Witch hazel is a low growing shrub native to North America. It has a long history of use medicinally, and cultivation of the bush has spread to Europe for this purpose. Preparations of it ranging from tinctures to soothing creams are available in most drug stores, as well as specialty stores for skin care. The plant acts as an astringent, firming and tightening tissue and acting to reduce itching and irritation. Other properties have also been ascribed to witch hazel, making it an excellent all-purpose addition to the medicine cabinet.
Four species of witch hazel are included in the genus Hamamelis. All of the plants have simple alternating leaves with wavy edges, and bright yellow flowers that appear in the fall. Simultaneously, the fruit of the flowers from the previous year matures. When the seeds have fully ripened, the pods crack open explosively, ejecting the seeds into the surrounding area. This trait has led to another common name, snapping hazel.
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Some people erroneously believe that the plant name is related to witches. In fact, the origins are a bit more mundane. The “witch” is merely a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word wych, meaning flexible. The branches of this plant are well known for their pliancy. However, the plant does have some mystical associations, since the branches are said to make very suitable dowsing rods.
Distillations, tinctures, and teas of the witch hazel plant have been used for hundreds of years to treat a wide assortment of ailments. To create a distillation, the plant is steamed to extract the valuable volatile oils. Tinctures are made with bark suspended in alcohol to leach out its useful compounds, and teas are made with leaves, bark, and flowers boiled in water. For internal applications, tea is used. Tinctures and distillations are intended for external use.
Research conducted on witch hazel suggests that it acts in a number of ways. As an astringent, it can pull the irritation out of insect bites, sun burns, and sore muscles. It can also be used as a toner on the face and body, or to soothe irritated tissue. It also appears to have some surface numbing properties, which is why it is used on sore muscles. Some skincare lotions and creams contain witch hazel, as do shaving products. It can also be purchased in the form of a pure extract or tincture.