- Family Hamamelidaceae
- Hamamelis virginiana
- Hamamelis, Hazel Nut, Snapping Hazel/Hazelnut, Spotted Alder/Elder, Striped Alder/Elder, Tobacco Wood, Winterbloom, Bending Elder, Agua Maravilla (Spanish)
Do not take the herb internally for long periods of time as it can interfere with the body’s absorption of iron and long-term use can lead to anemia.
Never take commercial witch hazel internally.
It is not to be confused with Hazelnut bark, to which it bears a resemblance in name and appearance.
Indigenous to Eurasia, Canada, and the eastern parts of the US, it is now commonly cultivated in Europe. Witch Hazel is a small perennial deciduous shrub, growing to fifteen feet with coarsely toothed, broad oval leaves. Distinctive yellow flowers appear in clusters at its joints and then evolve into blackish-brown fruit capsules that, when ripe in winter, audibly eject two oily, edible seeds up to twelve feet away from the tree. The nuts look like hazelnuts and are often confused with them.
There are five species of Witch Hazel, but the main pharmaceutical source is from the US, where it inhabits the damp woodlands and swamps in Florida and Minnesota. The leaves are gathered in the summer and dried. The bark is harvested during the autumn and dried as quickly as possible in the shade.
Its name came as a result of either the use of the plant's wood to make brooms or from the popping sound made by the seed pods as they burst from the tree, hinting of some occult power, and hence its nicknames.
Its name is also derived from an old Anglo-Saxon word “wych” which meant flexible. The branches of the shrub are so flexible that Native Americans used them to make bows. They also found many other uses for the plant. A tea was brewed from the leaves and bark was rubbed on cuts, bruises, insect bites, and aching muscles and joints. When taken internally, it treated a variety of ailments, including colds, menstrual cramps, and to stop hemorrhaging and heavy menstrual bleeding. Poultices, soaked in a decoction of bark, was used to treat tumors and inflammations, especially of the eye. The Cherokee and Iroquois, used as a tea from the leaves or bark to treat coughs, colds, fevers, and sore throats.
It was used as an astringent and antiseptic in the US during the 19th century until a controversy erupted following commercial use of distillation to make the extracts. According to some critics, the distillation process removes the astringent tannins, leaving water that is of little medicinal value. Herbalists today, recommend that only a decoction be used.
- mildly sedating
- mildly antibiotic
- stops bleeding
- tannins (8-10%)
- bitter principle
- volatile oil
- gallic acid
Some components have sedative and analgesic actions, but the main one is astringency.
Some compounds have mild antibiotic properties which helps prevent infections while promoting healing.
The commercial product today, marketed as witch hazel, contains very little of the natural herb. Instead, its astringent properties come from the alcohol used in its preparation. The commercial preparations are based on a distilled extract (hamamelis water) that is made by soaking the crude drug in water for about twenty-four hours, then distilling it and adding ethanol. These distillates contain no active tannins, but the alcohol is still effective on minor problems, shortening the bleeding time.
The natural herb has the ability to shrink hemorrhoids and to ease the pain and itching, to soothe minor burns and skin abrasions, while preventing infection, and reducing the bleeding and oozing of certain skin conditions. Internally, it can soothe a sore throat and alleviate intestinal inflammation.
The large quantities of tannins, as well as the flavonoids, cause the proteins in the skin to tighten, which creates a protective covering that increases resistance to inflammation and promotes the healing of broken skin areas and damaged blood vessels beneath the skin. When it is applied to facial veins, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and bruises, the normal structure of the skin and capillaries are strengthened and soon return to their former structure.
Less commonly, it is taken internally, on a short-term basis, to treat diarrhea and for bleeding of any kind.
In Puerto Rican communities, a witch hazel compound is used as a therapy for asthma. The mixture contains aloe vera juice, honey, garlic, onion, and other substances.
Remedy forms include infusion of the leaves to treat skin irritations, bites and stings, cuts and bruises; or made into a lotion for broken veins and cysts; bark tinctures are diluted and sponged onto varicose veins; ointments made from the bark are applied to hemorrhoids; gargles from the infusions are used for inflamed throats or as an eyewash for eye inflammations.