The Folklore and Medicine of Witch Hazel

We have stirred up a witch hazel brew for you, now tossing even more folklore and medicinal recipes into our Hub for this plant ally!

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.”2 Now 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.4 And 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! 

Hamamelis virginiana

Water Witching 

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)!7 The 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.8 Ritually, 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.

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)


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.

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