Witch-hazel has been a popular remedy for hundreds of years. With its unusual life cycle and its intimidating, yet reverent name, witch-hazel is a fascinating plant you'll want to know.
What is witch hazel?
Witch-hazel is a small deciduous shrub belonging to a group of flowering plants in the genus Hamamelis. The flowers can range from bright yellow and orange to red on top of brown branches. It is also known as “Snapping Hazel,” “Snapping Tobacco Wood,” “Winter Bloom,” and “Spotted Elder.” The name Hamamelis means “together with fruit” because the flowers blossom with the fruit from last year. Hamamelis belongs to the family Hamamelidaceae, which is native to North America, Japan, and China. 
The early European settlers who came to America and encountered witch-hazel gave it the unusual name. The origins of witch-hazel’s name are based on the Old English word “wice” which means “bendable,” and comes from the practice of using the branches of witch-hazel for dowsing rods (flexible twigs or rods that are used to divine water under the ground). A popular branch in England also used for dowsing rods was from the hazel tree. The similar uses for both linked them through witch-hazel’s name, but witch-hazel is not related to the hazel tree. 
Although not meant to be associated with witchcraft, the unexpected blooming of the plant during fall and winter has undoubtedly contributed to its mystical and witch-like association.
What is the history of witch-hazel?
Witch-hazel is believed to have originated in Eastern Asia. The North American species of witch-hazel is considered a sister of the eastern Asian species. It is theorized that the plant spread through migration over the Bering land bridge from eastern Asia into North America during the late Miocene period. When the land later separated as the Bering Strait’s waters covered the land bridge, the species became geographically isolated from one another. 
Native Americans used an extract of witch-hazel made from boiling the stems to treat inflammation and swelling. The early European settlers of New England followed the practice they saw from the Native Americans, and it became very popular in puritan and colonial America. It was brought back to England in the eighteenth century by Peter Collinson, a self-taught botanist and draper by trade, who introduced it to gardening circles in the U.K. By 1836, witch-hazel was included in the popular English publication Cupleper’s Complete Herbal, under the name of “Hazel nut.” 
One of the first attempts at making a commercial extract was studied by Dr. Charles Hawes, a missionary, who discovered that using a steam distillation of witch-hazel’s twigs was more efficient than boiling them. Hawes teamed up with an American chemist, Alvan Whittemore, and sold distilled witch-hazel extract under the name “Hawes Extract” in Connecticut in 1846. 
Simultaneously, in 1846, another American pharmacist, Theron T. Pond, used witch-hazel extract to heal small wounds and cuts made from the bark distilled in alcohol. Pond named his product “Golden Treasure,” but after he died, it was simply called “Pond’s Extract.” It was from this humble beginning that the company we now know by “Pond’s” was created. Pond’s products have been established in the facial cream industry since the late nineteenth century. 
The extraction of witch-hazel was perfected by Dr. Henry Thayer, who chose not to distill the plant because it contained more active ingredients (tannins) when not distilled. Thayer opened Henry Thayer & Company and became a prominent name in the manufacturing of fluid extracts around 1850. 
The commercialization of witch-hazel continued in Connecticut by Thomas Newton Dickinson, Sr., and he opened almost ten production sites throughout Connecticut in 1866. After his death, Dickinson’s two sons each inherited half of the business, and they opened two competing “Dickinson’s” witch-hazel companies. 
Common Types of Witch-Hazel
Most of the six species in the Hamamelis genus bloom January through March, and only Hamamelis virginiana blooms September through November. After the flower has matured in all species, about eight months after blooming, the fruit of the plant splits open forcefully and ejects the seeds contained within the fruit to distances of up to 30 feet. This expulsion of the seeds occurs during autumn and gives witch hazel its nicknames of “Snapping Hazel,” “Snapping Tobacco Wood,” and “Winter Bloom.” 
