I love witch hazels. This very small tree or shrub boasts at least two native species, Hamamelis virginiana and H. vernalis. They typically have yellow to orange or red flowers in the early spring and winter. The flowers usually bloom before the leaves, so yellow branches stand out with their four-petaled flowers and red calyxes. Many varieties (often derived from the hybrid H. X intermedia) sport multi-colored or extra-long petaled flowers. There’s a beautiful example of H. X intermedia ‘Sunburst’ in the J.C. Raulston Arboretum. There’s a [full-res version] of a photo I took of the flowers that I’m using as a desktop background.
Michael Dirr (of the [Manual of Woody Landscape Plants]) recommends planting witch hazels together with early-flowering cherries (like the carmine-colored Prunus campanulata varieties) for a “splashy” winter display.
After leafing, witch hazels retain their red calyxes. The leaves are obovate, a little asymmetrical, and dark green with sinuous margins. The plants themselves tend to prefer a more moist environment and tolerate most light conditions. Fall leaf color is yellow.
Witch hazel probably received its name from a homophonic Middle English word for bendy or pliable and not from “witch” as we know it today. Witch hazel is not closely related to actual hazels, but they were both used as [dowsing] or water-finding rods (or divination rods, witching rods, or water-witching rods). Because hazel was a preferred dowsing rod in English, the American plant also became known as hazel. Dowsing is still practiced today but the preferred rods are reportedly made of brass.
Extracts and infusions of witch hazel bark, leaves, and stems have long been used for their high tannin content and astringent properties. I’m looking for more good documentation, but it was reportedly used by indigenous Americans as well as European colonists. There are numerous references on the internet to preparing your own extracts, tinctures, infusions, and distillations of H. virginiana, none of which I’ve personally tried or advocate. However, it’s one of the remaining herbal extracts that is approved as an over-the-counter drug (and not just an herbal supplement) by the [FDA] as a skin protectant and anorectal treatment.
When I asked my mom about witch hazel, the first thing she said was, “Oh! I can smell it now.” She said her grandmother always had a bottle and they “put it on everything–witch hazel and calamine lotion.” This traditional remedy for cuts, scrapes, and insect bites is still sold in drug stores today. I’m on the younger end of my twenties so I think I may have missed witch hazel’s heyday. I went to the Rite Aid in Cameron Village to search out a bottle to apply to a mild burn on my hand. There was an 86% witch hazel extract in alcohol so I bought that. Witch hazel is also the active ingredient in Preparation H wipes but I didn’t require a hemorrhoid treatment (though it can be used to treat irritation from vaginosis as well).
Anyway, it seems to be soothing. There was an immediate cooling effect (probably from the evaporation of the alcohol) but the pain is noticeably duller. It may be psychosomatic but if the effect is the same it’s okay in my book. It’s also supposed to be good for perpetually oily skin (like mine) so I’ve applied some after washing my face. I’m worried about the alcohol over-drying my skin, but I used to love the now-discontinued Burt’s Bees Wild Lettuce Toner and that had similar proportions (what I bought is 86 per cent active, 14 per cent inert). At the very least it’ll temporarily minimize my pores.
I’ve also heard [rumors] of people using witch hazel Preparation H wipes on their faces to minimize the appearance of wrinkles and body builders using the wipes to temporarily tighten the appearance of their abs. Some women have also used wash clothes soaked in witch hazel to help minimize the appearance of varicose veins.