The Folklore and Medicine of Witch Hazel
Written by Mary Plantwalker
Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana, Hamamelidaceae) is our kinky, golden-star flower shrub or small tree that blooms in cold weather when all other flowers are absent from the landscape. These flowers are long-lived, as they patiently wait for weather warm enough to wake up an array of possible pollinators, from gnats to flies to moths. The witch hazel flowers know they gotta get it while they can, and still, only one percent of the flowers will ever develop into seeds.
In this article, Juliet shares a humorously explosive story about the seed’s clever dispersal methods. Another name for the witch hazel tree is bead wood because its tiny seeds make a beautiful, hard and shiny, black nugget that can be used as jewelry.1
More of the Lore Behind Witch Hazel’s Name
John-Manual Andriote wrote that witch hazel is “one of the few products that’s both FDA-approved and endorsed by real witches.”2Now that is a special plant! But which witch is witch hazel?
I suppose once a medicinal plant has the name witch in it, it’s bound to be seen as magical in some way. Witch as we use it today, comes from the old English word wicca, or wizard. It is said, though, that the “witch” in witch hazel originated instead from the Middle English word wiche, which means “to bend.” Think about wicker, which comes from the same root word, meaning “pliable branches that bend.”3
Another interpretation is that the name derives from the use of witch hazel’s branches for dowsing, also called “water witching.” Yet another idea is that it stems (pun intended) from the Middle English word wicke, meaning “lively,” which describes how the stems become alive and move when water is detected below.
Still others believe its name comes from the shape of a gall that’s sometimes found on the leaf, caused by an aphid, that looks like a witch’s hat.4And one last reason for the name witch that I have come across over the years is that the witch hazel plant flowers near Samhain (Halloween), evidently from a witch’s spell. Well, which witch do you believe?
The hazel part of witch hazel’s name is derived from the resemblance of its leaves to those of the hazelnut (Corylus americana) tree, both being broadly oval and scalloped. They are distantly related, but one way they are different is that witch hazel leaves are asymmetrical at the base. There is also a white bottlebrush flower cousin in the Hamamelidaceae family called witch alder, of the Fothergilla genus, so witchy-ness indeed spreads!
Dowsing is an ancient art that has yielded successful results for centuries for locating both water and precious metals underground. Dowsing has been referred to as far back as Homer, when he writes in The Odyssey about the divining rod called the Caduceus that ended up in the hands of Asclepius, the old Greek God of Healing. That divining rod, with its head of entwined serpents, is what eventually became the well-known symbol of medicine.5
The Mohegan Tribe, in what is now called Connecticut, is believed to have been the first to show settlers how to use witch hazel sticks for dowsing by taking a branch and cutting it into the shape of a “Y” then walking with the end of the Y in front, hovering it over the earth. In A Natural History of Trees, author Donald Peattie says folks would use witch hazel branches that were naturally forked, “whose points grew north and south so that they had the influence of the sun at its rising and setting, and you carried it with a point in each hand, the stem pointing forward. Any downward tug of the stem was caused by the flow of hidden water.”6
When a dowser uses metal rods, they are “L” shaped. Regardless of the tool, it is the dowser who must be sensitive to almost imperceptible changes in movement, whether the device be L or Y shaped, metal or wood. Witch hazel has been given the most attention over the years as the preferred wood for successful water witching, but if you live in an area where witch hazel does not grow, Lee Barnes, President of Appalachian Dowsers, says other springy-type branches can be used. Another local dowser agreed that any forked branch from a flexible tree would work fine, including willow (Salix spp.), maple (Acer spp.), or apple (Malus spp.).
Witch Hazel’s Benefits in Folk Medicine
Itching? Got varicose veins? Sore muscles? Hemorrhoids? What does witch hazel do that helps relieve all of these things? It has an affinity for blood flow health—I think of it as a plant being that can tell what the blood vessels’ needs are. Too much blood in an area? Too little? Witch hazel balances out the flow with innate intelligence.
The late James Duke was so enamored with the benefits of witch hazel that he assumed the “H” in Preparation H (an over-the-counter hemorrhoid product) stood for Hamamelis (the genus of witch hazel)!7The buds, leaves, twigs, and bark have long been used by both indigenous peoples and early settlers wherever it grew. In Appalachian folklore, witch hazel is one of the more widely used medicines. Grandma was almost always sure to have some witch hazel in her apothecary, ready to fix whatever was ailing you.
Witch hazel extract is used for countless ails: poison ivy rash, burns, acne, eczema, gum inflammation, sunburn, tired and achy muscles, eye strain, bruises, sprains, insect bites, and so on.8Ritually, it has been used to keep away evil and heal broken hearts.
Witch hazel is also a vulnerary herb, and I have heard it referred to as the “wound healer.” I can speak from experience that it is most certainly a “wound reliever.” What a nice tingling sensation it leaves on the skin after using it as a poultice, a compress, or just as a splash. Most of its uses are for topical applications but it can be used internally as well. It has even been recorded to help with internal bleeding.
