Hamamelis virginiana L. (Witch Hazel)
English Common Names
Witch hazel (also witch-hazel, witchhazel), Virginian witch hazel, common witch hazel. Other names sometimes applied (inappropriately, since most are better used for other plants) include: hazel nut, snapping hazel, spotted alder, striped alder, tobacco wood, and winter bloom.
French Common Names
Hamamélis de Virginie, café du diable.
Witch hazel is a deciduous several-stemmed shrub or small tree, 1-5 (very rarely as much as 10) m in height, with smooth, brown, thin, scaly bark and numerous long, flexible, forking, branches. The branches zigzag at the leaf nodes, and this has been interpreted as a way to separate the leaves to achieve maximum exposure to the limited sunlight under the canopies of taller trees. The distinctive hazel-like leaves (i.e., like those of Corylus or true hazel species) are wavy or scalloped on the sides, 5-15 cm long, and have an asymmetrical base. The species can spread to some extent by suckering, but reproduces mostly by seeds. It is often shallow-rooted. In well-grown specimens the trunk may achieve a diameter of 10 (very rarely as much as 30) cm. The largest trees are found in the southern portion of the range.
Witch hazel is very unusual in that it flowers in late fall, often after the first frosts. Fragrant, yellow flowers in small axillary clusters appear as the foliage yellows, and the flowers persist after the leaves have fallen. Witch hazel is the only tree in the woods of North America which has ripe fruit, flowers, and the following year's leaf buds on the branch at the same time. The flowers have four twisted, strap-like petals 1.5-2 cm long, which can curl up as if to protect the flower from the cold when the temperatures drop, and unfurl when temperatures rise and pollinators are available. The flowers often survive several frosts. Witch hazel produces a very attractive flush of flowers, which are conspicuous because most deciduous species have lost or are losing their foliage, and (at least in northern woods) virtually all other plants are not in flower, or are well past their peak flowering period.
In the northern part of the range, flowering occurs from October to as late as early December, while in the South, blossoms may be present as late as March. The fruit ripens in the following summer, maturing into paired, 2-horned, fuzzy, brown, woody capsules, 1-1.5 cm long, each generally producing two seeds. The seeds are black and shiny on the outside, white, oily, and farinaceous on the inside, and although quite small, they are edible like the related hazelnuts and filberts (Corylus species).
Classification and Geography
The genus Hamamelis consists of about six species of deciduous shrubs or small trees. Hamamelis virginiana extends from Minnesota, northern Michigan, southern Ontario, southern Quebec, New Brunswick, and southern Nova Scotia, southwards to Texas and central Florida. A number of varieties have been described from this extensive region based on characteristics of leaves, but their taxonomic status requires more study.
In its northern range, the leaves are larger, the petals are bright yellow, and the plants are usually shrubs. In South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, the leaves are usually smaller, the petals are distinctly pale yellow, and the plants sometimes reach the proportions of small trees (these have been called H. virginiana var. parvifolia Nutt.).
The other North American specie, H. vernalis Sarg. (Ozark witch hazel), occurs from south-eastern Missouri through Arkansas to south-eastern Oklahoma. On the Ozark Plateau, where H. virginiana and H. vernalis occur together, the petals of H. virginiana are frequently reddish at the base, suggesting that hybridization has occurred there between the two species.
The genus Hamamelis exhibits two interesting bio-geographical patterns: (1) the eastern Asian/ eastern North American disjunctions from the Arcto-Tertiary Forest, which encircled the Northern Hemisphere 15-20 million years ago, like the pattern shown by Panax (ginseng); (2) the disjunction of temperate eastern North American elements into the high elevation temperate regions of Mexico. The Mexican disjunctions are believed to be remnants of a more recent and continuous Pleistocene distribution.
Witch hazel grows in dry to mesic woods of eastern deciduous forests, usually among mixed hardwoods. In the middle part of its range witch hazel sometimes forms a solid understorey in second-growth and old-growth forests. In the northern part of its range, it is often found as scattered, small colonies.
Witch hazel is shade-tolerant and grows well as an understorey species, preferring deep, rich soils. Even shade-tolerant species often benefit from an increase in light, and witch hazel was found to respond to canopy gaps in a central Pennsylvanian oak forest by increasing sexual and vegetative reproduction. It may be found on hills or in stony places, rocky slopes, on the banks of streams, along ravines, trails and forest edges.
In the western and southern areas of its range, it is distributed mostly in moist cool valleys and flats, northern and eastern slopes, coves, benches and ravines. In the northern area of its range, it occurs on drier and warmer sites of slopes and hilltops. The species appears to tolerate both acidic and alkaline substrates, but in Canada is mostly associated with sandy, slightly acid substrates.
Staminodes (sterile stamens) in the flowers secrete small amounts of nectar, serving to attract pollinating insects. Because of the late season, cold often limits the availability of pollinators. Experiments have shown that witch hazel can self-pollinate effectively, so that it is not dependent on the unreliable pollinator pool. However, when the weather is favourable, a large variety of insects may be available to cross-pollinate the flowers, and witch hazel is one of the few woodland plants serving nectar-foraging insects in late fall and early winter. The flowers are clearly adapted to pollination by a range of insect species. Although pollination occurs in the fall, fertilization is delayed until the following spring because of pollen and ovule dormancy.
