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Witch Hazel

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Background and History

Perhaps one of the formerly well-known 'first aid' herbs in the West, witch hazel is a small flowering deciduous shrub from the genus Hamamelidaceae, which sometimes take on the characteristics of a small tree. The unique name was said to have come from the Old English word wice or wyce which literally meant "pliable". It was also thought to have been due to a comparative association that the early settlers decided upon due to the local plant's resemblance to another 'witch hazel' in England - the wych elm (Ulmus glabra). Later associations with the esoteric that arose from the plant's having been employed for geomantic workings (see Esoteric / Magickal Uses below) would forever cement the phrase "witch" as a replacement for the homophonic "wych". [1]



Witch hazels are typically shrub-like plants that grow from between nine to twenty-seven feet tall in some species, with old specimens usually measuring close to forty feet in length. They are characterized by dark-green oval leaves with uneven serrations, although some species of witch hazel lack this feature. Witch hazel's foliage is highly noticeable during the autumn season, where the usually verdant greens take on various hues of red, orange and umber. They are also notable for their small yellow or red-hued flowers and tiny, pale-green fruits which occur simultaneously with the nascence of its inflorescence. In all cases, the fruits that are visible alongside the delicate flowers are usually the mature fruits from the previous year. The most noticeable part of witch hazels are their unique flowers, which look a little like yellow dandelions due to the thin filaments that exude from its stamens. The mature fruits of the plant are discernable for its divided 'capsule-like' appearance. Not only do they divide at the centre, the fruits also lose their greenish tinge and begin to take on a brownish to dun-coloured hue. A single fruit will house a singular glossy black seed, typically measuring some five millimetres. At the peak of its maturity, the capsule explodes, effectively scattering the seeds to well beyond thirty feet away from the parent tree. The explosions usually leave an audible and sometimes shocking snap, earning the plant the folkloric moniker of "snapping hazel". [2]

Mature species of witch hazel, especially those types that take on the characteristics of small trees, are highly valued for their bark and leaves, which have been employed since ancient times for various medicinal purposes.

Common / Popular Uses

Nowadays, witch hazels are typically grown and cultivated as ornamental plants, typically employed for landscaping chiefy due to its attractive inflorescence which tends to veer towards the vibrant, as well as the enchanting interplays of colour that can be seen from its leaves during the autumn seasons. Most witch hazels nowadays are strongly cultivated for their flowers, with many horticulturists and florists continuously creating cultivars that display highly desirable floral characteristics, generally judged by intensity and vibrancy of colour, as well as the variety and uniqueness of a particular flower's hue. Most modern landscaping strains are typically situated in historical gardens or sprawling period-style lawns. Smaller species of witch hazel (typically those which are more shrub-like than tree-like) may find a home in a commonplace garden. Being long-lived and typically hardy plants, they are quite easily maintained. [3]



Beyond the horticultural applications, witch hazel is still continuously being employed as a medicinal plant, as it has been since prior to the colonization of the First Peoples Nations of America. The medicinal uses of witch hazel was first produced by Native Americans, who decocted the stems, leaves, and bark of locally available witch hazel and employed it as a remedy for inflammations, swelling, cancerous sores, and even tumors. [4]

The traditional method of decocting witch hazel and employing the decoctions as medicinal remedies was later adopted by the Puritan settlers who came to the Americas. It was said that the employment of local medicinal plants were taught to the pilgrims by the First Peoples with whom they interacted. The use of witch hazel decoction as an astringent, disinfectant, anti-histaminic, and anti-inflammatory medicine persisted in this considerably 'primitive' manner, until one Charles Hawes, a physician and missionary, refined the process by improving the extraction method using steam distillation to create what he referred to as the 'Hawes Extract' - a concentrated essence of witch hazel derived from the twigs and immature branches of the plant sometime in the mid-1840s. His extraction process not only resulted in a more concentrated type of compound that retained all of the original's medicinal properties while subsequently increasing the yield and the efficacy. Later, the procedure was further refined and later on perfected by a certain Thomas Newton Dickinson, Sr., who employed the early concept of steam distilling witch hazel and redesigned it to allow for mass-scale production, with his company, legacy, and original product range still in production to this very day. [5]

The difference between witch hazel extract and decoction of witch hazel lies in the fact that the former is far more potent and thus, far more effective. Regardless of the process involved in making witch hazel extract however, its usage remains the same in that it can be applied topically (as is most commonly done) as an astringent that helps to remedy acne breakouts, relieve swelling, and minimize skin pores. The modern application of witch hazel is commonly used as an organic acne-breakout treatment, as well as a beautifying agent. In older times, witch hazel extract was indispensible and was even a common feature in nearly every medicine cabinet, as it also functioned as a universal disinfectant and antimicrobial agent long before the introduction of ethyl alcohol. Old-school straight-razor shavers consider a small bottle of witch hazel extract essential in any shaving man's repertoire as it was employed as a pre-shave disinfectant, an aftershave skin toner, and (in the event of nicks and cuts), a highly effective styptic. [6]

Witch hazel extract was also employed (in either pure or diluted form) as a general skin-care product, as it was able to moisturize the skin, prevent rashes and infection, soothe diaper rashes, reduce the itchiness and swelling resulting from bug bites, and even facilitate in the faster healing of bruises and wounds. [7] Because it is mostly applied topically, witch hazel is an essential must-have as a first-aid solution to all sorts of topical problems, whether it be fungal infections, dandruff, eczema, allergic reactions, or skin dryness. One of the most well-known uses of witch hazel in ages past was in its employment as a remedy for varicose veins, to which it was originally applied repeatedly to reduce its pronounced appearance, and (in the event of ruptures) to immediately counteract the bleeding and reduce the swelling, thus effectively avoiding any possible complications that may arise. [8] Its potent styptic properties make it an excellent hemostatic first-aid remedy. Bathing in the diluted essence of witch hazel may even help to treat the allergic reaction brought about by contact with poison ivy. [9] It has also been employed to treat a variety of other allergic reactions, not only as a means to relieve the discomfort, but as a byway to facilitate healing as well.

