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THROUGH THE WOODS: Witch hazel

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Witch Hazel blossoms. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

ROAMING THE WOODS IN OCTOBER is glorious and anticipatory. Several migrating yellow-rumped warblers were snacking on still available insects and the numerous poison ivy berries. Toward the back of the woods was the real treat for the day, Hamamelis virginiana, or witch hazel, in bloom. This is the last native woody shrub to flower in our area, a defiance of the coming winter. The flowers start to form in late September or early October and may persist on bare branches into freezing November, long after the leaves have fallen. The branched shrub or small tree is about 10-15 feet tall (sometimes up to 30 feet), has almost equal width, and likes moist acidic soil.

The leaves are oval and large-toothed, and turn lovely clear yellow in fall. The really interesting characteristics are the flowers, fruit, and medicinal properties. The flowers have four thin, inch-long crinkly petals making them look like yellow spiders! The branches also hold the nut-like dried fruit from the previous fall which contains the edible seeds. These will eventually “pop” and shoot the seeds up to a distance of 30 feet! This is a warning to those who might want to take the branches into the warm house.

Early settlers used the flexible witch hazel branches for dousing water and metals and learned that Native Americans revered the witch hazel for its astringent and medicinal properties. Theron T. Pond gathered this information and about 1850 started selling a witch hazel extract called “Golden Treasure” that became “Pond’s Extract” after his death. It was a real miracle drug, and the extracted or distilled leaves and bark were used as an astringent, styptic, tonic, and sedative, internally and externally to stop hemorrhage, it was a wonderful treatment and pain-killer for hemorrhoids, and was used for bruises and inflammatory swellings, diarrhea, mucous discharges, nose bleeds, varicose veins, burns, scalds, bites of insects and mosquitoes, inflammation of the eyelids, the skin, and is still in general use today.

The witch hazel shrub’s wood has more of the desired ingredients than the leaves and is harvested in autumn. New growth from the stumps will be ready for harvest again in about two years, so it is a renewable cash crop. The wood is chipped and commercially processed to produce the bottle of clear witch hazel water found at the pharmacy. It contains several tannins and volatile oils, and more studies are showing other interesting constituents and potential.

Our Native Americans gave us valuable knowledge which we have only begun to discover. This early medicine is still included in modern-day lotions, creams, and medicines. A family member found a recipe for making homebrew witch hazel that may actually have retained more of the active ingredients than the commercial batches. It was a yellowish-brown liquid, smelled like the commercial stuff, and worked on many things like scratches and bug bites, plus it cleaned and tightened the skin. It is supposed to reduce aging and wrinkles, and the skin really looked great! Halloween is coming, so maybe old Hazel the Witch of comic strip fame should start using some too!

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