Witch hazel is one of those plants that doesn't get as much love as it deserves. The flowering plant from the Hamamelidaceae family grows wild across the US and is easy to nurture in your own yard, but most people don't know much about it beyond what they've seen in the pharmacy.
That's too bad because witch hazel is invaluable to have around. If you don't know where to get started with the indispensable little plant, this guide will get you on your way.
I have to admit that I had the idea for this article because my goose bit me. Hard. It hurt. He is a bit of a brute, and I was trying to get him to stop attacking the dog.
I went into the bathroom to get the bottle of witch hazel, but I couldn't find it. Luckily, I have a witch hazel growing in my yard. I went outside to the closest tree, grabbed a twig with a couple leaves, and trotted back to the house.
Boil, cool, apply. Ahhhh. Finally some relief. Which got me to thinking: witch hazel is one of those plants that everyone should have within reach.
In this article, we're going to talk about the witch hazel plant and its medicinal properties. I have some great recipes for you to try at home as well.
What is Witch Hazel?
Witch hazel is a deciduous shrub or small tree. It grows 10-20 feet high and needs full sun to partial shade and moist, slightly acid soil. It thrives in zones 3 – 8.
There are several types of witch hazel. The native species of the Eastern United States is Hamamelis virginiana. This cultivar has spread to western states due to its popularity as an ornamental.
There is a less common species, Hamamelis vernalis, which grows mainly in the Ozark Mountains. This species has fiery red flowers and is quite stunning.
In addition to all the wonderful medicinal qualities, witch hazel is a very attractive tree. It's one of the rare ornamental trees that flowers in fall and winter, just before the leaves fall. The foliage turns a pretty yellow before falling to the ground, after which the flowers take over. The flowers will hang around until early December.
When it's time to drop its blossoms, the vivid, fragrant yellow and orange flowers look like little fireworks going off in the sky. In fact, the blooms produce seeds which literally shoot off from the tree, sometimes landing 25 feet from the mother tree.
It's also easy to grow. Young trees can be purchased locally or online. Plant it in the spring or fall. Make sure to water well for its first season.
Witch Hazel History
Sadly the word “witch” in witch hazel does not really reference the witch who does magic spells. But it's great fun to think of the tree stirring its leaves to make a magic concoction.
Witch actually comes from the old English word wice which means bendable. The stems from the tree were used as “divining rods” to look for underground water. It was believed the branch would bend downwards toward the ground when water was present.
Traditionally, Native Americans used witch hazel to treat many illnesses including skin irritations, sore muscles, and dysentery.
In 1846 witch hazel became the first mass-marketed American-made toiletry, originally named Golden Treasure. Today it is used in facial cleansers, shampoos, and astringents by large cosmetic companies like Neutrogena and L’Oreal.
It is also one of the few medicinal herbs to receive FDA approval. Today, prepared witch hazel can be purchased in liquid or cream form at most pharmacies.
Medicinal Properties: What Does Witch Hazel Do For You?
On the skin, winterbloom, as it is also known, is used for bruises, bug bites, and irritations. Herbal medicine for internal use is made from the leaves, bark, and branches.
Historically, witch hazel has been used as a traditional medicine in many cultures. Science has proven that this tradition is justified. One reason it was approved by the FDA is because witch hazel has shown to be effective.
Scientific studies have shown that the compounds found in witch hazel, gallic acid and natural tannin, soothe irritated skin. The tannins can also kill bacteria and reduce erythema, a reddening of the skin.
Witch hazel also reduces harmful free radicals and prevents skin from damage. Scientists are studying witch hazel as a method to help prevent skin cancer.
I can personally attest it soothes bruises including those inflicted by a pet goose!
Is Witch Hazel Safe To Use?
Witch hazel is considered to be very safe when applied externally on the skin for all ages.
Small doses internally are considered somewhat safe. It may cause nausea, and large doses are toxic and harmful to the liver.
Do not use witch hazel internally if you are pregnant.
Making Homemade Remedies Out Of Witch Hazel
Witch hazel is easy to turn into a homemade remedy. If you do not have any plants nearby, you can purchase ready-made witch hazel bark.
