems. They may be gargled to reduce inflammation in the mouth and throat.
Astringents are also drawing. They can pull wooden slivers or poison ivy's urishiol oil away from the skin-- though I would wash a poison ivy-affected area with strong soap as soon as possible. Those with acne-prone skin that is oily may apply witch hazel to reduce inflammation. (Remember-- diet and lifestyle will do more for acne than anything applied topically.) The Osage people used witch hazel bark to treat skin sores. The Potawatomi steamed witch hazel over rocks in sweat lodges to ease sore muscles. The Hadenosawnee (Iroquois) brewed a tea to treat coughs and dysentery. Witch hazel has been applied to bruises, varicose veins, and hemorrhoids as well.
Drinking witch hazel bark tea has generally fallen out of favor. The tannin content-- while medicinal when used properly-- can be irritating to the stomach. In rare cases, internal use may cause liver damage. Exernally, witch hazel is widely considered safe.
The beauty of making our own witch hazel bark extract is that we can avoid making a noticeable impact on the plants. Though I am impressed by how much wild-harvesting information American Distilling offers on their website, industrial witch hazel is made by cutting down whole trunks. Instead, we can snip just a few twigs from each plant. We can think like a farmer, and prune. Which twigs are being shaded out? These are the least useful to the plant, and can be snipped first.
Click here for a Wild Crafted Witch Hazel recipe.
Mandriote, John-Manuel. The Mysterious Past and Present of Witch Hazel. The Atlantic. Nov 2012.
Tilgner, Sharol. Herbal Medicine: From the Heart of the Earth. 2009.