Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana, NL:Toverhazelaar)

Witch hazel is one of my favourite shrubs and I am hoping to introduce it to my pavement garden this winter.  When unrestricted its crooked, apple tree-like branches grow to 4 – 6 inches in diameter and the whole shrub can reach around 12 feet in height.  However it can also do well in small spaces, such as large pots or pavement gardens (geveltuinen). It grows best in moisture retentive, acid to neutral soil and is adapted to living in light shade.  Witch hazel is also tolerant of polluted city air and its unusual yellow October flowers make it a good option for the urban herbologist.

The leaves and bark of Witch hazel are very useful.  They taste bitter, containing tannic and gallic acids as well as a volatile oil.  Its effects are  astringent, tonic and sedative so preparations of Hamamelis virginiana are often used to treat internal and external bleeding.  The most well known uses of this herb are for treating piles, bruises and inflammatory swellings but it is sometimes used for diarrhoea, dysentery and mucous discharges.  Please be aware that using Witch hazel internally should only be done under expert guidance.  Due to its astringent effect, Witch hazel distilled extract (available cheaply from many chemists) makes a great skin toner.  I used it as a teenager, it works well and I think it smells great.  These days I use it mostly for treating bruises.

Chips of dried Hamamelis virginiana bark can be obtained from herbal suppliers.  You may find this beautiful shrub in local parks, hedgerows and areas of woodland.  It is also a fairly popular garden shrub due to the unusual winter flowers.  Apparently it is very difficult to propagate Witch hazel by cuttings and the edible seeds (if you can find them as they are dispersed far and wide by explosion) can take over a year to germinate.  I am hoping to take a winter cutting from a friend’s plant very soon.  I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who has been successful in this.

Witch hazel can be used in many ways;

  • Tea (made from the leaves and young twigs or bark, fresh or dried) can be applied directly to piles or dabbed onto bruised or inflamed areas of skin.  This also makes a milder skin toner than the distilled extract, often good for acne, oily skin and shrinking bags under the eyes.
  • Tincture, best made from the bark.
  • Fluid extract, if you can squeeze the juice out, can be included in ointments to calm varicose veins.
  • Distilled extract, easily obtained from chemists, great for dabbing onto bruises, insect stings and bites, applied very quickly as a compress for burst varicose veins – which are life threatening and need immediate medical attention. Can be applied to intact varicose veins as a soaked lint bandage, wrapped gently around the area loose enough to allow the blood to flow unrestricted.
  • Powdered bark, if you can make it then this can be applied to piles when combined in a cream or paste.
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