Witch Hazel’s Medicinal Uses
Written by Juliet Blankespoor with Meghan Gemma
Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
When witch hazel flowers in late fall, its leaves are either golden with the season’s splendor or have already fallen to join the rich tapestry of the eastern deciduous forest floor. Its yellow petals resemble crimped streamers, lending a wild look to the close aggregation of flowers (one might liken them to a late-night party of fringe-element spiders). Some callous individuals lacking floral social skills have been known to describe the blooms as scraggly.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana, Hamamelidaceae) is a woodland shrub that grows from Florida to Nova Scotia and west to Minnesota and Texas. It prefers to grow near streams, rivers, and wet bottomlands in partial shade to full sun, but it can be easily cultivated in regular garden soil. There are only four species in the genus Hamamelis, two being native to eastern North America and two native to eastern Asia. Hamamelis virginiana is the only species in the genus that flowers in the fall; the other species flower in winter or very early spring.
If you live in the east, late fall is a perfect time to observe these flowers. Flower lovers, get out your hand lens and get to bloomoogling! You may have to peek closely, but you should see the pistil (female part of the flower, which will develop into a woody capsule) in the center with its two recurved stigma tips surrounded by four squat stamens (pollen-bearing male structures). Gently pry open the flower to observe four tiny spatula-like structures nestled in front of the petals—these are nectar-producing staminodes.
For more about the folklore and cultivation of witch hazel, along with some recipes, visit our Witch Hazel Hub.
Staminodes are infertile stamens, which do not produce pollen, but serve to augment pollination through a variety of means. Some staminodes are showy and attract pollinators, much like petals; others have specialized hairs, which help trap and distribute pollen. In the case of witch hazel, the function of the staminodes is to attract pollinators by producing nectar. Small flies and bees pollinate witch hazel; only one percent of the flowers ever mature into fruit. Last year’s capsules can be seen side by side with the flowers. The capsules are explosive, ejecting their two shiny black seeds up to 30 feet.
One year I collected some of the closed capsules, yet untriggered, placed them in my seasonal treasures basket and promptly forgot about them. A couple of months later I repeatedly heard random sounds coming from the back of the house; every time I went to investigate, I couldn’t find anything amiss. For a while I thought we had a fresh crop of uppity mice, boldly running around in plain daylight. Sweeping up the ejected seeds one day, I finally put it all together—the late afternoon sun coming through the window had warmed the capsules enough to stimulate their rapid-fire opening.
Witch hazel’s name originates from its use as a divining rod; the forked twigs bend slightly when dowsing for water. The Middle English word wiche means pliant or bendable. Dowsing was, and continues to be, a very important ancient craft in determining the best location to dig a well. The hazel in its name originates from the leaves’ close resemblance to the unrelated hazelnut (Corylus spp., Betulaceae).
The leaves of witch hazel often bear galls in the shape of a cone, caused by the aptly named witch hazel cone gall aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis). I think the galls resemble a stereotypical witch’s hat (see the image below). Galls are formed from plant tissue in response to chemicals produced by insects that mimic various plant growth hormones. Inside the gall, insects happily munch on the plant tissue, while remaining protected from predators. The galls are formed from various plant tissues depending on the host and the insect involved.
The witch hazel family (Hamamelidaceae) contains some notable ornamentals, often planted for their winter or early spring blooms. Pictured below is the flower of witch alder (Fothergilla sp.), a small shrub native to the southeastern United States.
Harvesting Witch Hazel
The twigs and leaves of witch hazel can be gathered throughout the growing season, but are most potent in the springtime when the sap is running and the leaf growth is fresh.
Both can be gathered by cutting small, leaf-bearing branches from mature trees. Strip the leaves and trim the twigs into smallish sections of about 1 inch (2.5 cm). For thicker twigs or branches, you can strip the outer bark using a small knife. All parts can be used fresh or dried in baskets or on screens for later use.
Medicinal Benefits of Witch Hazel
Parts Used: Bark, twigs, and leaves
Medicinal Preparations: Tincture, infusion (leaves), decoction (bark and twigs), liniment, compress, poultice, wash, distillate*
Tincture ratios and dosage: Fresh bark and twigs 1:2 80%; dry bark and twigs 1:5 40%.
Infusion ratios and dosage: 1 Tablespoon (15 ml) of the dried leaves per 1 cup (240 ml) of water three times a day.
Decoction ratios and dosage: 1 Tablespoon (15 ml) of the dried bark or twigs per 1 cup (240 ml) of water three times a day.
*Note: Witch hazel preparations sold in drugstores are made from a steam distillation of the twigs, preserved with alcohol. They are much weaker than a standard tincture or tea.
- Mild antibacterial
Witch hazel is one of our most classic astringent and anti-inflammatory herbs. It has a special affinity for toning and strengthening the blood vessels, veins, mucous membranes, and skin.
Native Americans have long used the twigs and bark of witch hazel as a medicinal herb, both internally and topically, for a wide variety of ailments.1 The tea is taken to remedy sore throats, diarrhea, intestinal bleeding, colds, coughs, bruising, and to prevent postpartum hemorrhaging. The tannins in witch hazel help lessen the inflammation of mucous membranes in sinus congestion from allergies, sinus infections, and head colds.
These same astringent tannins are also helpful for conditions related to the mouth: bleeding gums, gingivitis, and other infections. Herbalist Robin Rose Bennett recommends placing a few drops of the tincture on your toothbrush and brushing gently along the gumline.2
Topically, witch hazel is applied as a compress to heal varicose veins, hemorrhoids, bruises, and sunburns. The strong tea, applied as a wash, is a folk remedy for poison ivy.
Because witch hazel is an astringent and is mildly antibacterial, it is often used as a toning remedy for the face. Acne and eczema can both be addressed using a compress of the distillate (available commercially), a tea, or a facial steam in combination with herbs like calendula (Calendula officinalis), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), and sage (Salvia officinalis).3
Safety and Contraindications: No known side effects.
- Moerman, D. E. Native American Ethnobotany (Timber Press, 1998).
- Bennett, R. R. This Gift of Healing Herbs: Plant Medicines and Home Remedies for a Vibrantly Healthy Life (North Atlantic Books, 2014).
- Gladstar, R. Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health: 175 Teas, Tonics, Oils, Salves, Tinctures, and Other Natural Remedies for the Entire Family (Storey Publishing, 2008).
JULIET BLANKESPOOR is the founder, primary instructor, and Creative Director of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, an online school serving thousands of students from around the globe. She's a professional plant-human matchmaker and bonafide plant geek, with a degree in botany and over 30 years of experience teaching and writing about herbalism, medicine making, and organic herb cultivation. Juliet’s lifelong captivation with medicinal weeds and herb gardening has birthed many botanical enterprises over the decades, including an herbal nursery and a farm-to-apothecary herbal products business.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession through her writing and photography in her online programs, on her personal blog Castanea, and in her new book, The Healing Garden: Cultivating and Handcrafting Herbal Remedies. Juliet and her family reside in a home overrun with houseplants and books in Asheville, North Carolina.
MEGHAN GEMMA is one of the Chestnut School’s primary instructors through her written lessons, and is the principal pollinator of the school’s social media community—sharing herbal and wild foods wisdom from the flowery heart of the school to an ever-wider field of herbalists, gardeners, healers, and plant lovers.
She has been in a steady relationship with the Chestnut School since 2010—as an intern and manager at the Chestnut Herb Nursery; as a plant-smitten student “back in the day” when the school’s programs were taught in the field; and later as a part the school’s woman-powered professional team. Meghan lives in the Ivy Creek watershed, just north of Asheville, North Carolina.
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