Indigenous Uses of Witch Hazel
In upstate New York, the Iroquois use an infusion of dried witch hazel leaves for sore throats, colds, and diarrhea. Hot water is poured over fresh leaves to make poultices for sprains and swellings, which simultaneously eases pain and promotes healing, and the leaves are then crushed to place on bruises.
On the western edge of Hamamelis virginiana’s range, the Osage make medicine from the bark to treat skin ulcers and sores. A lame back can be helped with compresses of witch hazel. The species most likely in use is Hamamelis vernalis—which blooms in late winter/ early spring, as its species name indicates—another medicinal witch hazel native to North America.
The Potawatomi, originally from what is currently known as the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, have a tradition of using witch hazel in their sweat lodges. By placing the young branches on top of the hot rocks inside the lodge, sore muscles can be eased. Perhaps there is an energetic quality that comes from the witch hazel steam as well.
Preparations and Properties of Witch Hazel Medicine
Parts Used: Bark, twigs, leaves, and buds
Medicinal Preparations: Tincture, infusion (leaves and buds), decoction (bark and twigs), liniment, compress, poultice, steam, wash, distillate*
Tincture ratios and dosage: Fresh bark and twigs 1:2 80%; dry bark and twigs 1:5 40%.
Infusion ratios and dosage: 1 Tablespoon (15 ml) of the dried leaves or green buds per 1 cup (240 ml) of water three times a day.
Decoction ratios and dosage: 1 Tablespoon (15 ml) of the dried bark or twigs per 1 cup (240 ml) of water three times a day.
*Note: Witch hazel preparations sold in drugstores are made from a steam distillation of the twigs, preserved with alcohol. They are much less potent than a standard tincture or tea.
- Tannins (hamamelitannin, catechols, and proanthocyanidins)
- Volatile oils
Relaxing in the Sitz Bath
One beneficial way to use witch hazel is in a sitz bath. Sitz baths are a shallow bath used to direct healing and blood flow to the genital area and/or anus. During my pregnancies and in postpartum, I used sitz baths to protect, tone, and strengthen my perineum and anal tissue. Blood supply to the area of concern is increased while soaking in a sitz bath of witch hazel by toning the blood vessels, tightening membranes, and repairing inflamed and sore skin.
Sitz Bath Recipe
- Minimum 1 quart (1 liter) extract of chopped plant material—more is great!
- 1 to 2 gallons (3.5 to 7 liters) of water
Harvest witch hazel’s branches and bark any time of year, or the fresh leaves and new bud growth in spring. Always make certain if gathering bark from the trunk to only take it from one side of the tree. Removing bark from the entire circumference of a tree or shrub will kill it. I prefer to strip the bark from small limbs or branches in order to limit the harm to the tree. See this article on ethical wildcrafting for guidance if you are new to foraging.
Take any of the woody plant material, bring it to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes, covered. Turn off heat, add the tender leaves/buds, and cover. Steep for an hour or more (the more plant material you add and the longer it steeps, the stronger the sitz bath brew will be).
Fill a bath with enough warm water to completely cover your pelvic floor. Now strain the witch hazel extract and add the liquid to the bath. Soak in the tub for 20 minutes. Whatever the issue is that you are addressing with the sitz bath—hemorrhoids, postpartum tears and soreness, rash—send positive energy to that area and take deep belly breaths while soaking. Visualize the witch hazel and your body doing a marvelous healing dance together!
Witch Hazel Compress Recipe
The same astringent action of witch hazel that helps stop bleeding can tighten the pores of troubled skin and strengthen the muscle fibers of veins, making witch hazel a fantastic candidate for compresses. Applying it as a hot or cold compress (a cloth soaked in witch hazel decoction) can help increase blood flow to sore or injured areas. Compresses bring comfort.
- 1 cup (240 ml) extract of chopped witch hazel bark, twigs, leaves and/or green buds
- 1 quart (1 liter) water
- Cotton cloth
Take any of the woody plant material, bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes, covered. Turn off heat and add the tender leaves/buds and keep covered. Let steep for an hour or more. Strain and bring the witch hazel extract back up to a very warm temperature but do not boil.
Soak the cotton in the infusion/decoction, fold and ring out over the pot so you can reuse that liquid. Make it as hot as you can comfortably tolerate. Apply compress to the area of concern. Cover the compress with another towel (and hot water bottle if you have it).
Leave compress on for five minutes then consecutively repeat so that the heat can work along with the witch hazel medicine. Do this at least three times in a row, and, depending on the severity of the issue, even several times a day.
Sore Muscles Liniment Recipe
This easy recipe brings relief to feet, calves, arms, neck—anywhere you feel just tuckered out. Shake your liniment before each use, then pour some on a light cloth or directly onto the sore muscle, and massage in. You may want to put some in a spray bottle for easier application.
