The wind is beginning to whistle around the house, the moon was full just the other night, and All Hallow’s Eve is only a couple days away. Is it any wonder that my thoughts occasionally drift toward witches? And not just any witch, but one with a first name: Witch Hazel!
Witch Hazel—a spooky sort of name for a long-time tonic and remedy. The autumn hillsides in this valley are covered now with leaves, but occasionally along the path the dog and I take for our walks, I’ll see a leggy shrub with plain gray branches covered with feathery yellow blossoms. The naked branches of the surrounding shrubbery make these delicate blossoms even more apparent. I like to cut a few of these branches to put in my autumn bouquets. I especially like to make sure that the branches I clip contain the smallish rounded seed pods that have led to one of the reasons witch hazel has such an interesting name.
These seedpods contain small brown seeds from last season’s blooming—when they are exposed to warmth after a time of cool weather, the pods open and the seeds are expelled. In nature—this means the warm days of spring after several months of cold weather. When these branches are brought into a warm house after a few frosty weeks, the seeds are also expelled—often rather violently and without notice! Not too far a reach to think sorcery, I suppose!
My Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs suggests the name may actually derive from the Old English word wice, which means “pliant”, “…and in fact the limber branches were used as archery bows.” This makes sense; my father is a dowser (someone who “witches” water), and some of the best branches to use in dowsing are the flexible witch hazel or willow.
It’s possible, too, that the juxtaposition of the blooming season in this small tree, may have led to its odd name. “Hazel” is a word used to describe any number of shrubs of the buckthorn family—many of them nut-bearing.
Witch hazel can be found growing in partially shaded moist, sandy soil or along rocky streams in the Eastern United States from New England and south. According to a 2008 article in Yankee magazine, eastern Connecticut is the best place to find this shrub.
Native Americans knew the medicinal value of this plant and used the twigs, bark and leaves in a tea for a tonic and mouth wash. The distilled extract from the plant is mildly astringent, and may have been used in steam baths to help relieve colds and coughing. Today, many people use witch hazel in compresses to treat muscle aches and strains, insect bites, and sunburns. It is often one of the main ingredients in hemorrhoid treatments; found as well in body and massage lotions and facial cleansers. The drying effect of the bottled extract, which can be purchased over the counter at drugstores, is frequently used to combat adolescent acne.
I keep a bottle of witch hazel in my medicine cabinet, and dab it on mosquito bites, small scrapes or burns. The distinct herbal scent is somehow comforting. I like to try remedies that have roots in the past, and I like to think that I could actually distill the extract from the shrubs rooted here.
Witch Hazel. Not so spooky, after all–just a rather “enchanting” story!
This post linked to Fresh Eggs Daily:Farm Girl Blog Fest #6