Making a witch hazel astringent involves boiling down the bark and/or the leaves.
Witch Hazel Tonic #1
- One-half pound witch hazel bark
- distilled water to cover 1-2 inches above bark
- vodka (optional, used as a preservative)
- Place the bark in a large pan or stockpot.
- Pour in enough distilled water to just cover the bark. It is important to use distilled water which can be found at most groceries.
- Bring to a roaring boil.
- Turn down temperature, cover and simmer for 30 – 45 minutes.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool while still covered.
- Using a colander, strain out the liquid from the bark.
- You can store this liquid for up to one week in the fridge or a cool room.
If you would like to preserve the shelf life of your witch hazel, you can add vodka as a preservative.
Measure the amount of liquid you have. Add one-fourth as much vodka as you have witch hazel liquid. For example, if you have two cups of liquid then add half cup of vodka.
This will give you a shelf life of 6-12 months. Store in a cool dark place.
I keep mine in a cupboard in the bathroom. That way it is handy when I wash my face – if I can find it. This mixture is great for removing dirt and grime after a day in the garden.
Witch Hazel Leaf Poultice
This is my go-to remedy for bruises and bug bites – and when I can't find the bottle of witch hazel tonic.
If you have a witch hazel tree, and it's not winter, you can go pull 3-4 leaves from the tree, or you can purchase dried leaves.
- Place them in a small pot and add just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan.
- Bring to a boil and cook for 1 minute.
- Cover the pan and let cool.
You can wrap the leaves in a piece of cotton or muslin cloth. I typically just take the leaves out of the water and place them on my bruise or bug bite.
Save the water mixture for cleansing or as a backup method you can use a cotton ball to absorb the leaf water and apply it to your skin.
The hardest part, for me anyway, is then sitting quietly and letting the skin absorb the medicinal properties of the herb.
Witch Hazel Facial Spray
You can use the liquid to make a wonderfully refreshing spray for your face. Just be careful not to get the spray in your eyes.
- A half cup of your homemade witch hazel liquid
- A half cup of distilled water
- 8 – 10 drops of essential oil
There are many essential oils to choose from. Your choice will depend on what you want to accomplish. Some ideas are:
Rosemary is also a refreshing cleanser and will add moisturizing.
Lavender is wonderfully relaxing before you go to bed. I like to squirt my pillow with it.
Rose is soothing and helps to reduce fine lines in your skin.
Witch Hazel Shampoo
Shampoos that contain witch hazel are good at relieving dry, red or itchy scalp. The active ingredients will reduce oils and help alleviate dandruff.
Natural shampoos do not lather up the way a commercial shampoo does. Don't be concerned – a lot of that lather is just for show! The important thing is to remove the dirt without irritating the scalp.
- One-fourth cup liquid castile soap
- One-fourth cup homemade witch hazel liquid or 2 tablespoons commercial brand
- 3 drops tea tree essential oil
- 3 drops rosemary essential oil
- A half cup distilled water
- In a bowl mix together water and your liquid.
- Gently stir in castile soap.
- Add essential oils and stir lightly.
- Store in plastic airtight container for up to 8 weeks.
Other Uses For Your Witch Hazel Liquid
Hemorrhoids are another painful skin condition that can be successfully treated with witch hazel. It reduces swelling and provides pain relief. Place witch hazel on a cotton ball and apply to the affected area frequently and after using the restroom.
The active ingredients act as an astringent and can be helpful in reducing acne. After doing your facial cleansing routine, dampen a cotton ball in witch hazel and use it to wipe across your face. Let it air dry on your skin.
Another great benefit is that it can reduce the puffiness under the eyes. Mix one-half cup distilled water with one-half cup witch hazel and carefully dab under your eyes before going to bed. Be careful not to get in your eyes.
Finally, applying the leaves to a cut can slow down minor bleeding.
As you can see, witch hazel is an essential addition to any medicinal garden. Now that you know how to make it work for you, let us know how you're using it. We'd also love to hear any of your favorite recipes. Leave them in the comments below.