To begin, follow this recipe for tincturing witch hazel by harvesting the twigs, leaves, and buds in spring and adding it to 190-proof organic (if possible) grain alcohol. If it is not spring, you can still make a good witch hazel tincture by harvesting twigs, leaves, or the outer bark if you know of a big healthy stand. Make at least a quart of the tincture so you can use it for a myriad of recipes. See this article for even more medicinal recipes that use witch hazel tincture.
- ½ cup (120 ml) witch hazel tincture
- 7 drops Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) essential oil
- 7 drops Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil
- 7 drops Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) essential oil
- ⅓ cup (80 ml) distilled water
Once the witch hazel tincture is complete, strain, measure out ½ cup (120 ml) of it and add the essential oils and distilled water. If stored in a cool, dry place, this liniment can last a year or more (if you have not already used it up by then). Make sure to use a rubber or plastic lid, as metal will corrode and make it almost impossible to open the container.
Baba’s Aftershave Recipe
My husband grew up in Lebanon where he recalls his father (called Baba) using witch hazel as an aftershave. Maybe his father used it because he was from the United States, or maybe witch hazel products had reached the far corners of the globe way back then. In any case, we have adapted Baba’s original aftershave which was the drugstore distillation, to a more potent one you can make right at home. The antioxidant qualities of witch hazel can prevent wrinkles, so this aftershave serves not only as a comforting splash to prevent infection or irritation, but as an anti-aging boost to skin too!
Note: This recipe needs to be made in small batches since you will want to keep it in the bathroom for convenience—where its shelf life is no more than a month.
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup (240 ml) witch hazel extract of chopped witch hazel bark, twigs, leaves, and/or green buds
- ¼ cup (59 ml) witch hazel tincture
- 5 drops of essential oil of choice (the aftershave smell you like most)
Make your decoction by bringing to a boil almost two cups of water with the woody plant material then simmer for 20 minutes, covered. Turn off heat and add any tender leaves/buds and then cover again. Let steep for 10 to 30 minutes.
Strain one cup (240 ml). Once this has cooled completely, add the tincture and your essential oil of choice. Make sure you have researched that the essential oil you choose is safe for facial skin.
Please don’t let the time of year or availability of bark (or no bark) stop you from experimenting with your own witch hazel medicine making! If you have access to just witch hazel twigs, or perhaps only have permission to harvest the leaves—whatever part of the witch hazel tree it may be—make your extract or tincture with that. Witch hazel is strong, and all of these parts of the plant at any time of year will yield medicine more potent than any distillation you could buy at the pharmacy.
- Munroe D. The Trees of Ashe County, North Carolina. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers; 2017.
- Andriote J.M. The Atlantic, “The Mysterious Past and Present of Witch Hazel.” https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/11/the-mysterious-past-and-present-of-witch-hazel/264553/ November 6, 2012.
- Durant M. Who Named the Daisy? Who Named the Rose? A Roving Dictionary of Wild Flowers. Congdon & Weed, Inc.; 1976.
- Spira T. Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont. The Univ. of North Carolina Press; 2011.
- The American Society of Dowsers, “Dowsing History” https://dowsers.org/dowsing-history/ accessed November 29, 2019.
- Peattie D.C. The Natural History of Trees. University of Nebraska Press; 1980.
- Duke J., Ph.D. The Green Pharmacy. Rodale Press; 1997.
- Gibbons E. Stalking the Healthful Herbs. McKay Co.; 1966.
Meet Our Contributors
MARY PLANTWALKER (Mary Morgaine Squire) has been practicing yoga and meditation while steeping herself in the plant world for the past 27 years. She is a writer, mother, avid gardener, yoga teacher, and plant ambassador. In the 1990s, she earned her BA in Journalism and Sustainable Living from Fairhaven College, and has since traveled the world meeting and learning from as many plants and indigenous healers as possible. As an active earth steward, Mary is called to protect and care for Herb Mountain Farm, the incredible land she stewards in western North Carolina, while encouraging others to do the same wherever they are. Mary is gifted in facilitating ceremony and enticing mindfulness into the everyday, and is passionate about welcoming people into the walk of embracing plants as allies while living in harmony with all beings. You can follow Mary's plant escapades on Instagram.
JULIET BLANKESPOOR founded the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine in 2007 and serves as the school’s primary instructor and Creative Director. She's been a professional plant-human matchmaker for close to three decades. Juliet caught the plant bug when she was nineteen and went on to earn a degree in Botany. She's owned just about every type of herbal business you can imagine: an herbal nursery, a medicinal products business, a clinical practice, and now, an herbal school.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession with her writing and photography in her online programs and here on her personal blog, Castanea. She's writing her first book: Cultivating Medicinal Herbs: Grow, Harvest, and Prepare Handcrafted Remedies from Your Home Garden. Juliet and her houseplants share a home with her family and herb books in Asheville, North Carolina.
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