Witch Hazel Wonders:
Cultivation and Herbal Uses
Written by Mary Plantwalker
Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
The homegrown benefits of witch hazel are easy to overlook as an herbalist, as witch hazel is not traditionally something you think of planting in the garden or making medicine with for your apothecary—drugstore brands are what most people associate with witch hazel. But imagine growing your own witch hazel plant (Hamamelis virginiana, Hamamelidaceae) in your medicine garden, and then creating clever concoctions to lovingly administer to your teenager for acne, postpartum friend for hemorrhoids, or to soothe someone’s discomfort with eczema.
Who Is the Witch Hazel Plant?
Witch hazel is a very humble-looking deciduous shrub or small tree—until it flowers. It is one of those rare plants that flowers in cold weather. How stunning it is to walk through the woods and see golden flowers hanging from branches when most other plants have gone to sleep for the winter! Its central stems are gray, patchy, and leggy, and leaf out in spring with luscious growth. The witch hazel leaf is broad and oval, with wavy margins and an uneven base; and it turns yellow in autumn, right before the flower appears. For more info on the botanical uniqueness of witch hazel, check out this article.
Witch hazel is found naturally in woodland habitats or on forest edges. The ones in our woods (in the southern Appalachians) grow near the stream, underneath American beech (Fagus grandifolia), tulip magnolia (Liriodendron tulipifera), oak (Quercus spp.), and sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) trees, and among wild yam vines (Dioscorea villosa), Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides), and wild cucumber (Medeola virginiana).
The biggest witch hazel tree I have ever seen was living on the wood’s margin, along a creek bank. The sun really helped it maximize its full potential, and it helped me realize that witch hazel is one of those plants that can live in part shade or sun. This is wonderful news for the gardener as it opens up more options for where to plant it in your landscape!
Please note that this article is an introduction to witch hazel. If you plan to forage any of this herb, you’ll need to seek out trustworthy identification tips. You’ll also need to learn foraging ethics before you harvest any plants from the wild. There are deadly poisonous plants and mushrooms out there, so proper identification is paramount. See our Foraging and Wildcrafting resources on the blog for more guidance.
How to Grow Witch Hazel
If you do not live near an abundant source of witch hazel that you can wildcraft, or you are wanting to have this small tree incorporated into your garden and you live in zones 4 to 9, here are ten tips for how to successfully cultivate witch hazel.
1) Choosing the location
Because witch hazel is able to thrive in part shade or sun, you can scan your yard for any area that is not in deep shade. Since it is naturally an understory plant, it may suffer in full, south-facing sun. Give it filtered shade in zone 7 or warmer. Morning sun is best. Witch hazel likes well-drained, moist, and slightly acidic soil. It cannot take dry soils; choose a place in your garden that can hold moisture. Other plants that like similar soil are rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.), azaleas (Rhododendron tsutsusi, R. pentanthera), blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), nasturtiums (Tropaeolum spp.), daffodils (Narcissus psuedonarcissus), and hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla), so if you have any of these growing in your garden already, and they are doing well, consider planting a witch hazel near them.
The more sun it gets (although not too much afternoon sun!), the bigger it will grow. Give it the potential to grow 15 feet wide x 20 feet tall (4.6 m x 6 m) even though it will most likely be smaller. Walk around the area and ask: “Would a witch hazel tree like to live here?”
2) Time of year to plant
In general, planting in the spring after the last frost is ideal. If you are unable to do it then, early summer or late fall is a close runner-up. Planting shrubs in summer and winter is discouraged as the extreme heat or cold can damage the tender root system. But, sometimes, you just gotta go for it when you can or not at all, and in that case, plant a witch hazel anytime the ground isn’t frozen! If it is midsummer, water every day, and if it is winter, mulch it heavily.
3) Purchasing your witch hazel ally
There are four North American species of witch hazel and numerous cultivars. The ornamental varieties have much showier flowers—some bloom in autumn, others in late winter—and they’re exciting to behold in the depths of winter, when color is mostly absent from the garden.
Of all the varieties, American witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is the species most known for its strong medicinal properties. Hamamelis vernalis, or Ozark witch hazel, is an astringent as well. We’ll be discussing these two species in this article; otherwise, the rest of the genus is not necessarily interchangeable.
Hamamelis virginiana and H.vernalis are not as popular in standard nurseries so you may need to source them from native plant nurseries (take some extra time to inquire whether chemical pesticides or fertilizers have been used—I would look elsewhere if so). Inquire within your community if there is anyone locally cultivating the virginiana species. As a general rule of thumb, the more ornamental a plant is bred to be, the less medicinal it becomes. Strictly Medicinal Seeds sells the two species mentioned above and is also a great resource for all kinds of hard-to-find medicinals.