Types of Hamamelis:
Found in America
- Hamamelis virginiana
- Also known as “American witch-hazel, Hamamelis macrophylla, Hamamelis virginiana macrophylla, Hamamelis virginiana var. henryi, Hamamelis virginiana var. parviofolia 
- Grows from Nova Scotia to Minnesota, eastern Texas, and south to central Florida
- Contains hamamelitannins, a constituent only found in this species 
- Hamamelis vernalis
- Also known as Ozark witch-hazel
- Grows in the Ozark Plateau in Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma through the Ozark Plateau
- Strongly scented flowers that appear late in winter
- Common varieties: Red Imp (red petals with orange ends), Carnea (flowers are pink), and Squib (bright yellow flowers) 
- Hamamelis mexicana
- Hamamelis ovalis 
Found outside of America
- Hamamelis japonica
- Also known as Japanese witch-hazel
- Native to Japan
- Slightly scented yellow flowers
- Blooms in January and February 
- Hamamelis mollis
- Also known as Chinese witch-hazel
- Native to Eastern and Central China (Guangxi, Anhui, Hunan, Hubei, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, and Sichuan)
- Yellow flowers with red base
- Common varieties: Wisley Supreme and Jermyns Gold 
How is witch-hazel extract made?
Witch-hazel can be found in an extracted form or a hydrosol (which is distillate water). Most of the commercial preparations of witch-hazel available for purchase, or included in many brand-name formulas, contain witch hazel extract.
Witch-hazel extract is made from drying the witch hazel plant and then soaking it in a solution of water and alcohol. The medicinal properties of the witch-hazel infuse the solution, and the solution is then labeled as witch-hazel extract.
Witch-hazel hydrosols are made during the extraction of essential oils through steam distillation. The condensate water left behind from this process is the distillate water or hydrosol. During the steam distillation, the steam absorbs some of the constituents and active properties of the plant, and when the steam turns back into its liquid state, the steam distillation contains these active ingredients. 
Witch-hazel labeled “USP” must be a distilled product made from a closed distillation procedure that contains 86% witch hazel distillate from twigs and bark of H. virginiana, combined with 14% pure ethyl alcohol. There are both grain alcohol formulations and standard alcohol formulations. 
You can also make your own witch-hazel extract by boiling ½ pound of witch hazel bark in distilled water for 20 minutes, cooling the boiled mixture, straining, and adding it to pure grain alcohol. Since alcohol can be drying to the skin, some people choose to make the witch-hazel extract without alcohol, but it severely limits its shelf-life. Witch-hazel extract made without alcohol must be kept in the refrigerator for seven days, whereas witch-hazel extract made with alcohol can kept in a cool place for 1-2 years. 
What is witch-hazel made of?
All parts of the witch-hazel plant (leaves, bark, twigs) contain glycosides and gallotanins. The glycosides include flavonols, such as quercetin and kaempferol, chlorogenic acid isomers, and hydroxycinnamic acids. The gallotannins include catechin and procyanidins. Other constituents include alkanes, aliphatic alcohols, alkenes, aldehydes, fatty acid esters, ketones, myricetin, gallic acid, catechol derivatives, and polysaccharides (arabans and arabinogalactans). [1, 15, 16, 17]
Witch-hazel bark contains:
- Sesquiterpenoids 
- Hamamelitannin: 77%
- Gallic acid: 59%
- Gallocatechin: 22%
- Catechin: 39% 
- Tannins: 12% 
- Volatile essential oils
Witch-hazel leaves contain:
- Distinct monoterpenoids 
- Hamamelitannin: less than 0.04%
- Catechins: less than 0.04% 
- Volatile essential oils
Witch-hazel twigs contain:
- Gallic acid 
Witch-hazel extracted via steam distillation removes the tannins, which is a constituent that gives witch-hazel its astringent properties. Witch-hazel water, prepared from steam distillation and containing 14-15% alcohol, does not contain any tannins; and the actual astringent properties of that formulation are due to the alcohol content alone. 
Safety and Side Effects of Witch-Hazel
Witch-hazel can cause skin irritation, contact dermatitis, burning, and redness when used topically. If it is combined with alcohol, it can be over-drying to sensitive skin. 
When taken internally, witch-hazel containing at least 10% tannins can cause liver damage, kidney damage, and gastrointestinal disturbances. Regular consumption of herbs with high concentrations of tannins increases the risk of nasal or esophageal cancer. 
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- Days, Daisy. “For Late Winter Colour, Look No Further than Hamamelis.” 16 Feb. 2019, candidegardening.com/GB/stories/4c1f9c24-d499-480a-94d9-143852f1857b.
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- “Hamamelis Virginiana.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamamelis_virginiana.
- “History.” www.thayers.com/history/.
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- “Witch Hazel Distillate Water: The Do-It-All Hydrosol!” SaffireBlue Inc., www.saffireblue.ca/blog/witch-hazel-distillate-water-the-do-it-all-hydrosol/.
- American Distilling. “Witch Hazel (USP) Specification.” www.americandistilling.com/content/witch_hazel_usp_specification.
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