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Witch Hazel

  • Hamamelis virginiana L.
  • Hamamelidaceae
  • Witch-hazel family

Common Names

herbsHazel nut (not the American hazelnut (Corylus americana L.)
herbsSnapping hazel
herbsSpotted alder
herbsStriped alder
herbsTobacco wood

Parts Usually Used

Bark and leaves

Description of Plant(s) and Culture

Witch hazel is a tall, deciduous shrub or small tree; growing to a height of up to 15 feet, the stems and branches are covered with scaly gray to light, brown bark. The alternate, elliptic to obovate leaves are coarsely toothed and often are finely hairy on the veins underneath. The fragrant, light yellow flowers have 4 strap-shaped petals and grow in nodding, axillary clusters, blooming in autumn when the leaves are falling. The fruit is a woody capsule which ejects two shining black seeds when they ripen during the summer or autumn following the flowers.

Another variety: The Chinese witch hazel (H. japonica), Chinese name Chiu-lu-mei, does not seem to have been used medicinally in China.

Where Found

Grows in damp woods from Nova Scotia to Georgia and Nebraska, Minnesota south to Florida and Texas; it is also cultivated elsewhere for its autumn-blooming flowers.

Medicinal Properties

Astringent, hemostatic, sedative, styptic, tonic

Biochemical Information

Tannin, traces of essential oil, flavonoids, choline and a saponin. The bark contains less tannin.

Legends, Myths and Stories

Witch hazel was first used, as far as we know, by the Native Americans.

The Native Americans watched for this plant to be in bloom; they took it as an indication that the frost was entirely gone and they might sow their corn. Also, it was a good spring herald for a good horse race.

Many wells have been dug in this land where the witch hazel has indicated. At one time, one would hear occasionally, of people making a business of "water witching." Despite the unscientific concept, some folks still swear by its many successes.

Witch hazel's name is thought to be derived from early American settlers who used this plant's forked branches as a divining rod in their searches for water or gold, just as the hazel's branches were used in England. It is also possible that the name was transferred from the English wych-hazel, or wych-elm, with its ultimate origin in the Old English word wican, meaning "to yield". The reference, of course, would be the springiness of the wood.


Leaves and bark have served mostly to make astringent preparations, which have been taken internally for diarrhea and used externally as a rinse or gargle for mouth and throat irritations, colds, and as a vaginal douche for vaginitis. For skin irritations, bruises, varicose veins, tonic after abortions, insect bites and stings, minor burns, and poison ivy, an ointment made from the fluid extract or a poultice can be applied. Local application for gonorrhea and leukorrhea. A poultice made from the inner bark is said to be effective for hemorrhoids and for eye inflammation. The inner bark also has sedative and hemostatic properties.

Twig tea was rubbed on athletes' legs to keep muscles limber, relieve lameness, wounds, and swellings; tea for bloody dysentery, cholera, cough, and asthma. Used externally for bruises and sore muscles, minor pains, itching. Diluted with water or mixed with honey, the powder may be topically applied as a dressing for burns, scalds, scrapes, bruises, abrasions, and crushed toes and fingers. An effective wash for sunburn, inflamed breasts, and for various rashes. It is often used as an after-shave lotion.

Formulas or Dosages

Decoction: boil 1 tsp. bark or leaves in 1 cup water 15-20 minutes. Take 1 cup a day, a mouthful at a time.

Tincture: a dose is from 5-20 drops.

Ointment: mix 1 part fluid extract with 9 parts lard or vaseline.

Witch hazel "extract", used externally as a skin toner, is a common item in American medicine cabinets.

How Sold

Over-the-counter products are available in every pharmacy. Bottled witch-hazel water, widely available, is a steam distillate that does not contain the astringent tannins of the shrub. Apply to irritated areas several times a day.

Do not take internally witch hazel purchased at the drug store. It contains an alcohol that is not intended for internal use.

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