4) Transplants and cuttings
There may be woods near you with healthy and abundant stands of witch hazel plants. If you have followed the guidelines of ethical wildcrafting and have permission from the property owner to dig a plant, you could try transplanting the witch hazel. Bring along some of the forest soil with you when you transplant the plant, to give it a boost in its new home. If it was growing in part shade and you want to plant it in full sun, be mindful to gradually introduce it to a sunnier locale before planting so you don’t burn the leaves or stress the plant.
If you are already experienced with rooting cuttings, another possibility is starting from a cutting of a wild witch hazel plant. Apparently, witch hazel is not as easy to propagate as some other plants, so I would only recommend this for experienced rooters. It can be grown from seed, but needs cold stratification, takes a year to germinate, and then needs to be babied for a few years before transplanting. Probably just better to buy from Richo. :)
5) Preparing the soil
The condition of the soil at the time of planting can make all the difference whether a plant will thrive. If you have a garden bed already prepared that has been weeded, fed, and aerated, then you’re set! If you do not, but you have some forethought and time, place layers of sheet mulch—manure or compost, cardboard and hay/straw or leaves—in a 5 x 5-foot area (1.5 m x 1.5 m) and let it sit for a couple months minimum. If you have neither a prepped garden bed nor time to wait, then begin planting as guided below.
Dig a hole twice as deep and twice as wide as the witch hazel plant. Add compost into half the hole, place the plant, and fill the sides back in with the original soil, removing any grass or weeds. Press down on all sides to make sure the roots are getting in touch with the soil and the plant is solidly in the ground. Make a gradually sloped indention around the base of the plant so that water will funnel into the plant and not away from it. There can be a tendency to mound soil up around the base when planting, and then water just runs off the sides and the surrounding weeds or grass gets the water instead, so be sure to pay attention to your new little witch hazel plant’s capacity to receive water. Next, surround the plant with uncolored, tape-free cardboard and then layer hay, leaves, and/or wood chips on top.
Water your witch hazel plant at least one inch (2.5 cm) a week for the first growing season. I have a rain gauge to keep track and if it does not rain that much in a week, I make sure to get extra water on new plantings. Witch hazel needs a lot of moisture, so ideally you have already planted it in a somewhat moist area. If there is a dry spell or if you live in a climate where it doesn’t rain during the summer, you will have to water it regularly. One of the most common reasons trees and shrubs fail after planting is that they don’t get enough water, especially when they are moisture-loving beings. The mulch helps retain the water by keeping roots covered.
If you are a black tea or coffee drinker, consider offering your spent tea leaves or coffee grounds directly to the base of your witch hazel. It could become a lovely morning ritual! Witch hazel loves the tannins in these plants and will turn the waste into fertilizer. Annually give your witch hazel tree a blanket of manure or compost, some more cardboard, and a mulch layer. This will be all the fertilizer it needs!
9) Talking to your witch hazel plant
Seems like anything that is talked to lovingly and given appreciation does better. Songs are welcome! Need I say more?
10) Regular care and upkeep
Witch hazel is a slow-growing shrub, so there is not a lot of maintenance involved. Patience helps. In the springtime, harvest the young twigs when the leaves are just emerging along with the bark from the smaller branches to use in your herbal preparations. If you’d like to shape the branches, prune after flowering so that the next year’s buds have time to develop. Cut back any suckers that come up from the witch hazel tree’s base. Keep grass away from the base of the tree, as grass can rob plants of moisture and nutrients. Mulch once or twice a year. Keep any neighboring vines from climbing into it. Prune out any dead branches. Admire your witch hazel friend!
Witch Hazel’s Medicinal Benefits:
Just What Does Witch Hazel Do?
So, you have your own witch hazel growing, or you have an ample stand you can wildcraft from and you are ready to make medicine. Just what will this witch hazel do? The witch hazel tree has been harvested from the wild and used for centuries as an astringent to soothe all sorts of conditions, from acne to eczema to hemorrhoids; it also tones the skin, supports the healing process of open sores, tightens blood vessels, and relaxes the muscles. Below are some useful ideas along with recipes for how to incorporate witch hazel into your home apothecary.
How to Use Witch Hazel
All parts of the witch hazel plant have medicinal uses, but the bark is traditionally used for the extract. How do you use witch hazel if you don’t own all that fancy steam distillation equipment to make witch hazel extract? Tinctures, teas, and oils can all be made with parts of witch hazel. The flower, leaf buds, and new shoots are mostly what you want to harvest as an herbalist. You can use the plant fresh or dried, depending on your recipe.
To begin, make a witch hazel tincture. You will need a glass jar, your harvest of witch hazel, and 190-proof organic (if possible) grain alcohol or high-quality vodka. Follow this recipe for tincturing your witch hazel by harvesting the twigs and leaves in early spring. If you have a big stand of witch hazel, you can also harvest the outer bark of a branch or limb any time of year. Once you have your witch hazel tincture, you have a great base to play with for making liniments, toners, anti-itch creams, and more.
