As a child, I puzzled over the name “Witch Hazel” on the bottle in my mom’s medicine cabinet. Was it a witch’s potion? I’d ask her about it and all mom would reveal was that she used it on her skin. But I secretly imagined the concoction’s magical properties. What superpowers did it possess?
When I began to study wild plants, I gravitated toward Witch Hazel. I soon discovered that the “witching” aspect had to do with dowsing and its superpowers were numerous. For centuries Ozark Witch Hazel has been used for its magical and medicinal properties.
Dowsers or “water witches” used the forked branches to find subterranean water, lost items, or hidden treasures beneath the earth. This practice persists to this day and many rural folk still “witch” to locate a spot for a well or some buried object. Modern witches consider Witch Hazel a magical herb and use it to guard against evil influences and heal broken hearts.
Native tribes and early settlers used the bark and leaves to make teas, salves and poultices. Witch Hazel is highly astringent and helps reduce inflammation by constricting tissues. It was applied externally to wounds, bruises, rashes, bites, burns and piles. The tea was used for colds, fever, sore throat, earache, diarrhea and hemorrhoids.
Witch Hazel is still highly valued and can be found in numerous pharmaceutical products— hair tonics, aftershave, anti-aging creams, hand wipes, suppositories, hemorrhoid pads, poison ivy and bite remedies. You also may have grown up with a bottle of Witch Hazel in the medicine cabinet and I hope you have encountered the beauty of this plant’s unique flowers.
In the dead of winter the small yellow flowers burst forth like fluorescent spiraling plumes and cast their spicy floral scent upon the chilly air. How bold to bloom when the world is dark and frozen. How precocious to risk the gods icy wrath and stand alone under the winter sun.
Ozark, or Vernal, Witch Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is a fascinating plant to observe and can be found along creek beds and scattered in river valleys in the Ozark plateau in Missouri, Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. Living for a hundred years and growing up to 10 feet tall, this native shrub begins blooming in January. The flowers consist of yellow feathery aromatic petals with reddish purple centers that last for about a month. During the spring and summer, the plant becomes a lush backdrop for wildflowers. Autumn sees the leaves turn a rich yellow that fill the understory with a golden hue as pods explode seeds onto the forest floor.
Witch Hazel is a treasured addition to the native woodland garden and the city landscape. Just thirteen years ago, I planted 75 seedlings that I purchased from the Missouri Conservation Department. Well over half survived and thrived. We now have a thick grove currently in full bloom. I cut branches decked with the small gold and red feathery bundles and bring their sweet pungent scent inside – a sure cure for cabin fever.
The use of Witch Hazel from generation to generation reflects its versatile role in both the past and the present. Witch Hazel has been and continues to be a magical plant, an ancient herbal remedy, a medicine cabinet necessity, and a garden delight. My childhood intuition has been confirmed – Witch Hazel possesses superpowers.
To order seedlings, go now to mdc.mo.gov and click on Seedling Order Form. A bundle of 25 seedlings cost $8.00 plus $5.00 shipping. If you’d like to try starting from seed, contact me.
Pat Tuholske is the facilitator of Elemental Earthcamp “off the grid” eco-camp and shamanic retreat. Go to elementalearthcamp.com or call 636-274-3697 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.