Sunday, August 25, 2013

Witch Hazel: A Gift from America

by Lauren Gilbert

Species Hamamelis Virginiana, commonly known as witch hazel, is native to America.  It is a common deciduous shrub or small tree found on the American east coast from Quebec to Minnesota to Florida (there are other American varieties and a couple of Asian varieties as well, which will not be addressed here).  It is an understory plant, found wild in forests.  It is slow-growing, commonly reaching five to fifteen feet tall (although taller specimens are known, one reaching 30 feet).

It has a smooth brownish-grey bark, long slender branches growing in Y formations, and decorative leaves. The leaves are oval with scalloped edges and inverted-V veining that can reach up to 6 inches in length.  Their color runs from a deep green during the summer to gold in the fall.  It likes partial sun to light shade.   It blooms in the fall (late September-October) and can bloom into December (in the south, as late as March).  The blooms are yellow, and consist of four twisted ribbon-like petals.  The flowers have a light fragrance.  The plant is not self-pollinating, so must attract pollinators such as insects.

The flower is interesting as, when temperatures dip, the petals twist tighter to protect itself; when the temperatures are warmer, the petals relax more to allow available pollinators access.   In spring, it produces fruit of a fuzzy light brown capsule shape, which has one to two shiny black seeds. The fruit ripens in the summer time, and then in fall, when ready, the seed pod literally explodes, shooting the seed over 20 feet away.  The seed takes two years to germinate (assuming they aren’t eaten by birds).  These seeds are white and oily on the inside and are edible, supposedly tasting somewhat like pistachios.  This plant is unusual as it can have leaves, flower and fruit on the limb all at one time.

It is unclear how the name “Witch hazel” was derived; a popular theory is that it is derived from the word wych which is Old English referring to pliant or bendable branches (root word of wicker) and hazel because the early colonists thought it was related to species Corylus (hazel) due to similarities of bark & leaves.  It is also known as Hazel Nut, Snapping Hazel, Winterbloom, and Spotted or Striped Alder.

American Indians were familiar with this plant and used it medicinally.  The Menominee tribe (who were located in what is now modern Wisconsin) boiled it in water, creating a decoction that was rubbed on the legs to keep them flexible and on the back to relieve back pain.  The Osage (modern Midwest) used it for tumors, skin ulcers and sores.  The Iroquois (modern New York and Canada) brewed a strong tea that was used to combat dysentery, colds and coughs, as a blood purifier, and as an astringent.  The Mohegans (modern Connecticut) made a decoction used to treat bruises, cuts and bites.  Bark, leaves and twigs were used fresh and dried.  I could not find a reference to names by which the various tribes may have known this plant, but it was obviously widely known and used.

English colonists saw the witch hazel and noted its similarity to plants/trees at home, such as the hazel tree (species Corylus) whose flexible branches were used in wattle, fencing and baskets.  In 1588 Thomas Hariot indicated that Indians were using “wich-hazle” to make bows.

Dowsing was an ancient practice where Y shaped branches used to seek water.  Indians did this, and the practice was known in England and Europe.  Supposedly, the Mohegans introduced colonists in their range to dowsing with witch hazel branches.  The branches of the Witch Hazel with their slender Y-shaped configuration were similar to elm branches used for this purpose in England.  One theory links the “witch” part of the name to dowsing, which was considered a form of witchcraft.

Early colonists would have had the chance to observe the Indians making and using their remedies.  This knowledge was accumulated and applied.  Over time, the medical uses evolved. Witch hazel was known for its astringent qualities.  Bark or leaves were made into a bitter tea that would supposedly stop internal bleeding or dysentery.  The tea was also applied as a poultice to ease burns, scalds, insect bites, tumors and inflammation.  Balm was made with an extract of the bark which was soothing to sores and minor burns.  It was also used in a liniment.  The tea was also used as a treatment for hemorrhoids via an enema or compress.

