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Witch hazel's name upholds mysterious connotations. In colonial America, the shrub's flexible forked branches were a favorite "witching stick" of dowsers used for searching out hidden waters or precious metals. This has nothing to do with witches, but rather originates from the old English word for pliable branches "wych." In England dowsers call an elm (Ulmus glabra) the "witch hazel tree." When early British settlers arrived in the Americas, they fancied our witch hazel as the logical replacement for dowsing chores, given its pliable, crooked branches.
...This is an interesting shrub or small tree for a number of reasons. It's sweet and fragrant, at a time of year when few other flowers are in bloom, late winter. As you can see, it's yellow, but it also comes in red and orange varieties. And witch hazel is the source of the stuff that you buy at the drug store. Witch hazel-it has astringent properties.
Legend has it that if you sneak up on a witch hazel at midnight on St. John's Eve, reach between your legs and cut away a divining rod, that rod is said to point to buried gold or hidden treasure.
Favorite of American Indians
Witch hazel was widely used by American Indians as a medicinal plant. The bark was used by the Osage to treat ulcers of the skin, sores, and tumors. The Potawatomi placed the twigs on the hot rocks in a sweat lodge to bathe and soothe sore muscles with the steam. The Menomini boiled the twigs in water, then rubbed the decoction on their legs to keep them limber, or to treat a lame back. Among the Iroquois, witch hazel had many uses including a strong tea for dysentery, to treat colds and cough, as an astringent and blood purifier among others. The Mohegans used a decoction of the leaves and twigs to treat cuts, bruises, and insect bites.
A Long History of Use
The earliest works on American medicinal plants included witch hazel, primarily noting its use to treat eye inflammations, hemorrhoids, bites, stings and skin sores, diarrhea and dysentery, and many other conditions for which a plant high in tannins would produce relief by virtue of its astringency. Herbalists consider it one of the best plant medicines to check bleeding, both internally and externally. A tea made from the bark or leaves is given to stop internal bleeding. The same tea was injected into the rectum to allay the pain and itching of hemorrhoids, which today comes to the consumer in the form of "pads" or ointments for hemorrhoid treatment. A poultice of the fresh leaves or bark was considered useful for relieving the pain and swelling of inflammations. Dipped in a cotton ball, witch hazel water is dabbed on insect bites to calm pain and relieve itching. I find it especially soothing on chigger and tick bites, as well as mosquito bites, and poison ivy rash.
What attracted the attention of witch hazel as an herbal product was a patent medicine developed in the mid 1800s. In the 1840's, Theron T. Pond of Utica, New York established an association with the Oneida Indians of the state. He learned from a medicine man that they held a shrub in high esteem for all types of burns, boils, and wounds. It was witch hazel. Pond learned as much as he could of the extract, and finally after several years, in 1848, Mr. Pond and the Medicine Man decided to market the extract, under the trade name "Golden Treasure". After several moves and sales of the company, a manufacturing facility was established in Connecticut, and after the death of Theron Pond, the name of the witch hazel preparation was changed to "Pond's Extract".