When applied internally, witch hazel, being a very potent anti-bacterial and antimicrobial agent, was even used as an early type of mouthwash. It was (and sometimes still is) employed as an early type of mouthwash, and is beneficial in remedying cold sores, bleeding gums, halitosis, and even mild to moderately severe toothaches. [10] Gargling with a decoction of witch hazel, or using a gargle made from diluted witch hazel essence also helps to remedy sore throat, strep throat, laryngitis, and cough. When heavily diluted and drunk, it can even help to treat diarrhea, indigestion, and dyspepsia. A mild tea made from a mixture of witch hazel, marshmallow root, thyme, and chamomile may help to reduce the severity of colitis and help correct the appearance of watery or bloody stools. [11]

Witch hazel is also excellent for one's pets and oneself, as its potent astringent properties are extremely useful for getting rid of pesky parasites like ticks, lice, and fleas. [12] A very potent decoction of witch hazel or a strong dilution of extract made with water may even be made into a better alternative for bleach. When added to laundered clothes, it provides an unbeatable freshness while disinfecting it thoroughly. Used for general household cleaning, it not only is able to kill most contagious pathogens, but it imbues one's household with an enervating, refreshing aroma.

When mixed with oil or otherwise diluted with honey, it has even been used to tone muscles, remedy arthritis and rheumatism, as well as soothe tired, sore muscles after a long and vigorous exercise. In ancient times, mild decoctions of witch hazel extract have even been used as a healing draught that encouraged the speedier recovery of new mothers right after childbirth.

Esoteric / Magickal Uses

The earliest esoteric usage of witch hazel dated back to the time the early settlers arrived in the Americas. Discerning a similarity to home-grown (that is, English) trees such as elm and yew, they had easily associated witch hazel with powerful divinatory properties, and employed the branches of the tree as a primary choice for the creation of dowsing rods and wands, which, thanks to the often overly zealous attitudes of religious conservatives and elitists of the times, has become the 'condemning' act that set for all of time the associations between witchery and witch hazel. It was said that witch hazel rods were perfect for dowsing since they purportedly had the uncanny knack to bend downward when it detected something of great value (i.e. gold or water). [13]

Employed in modern magick, witch hazel is used as a protective and banishing herb. Very light decoctions of the herb are typically drunk as a means to heal or mend a broken heart as well as to banish unwanted emotions or as a bolster to increase one's inherent psychical and divinatory abilities. The Native Americans employed witch hazel not only as a healing plant, but as a cleansing plant, as its smoke and its infusions were said to help drive away illnesses and negativity. It is often used in Afro-American conjuring as an herb of protection, or as a very fearful de-hexing and exorcising herb. [14]

Witch Hazel Safety Notes

While the general topical or internal use of witch hazel is undoubtedly effective, some extracts of witch hazel as well as some traditional preparations may cause allergic reactions to individuals with very sensitive skin. Prolonged internal intake of witch hazel, or short-term intake of large or very concentrated doses may also be detrimental to one's health and well-being. Due to its powerful emmenagogue properties, pregnant women should avoid using witch hazel internally or externally until the terminus of their pregnancy to avoid the risk of miscarriage. Likewise, individuals who have skin asthma or people who are prone to allergic reactions should avoid the regular use of witch hazel, or otherwise use steamdistillates which tend to be milder than 'drugstore' variety extracts which are obtained through tincturing. It should be noted that drugstore-bought witch hazel extracts should never be employed for internal applications, as it can be poisonous! Extreme care should be taken when using witch hazel internally, keeping in mind that heavily diluted small concentrations of extract, or small amounts of traditionally prepared decoctions go a long way. To avoid any possible complications which may arise, the internal use of witch hazel should only be employed very sparingly.

Witch Hazel - Other Names, Past and Present

Chinese: chiu-lu-mei
Japanese: mansaku
Korean: hama melli seu
French: café du Diable / hamamelis / hamamelis de Virginie / noisetier des Sorcieres
Spanish: avellano de bruja
Italian: amamelide
German: zaubernuss
Dutch: toverhazelaar
English: witch hazel / winterbloom / snapping hazel
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Hamamelis virginiana / Hamamelis vernalis (other nomenclatures exist, depending upon the species)

References:

[1] [2] [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch-hazel

[4 - 5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch_hazel_(astringent)

[6] http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-227-WITCH%20HAZEL.aspx

[7] http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/w/withaz27.html

[8] http://medicinalherbinfo.org/herbs/WitchHazel.html

[9] http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/natural-medicine/herbal-remedies/witch-hazel-herbal-remedies.htm

[10] [11] [12] http://www.onegoodthingbyjillee.com/2012/11/amazing-witch-hazel-the-medicinal-marvel-with-the-funny-name.html

[13 - 14] http://www.nyctophilia.net/plants/witchhazel.htm

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt. © herbs-info.com 2013

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