A Writers Guide to Witch-hazel

Witch-hazel flowers

Witch-hazel flowers

There are four species of witch-hazels in North America, one in Japan, and one in China. Witch-hazels are deciduous shrubs that grow between 10 and 25 feet in height, though sometimes up to 40 feet. The leaves alternate between oval and broad, with smooth or wavy edges. The genus name, Hamamelis, means “together with fruit”, which refers to the flowers blooming at the same time as the fruit matures.

The flowers have long, spidery petals ranging in color from pale to dark yellow, orange, red, and purple; several varieties are two-toned. The fruit consists of a two-part capsule, each containing a single glossy, black seed. The capsule splits explosively at maturity (about 8 months after flowering), ejecting the seeds with force to send the seeds 30 feet away, giving rise to one of its alternative names, Snapping Hazel.

Particulars

Botanical Name: Hamamelis

Common/Folk Names: Snapping Hazelnut (Snapping Hazel), Southern Witch-hazel, Spotted Adler, Striped Adler, Tobacco-wood, Winterbloom, and Witch-hazel (Witch Hazel)

Life Cycle: perennial
Habitat: rich woods and along streams
Blooms: autumn and winter, after it loses its leaves

Smell: leaves are odorless; bark has a slight, mild odor; flowers have a strong spicy-sweet scent
Taste: leaves have astringent, bitter, aromatic taste; bark slight taste; seeds taste like pistachios

Witch-hazel seeds and leaves

Witch-hazel seeds and leaves

Notes

  • The leaves, bark, and twigs of witch-hazel are high in tannins.
  • Witch hazel the astringent anti-inflammatory compound is made from the leaves and bark of the North American Witch-hazel shrub (Hamamelis virginiana). It’s a component of many commercial healthcare products.
  • The witch part of witch-hazel comes from the Middle English wiche or wyche (from the Old English wice), meaning “pliant” or “bendable”.

History

  • Twigs were used as dowsers to find water.
  • “Witch hazel” was used in England as a synonym for Wych Elm, Ulmus glabra.
  • Native Americans used it for skin problems (much like it’s used today).
  • The Iroquois Indians made a tea-like beverage from the dried leaves that they sweetened with maple syrup. The unsweetened version was used as a remedy for diarrhea and dysentery.
  • It’s used as a poultice on sores, bruises, and swelling.
  • It’s also used as a remedy for psoriasis, eczema, ingrown nails, prevention of face sweating, cracked or blistered skin, sunburns, insect bites, poison ivy as well as a treatment for varicose veins and hemorrhoids.

Lore

  • Burning witch-hazel banishes unwanted emotions and removes hexes.
  • Spells and rituals use witch-hazel for balance (I assume balancing the spell not the spell caster), protection, inspiration, banishing, and love divination.

In the Language of Flowers, it means: a spell is on me

This is a reference for fiction writers and should not be taken as medical or spiritual advice.

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35 Comments

  1. Hi Holly – fascinating read about witch hazel – love the nuts … especially when they're fresh from the tree. We used to have witch hazel at my grandmother's after jelly fish stings … we screamed even more! But I love the bushes and trees … and their history yes goes back to pagan times … cheers Hilary

    1. Ouch! Yes, I would screm too!

  2. A plant that's beneficial all the way around. Never seen one blooming – I would definitely remember those freaky petals.

    1. Same here. Seeing them in a snowy winter would be a sight too.

  3. My grandmother and mother believed in the healing power of witch hazel.

    1. Mine too. I think everyone had it in the cupboard when I was a kid. Now, not so much.

  4. My grandmother swore by Witch Hazel. I think she applied to just about everything.

  5. I knew a few of these facts, but was unaware of the others. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I recall seeing a plastic bottle of liquid labeled "Witch Hazel". I have no idea what she used it for, but it struck me as interesting as I'd never seen it in the stores. But I never looked for it either.

    Arlee Bird
    <a href="http://tossingitout.blogspot.com/2017/03/theme-reveal-atozchallenge-its-about.html">Tossing It Out Theme Reveal: It's About Time</a>

    1. I use to see it in the drugstore.

  7. Hi Holly! I use witch hazel astringent on my face at times. Started in my hippie days! I've never see the plant, so thank you!

    1. Ha! Your hippie days. 🙂

  8. I always learn such fascinating tidbits about plants from you Holly. I've used witch hazel off and on for years as an astringent for my face. I'd love to see a live plant of it.

    1. I'd never seen the plant either, but it so cool! I love the flowers.

  9. Love it's meaning in the Language of Flowers, and I swear by my bottled witch hazel. Thanks for sharing this and for a reminder about one of my favorites.

  10. Used as a dowser! I love that. I always wondered if you could just use any old stick to find water, or if it had to be a particular breed of stick.

    Also, as someone who suffers from psoriasis and has tried every trick in the book (since obviously there is no cure), I've not heard about using witch-hazel. I might have to look into that.

    1. I feel for you. My mom had psoriasis, and I remember all the products she used to keep it under control had tar in them.

      1. Yeah, you know that what you've got is bad when smearing coal tar on your skin is the best option you've got.

        Did your mom ever try witch-hazel, out of curiosity?

        1. Not that I know of. It was in the house, but I honestly don't know what it was used for. My mom had prescription stuff and a nightly ritual that took somthing like an hour to complete. It kept it pretty well under control.

  11. I remember them selling bottles of witch hazel for skin when I was younger. Cool article!

  12. I don't think I remember seeing a picture of witch-hazel before. It's very pretty.

    1. I hadn't seen it before either. It's so cool, too.

  13. i always think of witch hazel used for bleaching mustache hair! dont't ask me why… fun details – as usual =)
    happy spring!

    1. I didn't read that one. Interesting.

  14. The exploding part is quite cool. Never knew about a plant doing that!

    1. Me either! This plant is just awesome in every aspect.

  15. I used to use bottles of this on the horses' inflamed legs when I worked at a show-horse barn. I had no idea the flower petals looked like that. "The flowers have long, spidery petals" – you aren't kidding. Those things totally look like freaky alien spiders! Yikes! Thanks for all the info!

    1. Wow, good for horses too! Ha! They do look alien.

  16. Witch hazel looks very pretty. I'll check it out, although it seems like a lot of people swear by it.

  17. We used witche hazel as a kid but I cannot remember just why we did. Just that we always had it. For the skin I think we used it but I'm not sure if that's a real memory or not.

  18. I typed my website in without two slashes. Not sure if that first comment went through or not.

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