Witch hazel  (Hamamelis virginiana): A humble, but amazing native North American shrub. Consider:
- Its bark, twigs, leaves and roots have been used for hundreds of years by native Americans to treat a host of ills.
- It’s one of only a handful of botanicals approved by the FDA as a drug, and its distilled extracts can still be found on most pharmacy shelves.
- Its extracts are used in many cosmetics and skin-care products, including aftershaves.
- It is under active investigation for treating diabetes, skin cancers, chronic-wound care, and many other disease conditions.
- Native Americans used its flexible branches for making bows and harvested its seeds for food.
- Many dowsers still prefer its branches for use as dowsing rods.
- Witch hazel is rare among flowering plants in that its delicate, spidery blossoms open in late fall, alongside last year's fruits, and after its leaves have fallen.
Witch hazel for household first aid
You can find many witch-hazel-containing products on drugstore or health-food-store shelves. Most of them are distilled products that usually contain about 14 percent of either ethyl or isopropyl alcohol as a preservative.
Generations of Americans have used ordinary drugstore witch hazel as a mild antiseptic and astringent, an aftershave, a toner for oily skin, to soothe the pain and itch of bites, strings, sunburns, bruises and abrasions. It helps shrink hemorrhoids and undereye puffiness. Generations of new moms have used gauze pads soaked in witch-hazel to ease the pain of episiotomy or perineal tears after childbirth.
Many people have trouble getting used to witch hazel’s odd smell, but it dissipates quickly after use. Lots of health-food store products containing witch hazel extracts mask the smell by adding essential oils of rose, lavender, or other aromatic herbs.
Make your own decotion or tincture
Non-distilled witch hazel products—tinctures and infusions—capture more of the plant’s natural astringent compounds (called tannins), most of which don’t survive the distillation process. Herbalists say the plant has other beneficial compounds, too.
You can make these yourself if you have access to witch hazel trees in neighboring woods. (Use the native species, Hamamelis virginiana, rather than the ornamental varieties sold in plant nurseries.) Here’s how:
Prune a few handfuls of twigs and small branches (please prune with care* so you don’t injure the tree). Then cut the twigs into small pieces, after peeling and scraping as much of the bark as possible from the twigs into your container with a sharp tool. The bark, especially the inner bark, contains the highest concentration of healing compounds.
- For a water-based witch hazel decoction, place the chopped twigs and scraped bark into a stainless-steel pot; cover completely with water (use distilled water if you have heavily treated water), bring the contents to a boil, then cover the pot and reduce heat and simmer for at least half an hour. Keep the twigs covered with water. Set in a cool place overnight, then strain into glass jar. Refrigerate and use within a few days.
- To make a long-lasting alcohol tincture, place chopped bark and twigs in a large glass jar and cover with vodka. Let it sit in a dark, cool place for six weeks, then strain and store, covered, in a glass jar, also in a cool, dark place. To use, dilute a couple of tablespoons in half a cup of water, soak clean gauze, washcloth, or cotton balls in the mixture, and apply.
Use the decoction or the dilute tincture on hemorrhoids, poison ivy, sunburns, bites and swellings, to soothe varicose veins, and as a wash for tired muscles. You can also put some of the decoction or the diluted tincture into a spray bottle to spritz onto wounds, bruises, and itchy areas.
Although you may see references to sipping witch hazel teas and tonics for diarrhea and other conditions, most herbalists recommend using it internally only under the care of your healthcare professional.
* To prune: Use a set of good scissor-type pruning shears. Locate the collar, the rough, swollen area at the base of each branch you plan to cut. Then locate the branch bark ridge (dark, raised area of compressed bark). Make your cut just outside the bark ridge and collar. This will allow the tree to heal its wound and prevent decay from spreading into the trunk.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.