How did it get to England? Witch hazel was one of the first plants adapted to ornamental use in European gardens.  It was known in private botanical collections in London, possibly as early as the mid-17th century.  The Oxford English Dictionary shows the name “witch hazel” in use in the mid-16th century.  It is not known exactly when or by whom the plant was first brought to England.  However, in the 18th century, it was one of many American plants that became known and popular in English garden circles.  “Hazel nut” (one of the common names for witch hazel) is listed in 1826 edition of Culpeper’s Complete Herbal  (additions to Culpeper’s work occurred in editions subsequent to the initial publishing date of 1653).  It was recommended for cough and the drying of mucus from the head; it is also recommended for stopping menstruation and diarrhea.   This corresponds with the known uses for witch hazel.   (It is worth noting that I found no similar medical uses for the English hazel and hazel nuts or philberts.)
Peter Collinson
Peter Collinson (1694-1768) was a Quaker born in London.  A woolen draper by trade, his passion was the study of plants and botany.  Largely self-taught, his trade links allowed him to obtain plant samples from all over the world, and his personal plant collections at his homes at Peckham and later at Mill Hill were remarkable.  (His Mill Hill property is now the site of the Mill Hill School). His trade links with the American colonies and his connection to the Pennsylvania Quaker settlements led him to correspond with Benjamin Franklin, and he became a supporter of the American Philosophical Society which was founded by Franklin in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram (who was a botanist and fellow Quaker).  Collinson introduced German information about electricity to Franklin in 1745, which resulted in Franklin’s electrical experiments, elevating the study of electricity to a science.  

Under the Patronage of Sir Hans Sloane, Collinson became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1728, and published his first paper in 1729.  He had helped with Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of natural curiosities by importing specimens for him from around the world-this may be considered Collinson’s contribution to the British Museum which was founded in 1753 based on the Sloane collection.  He was acquainted with the work of Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist, with whom he became acquainted about 1735 and with whom he corresponded.  Collinson was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1747. 

Collinson had a wide clientele for plant specimens, including the Royal family, Lord Bute, the Duke of Bedford and other wealthy and influential persons. (It is not too much to say that he and the plants he introduced were known to Lancelot “Capability” Brown as many of these people were Brown’s clients.)   He is widely considered to have been influential in introducing the witch hazel to English garden circles.
John Fothergill (1712-1780) was a British physician, philanthropist, and naturalist; he was also a Quaker.  A London physician, he published widely on medical topics, and was very interested in botany.  He was acquainted with Collinson, John Bartram and Benjamin Franklin among others, and was very interested in issues pertaining to the American colonies.  He and Collinson became good friends, and Collinson introduced him to the works of Linnaeus.  He became good friends with Franklin after treating him in London in 1757.  Fothergill had a large botanical garden and studied plants extensively, and is supposed to have introduced a genus of witch hazel into England.  He also became a member of the Royal Society and a member of the American Philosophical Society.
In the mid-1840’s, Theron Pond of Utica, NY was supposedly shown witch hazel’s uses and a means of creating an extract by an Oneida medicine man.  He saw the practical applications of this product and entered into an agreement with the Oneida tribe to make the extract.  He developed it into a skin product called “Golden Treasure” and successfully marketed it.  After he died, it became known as Pond’s Extract.
About the same time (mid-19th century), a steam-distilled witch hazel product was developed; alcohol was added, and the resulting product was popular for skin conditions and also for varicose veins (it acted as a constrictor and relieved the itching associated with them).
A popular ingredient in toilet water, after shave and other similar products, witch hazel is still in use.    My personal favorite product is an alcohol-free, rosewater-based toner.  Witch hazel  is one of a few plant substances approved by the FDA for use as an ingredient in over-the counter medication.  (Many non-prescription hemorrhoid treatments contain witch hazel.)

Images from Wikicommons:

Source materials include:
Bremness, Lesley.  HERBS.  Eyewitness Handbooks.  London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1994.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal & English Physician. Manchester: J. Gleave and Son, Deansgate, 1826.   (c)Harvey Sales, 1981, Spain.  Reproduced from an original edition published in 1826.

American Philosophical Society Website.  “John Fothergill Letters.”  Background note.
The Atlantic website.  “The Mysterious Past and Present of Witch Hazel” by John-Manuel Andriote November 6, 2012.
Dooyoo website.  “The Witch doctor... Witch Hazel.”
The Green Woman’s Garden.  “Witch Hazel Hamamelis virginana.”
The Mill Hill Preservation Society website.  “The Peter Collison Heritage.”

Moonwatcher’s Encyclopedia of Herbs website.  “Witch Hazel Hamamelis virginian L.”

Mother Earth News website.  “Witch Hazel Uses and History.”  January/February 1985.

Quakers in Britain website.  “Peter Collison (1694-1768).”
Stephen Foster Group website.  “Witch Hazel Hamamelis Virgiana  by Stephen Foster.


Lauren Gilbert, author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, lives in Florida.  She uses witch hazel daily.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to learn that the seeds taste like pistachio.


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