Witch Hazel

Witch hazel was widely used by Native Americans, and is currently endorsed by both the FDA and herbalists.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Witch hazel, common witch hazel, standard witch hazel
  • Scientific nameHamamelis virginiana
  • Geographic distributionNorth America, Japan, and China
  • Plant typeShrub
  • Native regionNorth America, East Asia
  • Main producer(s)United States of America
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal, Cosmetics
  • Plant Life CyclePerennial
  • Main Consumed PartBark, Leaves
  • OLD Main Economic UseCosmetic Industry, Medicinal, Ornamental
  • Main Economic ProducerU.S.
  • Native RegionChina, Japan, North America
  • Growing HabitatCool Temperate Regions, Temperate Regions
Witch Hazel

This small shrub originated in eastern North America - specifically Canada and the Northeast coast of the U.S. - and today, it is commonly cultivated in Europe and in temperate climates around the world.

Witch hazel has a long history of use as a medicine by Native Americans. The bark, leaves, and twigs have all been used in traditional medicines. Witch hazel is still commonly used in many skin products and hemorrhoids medicines. Witch hazel has received FDA approval, a rarity among herbal treatments. It is also used in beauty products.

It was also used by the Native Americans to find underground water sources. European settlers observed that natives would know there was water beneath the ground when the dowsing end of the stick would bend, and so this practice was exported to Europe. Until the 20th century, dowsing was an essential part of the well-digging process.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionAnti-inflammatory, Astringent
  • Key constituentsflavonoids, tannins (hamamelitannin and proanthocyanidins), and volatile oil
  • Ways to useLiquid extracts, Poultice, Ointment
  • Medicinal rating(5) Great value
  • Safety rankingSafe

Health Benefits of Witch Hazel

Witch hazel products contain flavonoids, tannins (hamamelitannin and proanthocyanidins), and small amounts of volatile oil, among other things. Proanthocyandins have been found to reduce inflammation and have antiviral activity against the herpes virus. The various properties of witch hazel have some important medicinal uses:

  • Helping damaged skin. Witch hazel contains tannins that may help reduce swelling, help fight bacteria, and repair broken skin. This is what is responsible for the majority of witch hazel's medicinal benefits.

  • Reducing the symptoms of hemorrhoids. Applying witch hazel to the skin may help relieve the itching, burning, discomfort, and irritation caused by hemorrhoids.

  • Reducing minor bleeding. Applying witch hazel to the skin may reduce minor bleeding.

How It Works

The tannins and flavonoids in witch hazel are responsible for the plant's skin healing properties, with studies demonstrating the soothing effect these compounds have on the skin. Furthermore, proanthocyanidins seem to work by inhibiting inflammatory mediators and the formation of platelet-activation, which is one of the main causes of inflammation. The flavonoids are particularly recognized for their antioxidant activity, contributing to the healing benefits of the plant.

“Witch hazel contains tannins that may help reduce swelling, help fight bacteria, and repair broken skin.”

How to Consume Witch Hazel

Main preparations: Salve and distillations

“poultices are made to lessen skin ailments.”

A medicinal infusion can be made with the leaves, but it is not generally recommended to eat the plant. Liquid witch hazel extracts are normally made for internal use, whereas poultices are made to lessen skin ailments.

Witch Hazel Side Effects

Hypersensitivity reactions are possible when using witch hazel topically. No other side effects are known however, as with anything, medical consultation is advised before using with witch hazel.

Culinary Information

Used mostly for its cosmetic and medicinal benefits, there is little demand for witch hazel in the culinary world, and it is not generally regarded as edible.

Other Uses

For Cosmetics

The cosmetic industry benefits the most from this product, with many people using it as a more natural alternative to many of the harsh products that flood the market today. Owing to its natural anti-inflammatory properties, it is used to treat acne, reduce puffy eyes, and soothe sunburn.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySupermarkets, Big online retailers, Farmers' markets, Specialized health stores, Online herb stores

The most common form in which witch hazel is sold is either as a tincture or distillation of the twigs, bark, or leaves. It is rare to find witch hazel in its original form.

“It is used to treat acne, reduce puffy eyes, and soothe sunburn.”

Plant Biology

Classification

Witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, is a member of the Hamamelidaceae family; this family contains 23 species of shrubs and trees. Specifically, it belongs to the genus Hamamelis and is a slow-growing deciduous shrub that can reach up to 16 feet (5 m) by 16 feet. It can grow as a small tree, but this is rarer. In winter, this perennial plant produces fragrant and distinctive-looking flowers – which can range from yellow to orange to red, and can even be purple – followed by brown fruit capsules. When ripe, these capsules eject the seeds up to 12 feet (4 m) away. The leaves have large, wavy teeth on the margins, and the upper surface is dark green in color, whereas the lower is of a paler hue.

Varieties and Subspecies of Witch Hazel

Botanists have identified two naturally-occurring varieties of witch hazel. The first one, also known as "common" or "standard" witch hazel, is Hamamelis virginiana var. virginiana, which can be found from Nova Scotia to Virginia. The "prairie variety" of witch hazel (H. virginiana var. parvifolia), on the other hand, is found mainly in Ohio. There is also a cultivar, H. virginiana 'Rubescens', developed for landscaping and favored for its reddish flowers. In addition to these varieties, many hybrid species have also been developed, in particular by mixing Hamamelis virginiana with its close relatives, the Japanese and Chinese witch hazels (H. japonica and H. mollis).

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cyclePerennial
  • Harvested partsLeaves
  • Growing habitatTemperate climates, Woodlands

Witch hazel grows best in acidic (pH value of 6 or less), rich, and moist soils and requires regular watering. It does not cope well with too much sun, as it is a woodland plant that naturally occurs in dark forests. Common witch hazel is much easily grown from seeds than cuttings, and should be planted in pots. They should not be transplanted until they are two or three years old. Flowering will not occur until the plant is at least six years old. Witch hazels are quite hardy and can withstand extremely cold temperatures, but are also relatively sensitive to mildew and fungal leaf infestations.

Additional Information

Quick Facts (Additional Information)
  • Other usesCosmetics

Economic Data

Historically and presently witch hazel is widely used for its medicinal benefits. It is also widely used in the beauty industry, popping up in lotions, creams, and skin washes. Witch hazel is often found as an ingredient in toners and cleansers. The most common witch hazel product available in the U.S. is made from the whole twigs of the shrub. Extracts of the bark alone are used in Europe. Witch hazel saplings are also sold for living fences and parking strips, as the plant's low water requirements make it a practical option for urban settings.

Bibliography