For most of the year, it can be easy to miss witch hazel amid the pines, oaks, hickories and maples of its native eastern North American woodlands. But come November, when these larger trees have lost their leaves and gone to seed, smaller, shrubbier witch hazel bursts into bloom. Explosions of pale yellow flowers crowd its slender branches and often last well into December.
Despite its name, the plant has little to do with witches. The “witch” of witch hazel is likely derived from the Anglo-Saxon wych, meaning “pliant” or “bendable.” It refers to the plant’s historical use as a divining rod (or witching stick) to locate underground sources of water or precious minerals. Witch hazel’s real magic, however, lies in its mild astringent and antiseptic properties, which are useful for treating inflamed or irritated skin.
Household first-aid kits have long included distilled witch hazel water, one of the few widely available commercial medicines made from a wild native plant. Witch hazel is a classic astringent—the tannins in its leaves, bark and twigs help treat a variety of skin conditions. Various preparations of witch hazel are used topically to stop bleeding from minor cuts and abrasions; calm inflamed mucous membranes and skin, such as with eczema; and decrease the size and symptoms associated with varicose veins and hemorrhoids.
Witch hazel contains many types of tannins, including catechins (also present in green tea and chocolate), which have potent antioxidant properties and may be antiviral and anti-inflammatory. In a clinical study, researchers used a witch hazel ointment on 231 children with diaper rash, skin inflammation and minor skin injuries, and a pharmaceutical ointment on 78 children with similar conditions. The dose and duration of treatment were left to the discretion of the primary care physician for each child, and symptoms were rated over the course of seven to 10 days. Both the witch hazel and the pharmaceutical ointment improved skin appearance and symptoms over the treatment period.
EXTRACT: Many forms of witch hazel begin with a distillation of the leaves, bark and/or twigs. This liquid is added to ointments or creams and then applied to the skin.
LIQUID: Witch hazel water is made by soaking plant parts in water and distilling the mixture. Alcohol is added to keep the distillate from spoiling. Tinctures and other preparations used by herbal medicine practitioners are usually stronger than distilled witch hazel water.
For more on how to use witch hazel, read 9 Uses for Witch Hazel.
Although witch hazel preparations can be consumed orally, there is some concern about ingesting the tannin compounds; they may cause stomach troubles and kidney or liver damage and interfere with the absorption of vitamins and minerals. There are very rare reports of allergic reactions to topical witch hazel products, and some people develop redness and a burning sensation when witch hazel is applied to the skin.
Republished with permission from The National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs. Copyright ©2010 National Geographic Society. This useful guide features 72 plants that can help treat the nervous system, circulation, sore muscles and more.
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