Other names: Winterbloom, Snapping Hazel
The witch hazels are shrubs or small trees. There are six identified species of witch hazel (see below). They all have oval leaves, alternately arranged on the stem. Most bloom in early spring, producing red, orange or yellow fringy-looking flowers with four, slender petals that appear while last year’s fruit is still maturing on the stem. The fruit is a small two-part capsule with each part containing a glossy black seed which it forcefully ejects when it bursts upon upon maturity.
The name witch hazel is also used for Wytch Elm or Scots Elm Ulmus glabra, native to Europe.
Witch hazel is not closely related to the hazel Corylus genus of trees but do have some similar characteristics.
History and Etymology
Witch hazel is an American native that was well known and utilized by the Native American people before the Europeans arrived and identified it with plants back home and named it accordingly. In the 1700s, European gardeners were planting American witch hazel in their gardens to enjoy the late season blooms, but by the 1900s, Chinese Witch hazel with it’s red winter blooms had overtaken it in popularity.
The name witch hazel refers to the flexible nature of the twigs. The word “witch” comes from Old English wice meaning “pliant, weak, bendable” from Proto-Indo-European *weyg “to bend, to turn, to yield”. The “hazel” part of the name may have come from the use of witch hazel branches for dowsing as hazel branches are also used for this.
The folk name “snapping hazel” refers to the tendency of the seed capsules to explode upon maturity.
The folk name “winterbloom” refers to the tendency of these shrubs to have blooms either very late or very early in the season compared to other plants.
The genus name Hamamelis means “together with fruit” referring to the tendency of these plants to retain last year’s fruit while the new year’s flowers are blooming.
Witch Hazel in the Garden
Witch hazel is an excellent addition to a garden if you are interested in attracting and feeding pollinators because it blooms in late autumn when very few other things are blooming. American Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms in late autumn, curling up its flowers on frosty days and opening them up again when on warm days. The other species all bloom very early in the spring.
Witch hazels are denizens of the wetlands and enjoy moist areas of the garden with rich soil full of organic matter, though, once established they can put up with some dry periods. They don’t tend to mind a bit of shade, but bloom best in full sun.
Witch Hazel Species
There are four known witch hazel species native to North America
- Hamamelis virginiana American or Common Witchhazel is small tree (10 feet or so, though 30 feet has happened) that produces bright yellow blooms in the autumn, September–November. It grows in wetlands throughout North America and is hardy from zones 4-8. This was brought to Europe in the 1700s as an ornamental, but Asian species are more popular now. This is the one you want to use for medicine.
- Hamamelis mexicana Mexican Witch Hazel. Native to Northern Mexico, this shrub or multi-branched tree, is a more winter-tender plant that does not like extended periods of freezing. It has yellow flowers that appear in late winter to early spring.
- Hamamelis ovalis Big-leafed witch hazel is a rare and relatively newly discovered (2004) species native to the long-leafed pine woods of Southern Mississippi(Note-it has apparently been spotted in Alabama as well). Its leaves are 2-3x bigger than other North American species and it produces orange-red flowers in the late winter. This is a small, shrubby species that doesn’t tend to get larger than 8 feet and height.
- Hamamelis vernalis Ozark witch hazel is native to Central North America’s Ozark region. It produces bright red flowers in late winter. It is reported to be quite fragrant and cultivars have been produced for the garden industry.
Two secies are witch hazel species native to Asia
- Hamamelis japonica (native to Japan) Japanese witch hazel can reach up to 15 feet in height and produces fragrant yellow flowers in late winter to early spring. It is hardy from zones 5-8.
- Hamamelis mollis (native to China) – Bright red blooms in late winter or early spring, a popular ornamental.
Many hybrids of these two species are available in the ornamental markets.
Medicinal Uses for Witch Hazel
Witch hazel extract or hydrosol is made from the leaves, bark, and twigs of the American witch hazel shrub Hamamelis virginiana. It is used as an astringent and for many skin conditions, to reduce swelling and itching. Among other applications, witch hazel extract and hydrosol has been used in preparations for the treatment of bruises, burns, sunburn, psoriasis, eczema, ingrown hairs and nails, blisters, cracked skin, insect bites, contact dermatitis, including poison ivy rash, varicose veins and hemorrhoids and to rinse and soothe the peritoneal area after childbirth.
Keep witch hazel extract in your herbal first aid kit for minor cuts and abrasions. It can help reduce bleeding and encourage healing. Dab some on bee stings and mosquito bites to help draw out the venom and reduce itching. (Watch for allergic reactions to stings, witch hazel will not save you if you have an allergy!)
Witch hazel is an essential beauty product for many. It may be used as an aftershave and as a daily facial astringent to reduce general redness, shine and puffiness. It can be used as a spot treatment to reduce the appearance of pimples by reducing swelling and resulting redness. A witch hazel compress will reduce swelling anywhere and is especially nice for reducing eye puffiness. A compress is also useful for varicose veins.
Witch hazel is a great addition to baby wipe solutions, but use a non-alcoholic extract or hydrosol (like This one from The Homestead Company) so as not to sting baby’s bum.
I have also used witch hazel to treat hot spots on dogs.
Witch hazel tincture may be gargled for the treatment of swollen gums, sores in the mouth, sore throats and the loss of voice.
Witch hazel has been used internally for diarrhea, ulcers, vomiting blood, and tuberculosis but these uses are not highly recommended today. While witch hazel is generally considered safe for topical uses, there isn’t much information about its internal safety, though there is some speculation that it may cause kidney or liver damage in large doses. If you do choose to use it internally, a tea can be made of the dried leaves- this is sometimes recommended for colitis. I recommend getting a personal consultation with a professional herbalist before doing this.
As with all herbal preparations, it’s a good idea to do a skin test to ensure you’re not going to have an allergic reaction before slathering your body with witch hazel. Just put a little dab inside your elbow and wait at least 24 hours for any sign of redness before you proceed.
Witch Hazel in Magick
Witch Hazel is an American native, thus it did not enter into our European-based magickal system until relatively late in the game. Couple this with the fact that Wytch Elm (Scots Elm) was often referred to as Witch Hazel in Europe and we might have some problems with accurate information. That being said, I will do my best.
Witch hazel branches can be used for dowsing.
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