Notes from the Apothecary: Witch Hazel
Witch Hazel is the name for six types of hazel-like flowering tree or shrub. Four are native to North America, with hamamelis virginiana being the most commonly used. The hazel part of the name refers primarily to the leaves, which are very similar to those of the Hazel. The ‘witch’ part isn’t as magical as we might hope, sadly. It comes from the Old English word wice which means bendy or pliant, and presumably refers to the twigs.
The Kitchen Garden
Witch hazel is grown either as a decorative plant or for its medicinal qualities. It has strange, curling yellow to orange flowers which brighten up the winter and early spring. You might notice that flowers will appear while fruits are still present on the tree from the previous season, something that can also occur with fruit trees such as apple.
The medicinal witch hazel is generally made from the bark or leaves of the tree. If you have a small shrub in your garden, it’s better to use the leaves if appropriate. Stripping the bark off a garden shrub is likely to kill it. Witch hazel can grow into a fifteen-foot high tree though at which point asking permission for a little of the bark is probably okay.
Witch hazel has a position of pride as one of the only complementary herbal remedies that also has some FDA approval, although retailers and manufacturers have to be careful about the claims they make about its effectiveness. Witch hazel contains flavonoids, tannins and a volatile oil with astringent actions: it pulls flesh back together (somewhat) to stop bleeding. This is why it’s so good for cuts and grazes.
Witch hazel is probably one of the first natural remedies I remember being given, with the possible exception of placing a dock leaf over a nettle sting. My parents would soak a cotton wool ball in witch hazel water and place it over bruises, scraped knees; whatever the injury of the day was. Later in life, my friend recommended it for ‘down there’ after my first child arrived, to help with the healing of the wounds. Some in a maternity pad seemed to help, and was certainly soothing, if nothing else. Obviously, always check with a doctor before self-administering any medication.
Native Americans have had a multitude of uses for witch hazel. The Potawatomi steamed the twigs during a sweat lodge to ease muscle aches. The Osage used the bark for sores on the skin. The Iroquoi made a tea which they used to ease the symptoms of dysentery, which makes sense when you think about the high amount of tannin in the plant.
It’s also been used as a treatment for piles, with some treatments involving injecting the herbal tincture into the affected area. Don’t try this at home!
The Witch’s Kitchen
There’s some delightful folklore associated with witch hazel. It’s worth being cautious that any folklore you find isn’t actually referring to standard Hazel though. This is of particular note with European folklore, as hazel is associated with wisdom and magic, but it’s not witch hazel, as witch hazel is native to North America and didn’t arrive in Europe until probably the 18th century.
Witch hazel twigs have been used for divination, again, like the common hazel. They are used for finding water or treasure, and as such, have a place in any magical ritual or spell to do with finding things.
Witch hazel is also used as a catalyst for magic, to increase occult powers or a connection to the other-worldly. It’s also associated with protection from evil and negativity, and for mending hurts as well inside spirit and soul as well as the bumps and scrapes it heal outside the body.
Home and Hearth
Witch hazel is a folk remedy for snake bites, and a modern remedy for insect bites. As such, it can be said to ‘take the sting out of things.’ Take this literal meaning and make it metaphysical, and use the plant to take the sting out of something that is bothering you or causing you heartache.
If you are lucky enough to have access to the flowers, place some on your altar or in your sacred space. If you can’t get flowers, use some store-bought witch hazel. Dap some on your palms (patch test if you have never used it on your skin before, allergic reactions aren’t fun!) and adopt a meditative pose with palms reaching towards the sky. Visualise the witch hazel soaking into your skin, coursing through your veins, gripping the source of your agony and carrying it to your lungs.
Take a deep breath in through your nose, if you are able. Then breath out the hurt, breathe it all out. Imagine the witch hazel in your system like a friendly cleaner, taking all the toxic self-doubt, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and depositing those feelings in your lungs aaah, a physical mist you can simply breathe out. You can use a candle or artificial light to help focus your mind, or you can simply close your eyes and let the power of your imagination connect you to the healing power of the witch hazel.
I Never Knew…
Due to its astringent properties, witch hazel can be used as a skin toner, closing up pores and making the face seem smoother.
About the Author:
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.