Witch Hazel Solution for Hemorrhoids
Maybe they’re not the most glorious ailment to talk about, but hemorrhoids exist—and it sure is nice to have a natural remedy within reach! Pregnancy, giving birth, old age, stress, and heavy lifting can all bring on hemorrhoids. We’ve had them recurring in our family, and this remedy has proven to be the solution! Ever since then, I have kept a witch hazel concoction on hand for preventive measures. Guess what? No more hemorrhoids! I’m serious!
16 ounces (475 ml) witch hazel tincture
3 Tablespoons (45 ml) calendula (Calendula officinalis) flowers, dried
3 Tablespoons (45 ml) lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) flowers, dried
3 Tablespoons (45 ml) rose (Rosa spp.) petals, dried
3 Tablespoons (45 ml) plantain (Plantago spp.) leaves, freshly chopped
1 cup (240 ml) distilled water
Steep all herbs in witch hazel tincture. Shake regularly and chant, “Hemorrhoids are not welcome here nor there.” Strain after four to six weeks. Add the distilled water to the herbally-enhanced witch hazel tincture. Keep by the toilet, preferably in an easy-to-access container with a tight lid that pours easily, out of the reach of curious little hands. Pour a small amount on toilet paper, and dab onto the affected area each time after wiping from a bowel movement.
Topical Witch Hazel Tea for Poison Ivy
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), a natural antipruritic, gets a lot of air time for taking away that poison ivy itch, but have you ever tried witch hazel? It has unique astringent properties that bring immediate relief for troubled skin. It can also help ease an eczema rash. Below is a simple and comforting recipe for witch hazel tea that helps dry up that poison ivy rash and stop the itching! As a side note, internal uses of witch hazel tea have been recorded, but I have no experience with it—other than tasting some, and puckering up like I’d just bitten into an unripe persimmon! Witch hazel is full of tannins, which is what makes it a great astringent. So, let’s reserve this infusion for just the outer parts of our lovely bodies!
- Fresh or dried witch hazel bark, twigs, buds, and/or leaves
Gather enough plant material to fill at least a gallon pot. More is fine! Bring 2 gallons (7.5 L) of water to a boil. Add the witch hazel. Cover and simmer 1 minute, then turn off heat. If only using bark, let simmer for 20 minutes. Steep for a half hour or longer. Strain straight into the bath and soak your weary skin.
This witch hazel bath tea can also be used for postpartum sitz baths, and postpartum full baths to help tighten the skin from all the stretching it had to do to grow that baby! This tea should be used upon making, but can also be stored up to 3 days in the fridge if necessary.
Witch Hazel for Acne, A Daily Mister
A twist on a recipe from one of my all-time favorite books for skin and hair care, Dina Falconi’s Earthly Bodies and Heavenly Hair, this recipe is a witch hazel toner for oily and acne-prone skin. I used it for my teenager when she was struggling with acne both to help clear it up and to prevent new breakouts. Grapefruit (Citrus × paradisi) essential oil has antimicrobial properties that work harmoniously with the witch hazel’s astringent properties, making it harder for acne to flare up.
3 ounces (89 ml) of your witch hazel tincture
3 ounces (89 ml) distilled water
20 drops grapefruit (Citrus × paradisi) essential oil
10 drops tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) essential oil
Pour all ingredients into a misting spray bottle, cap, and shake. Spray (eyes closed) lightly on face in the morning and before bed. This mist will last for several months if kept out of direct sunlight or the trunk of your car.
So, you see, witch hazel is a wonderful being to bring into your garden and apothecary! Our greatest results with herbs show up when we bring them home. The closer your relationship with them, the more benefits you will receive. Here’s to being witchy with witch hazel by growing it if you can and then making some down-home recipes for the incredible organ instrument that covers us every day—our skin!
Safety & Contraindications: No known side effects.
MARY PLANTWALKER (Mary Morgaine Squire) has been practicing yoga and meditation while steeping herself in the plant world for the past 27 years. She is a writer, mother, avid gardener, yoga teacher, and plant ambassador. In the 1990s, she earned her BA in Journalism and Sustainable Living from Fairhaven College, and has since traveled the world meeting and learning from as many plants and indigenous healers as possible. As an active earth steward, Mary is called to protect and care for Herb Mountain Farm, the incredible land she stewards in western North Carolina, while encouraging others to do the same wherever they are. Mary is gifted in facilitating ceremony and enticing mindfulness into the everyday, and is passionate about welcoming people into the walk of embracing plants as allies while living in harmony with all beings. You can follow Mary's plant escapades on Instagram.
JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.
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