Ripe seeds are dispersed in late autumn, simultaneous with flowering. The seeds are disseminated by mechanical expulsion from the dehiscent capsule. Seeds may be shot to a distance of 10 m (claims of 15 m have been made, although in most cases less than 5 m is achieved), and this has given rise to the name
"snapping hazel." An audible pop accompanies the explosive discharge.
Birds are thought to have a limited role in dispersing the seeds. The mammals that eat the seeds are likely more important (see non-medicinal uses). The seeds germinate the second year after dispersal. A study in Michigan revealed that successful seed production was irregular, with large numbers of seeds in the occasional good fruiting years related to satiation of host-specific beetles that eat the seeds.
Witch hazel is one of the most popular of medicinal plants, and has been much in demand for centuries. Poultices and infusions of the leaves and (to a much greater extent) the bark have long been used externally to treat wounds and bleeding, including every kind of abrasion, as well as menstrual and hemorrhoidal bleeding. This medical knowledge was first acquired by North American Indians, then by colonists, followed by Europeans.
In early times, witch hazel was also employed to treat tumours and inflammations, especially of the eye, and as a liniment. Extracts of witch hazel were also used internally to treat diarrhea. Most of these usages have persisted to the present.
During the middle of the 19th century, a product prepared by steam-distillation of the dormant twigs, to which alcohol was added, became extremely popular under the name
"hamamelis water." This was intended for external treatment of various skin conditions, and is still marketed today. Alcoholic extracts are popular in Europe for treating varicose veins, and the effectiveness of these extracts in constricting veins has been demonstrated.
Modern medicinal uses today also include treatment of inflammation of the gums and mucous membranes of the mouth. The most common present usage is in soothing skin lotions. Witch hazel is employed in toilet water, aftershave lotions, mouth washes, skin cosmetics and the like, and ointments to treat sunburn, chapping, insect stings and bites. Long before such brands as
"Old Spice," witch hazel was used as an aftershave.
There is some indication of value for treating aging or wrinkling of the skin, an application with considerable market potential. As with most medicinal plants, usage in Europe considerably exceeds that in North America. Nevertheless, more than a dozen preparations with witch hazel are marketed in Canada. After an 85-year absence, witch hazel was recently re-listed in the US Pharmacopoeia (USP XXIII 1995: 1637).
Corylus avellana (hazel or hazelnut of Europe) is rarely used to adulterate witch hazel, and occasionally it is claimed that the two species have similar medicinal properties.
Witch hazel herbal preparations are often sold in health food stores, for consumption as a bitter tea. Internal consumption should be done cautiously, as the plant has minor amounts of toxic chemicals (such as eugenol, acetaldehyde, and the carcinogen safrole), and an internal dose of as little as a gram can cause nausea, vomiting and constipation. In rare cases, liver damage has been attributed to consumption of witch hazel.
External use should also be carried out cautiously, as a concentrated tincture can be sufficiently astringent as to disfigure skin, and contact dermatitis is possible in susceptible individuals. Despite some potential toxicity and misgivings by some that its medicinal value is limited, witch hazel has a long history of popularity.
The medicinal value of witch hazel appears primarily due to its astringency, which seems mostly related to the high tannin content of the plant. The leaves can contain up to 10% tannin, and the bark has up to 3%. Tannins are astringent because they fix proteins, and while this is not helpful to the proteins (which are denatured) it can be helpful to healing of broken or irritated skin by creating a protective covering or constricting the area of injured tissue that is exposed.
The numerous personal care products containing witch hazel that are applied to the skin are presumably useful because of the pronounced styptic qualities of the plant. There is some evidence that not just tannins, but other astringent agents are present, and that flavonoids may also play a curative role. Hamamelis water is traditionally prepared as a steam extract (alcohol is subsequently added), and this has very little tannin content, but still considered to be astringent (the astringency of hamamelis water has been attributed simply to the alcohol content).
There are a number of garden forms of witch hazel, although hybrids of the Asian species are more popular as ornamental cultivars. Unlike the north-eastern North American witch hazel, the Asian species and the Ozark species are all late winter-flowering (February-March). They also have leaves that turn red or orange in the fall instead of yellow, and are consequently more often cultivated than our native species.
Propagation by both seeds and cuttings is possible, but the seeds are dormant for a period and the cuttings require a few months under mist. Ornamental cultivars are propagated by grafting onto seedling understock. Utilization of suckers is also a means of propagation, and species with a relatively strong tendency to sucker, such as H. vernalis, and races of H. virginiana that are more prone to suckering, are potentially useful in this regard.
Many animals have been reported to eat the fruits of witch hazel, including ruffed grouse, northern bobwhite, ring-necked pheasant, white-tailed deer, beaver, cottontail rabbit, and black bear.
Agricultural and Commercial Aspects
A small amount of witch hazel is harvested from plants cultivated in Europe, but most of the world's supply is obtained from wild plants in the eastern United States. The state of Connecticut is a principal supplier of material for production of aqueous witch hazel which is made from twigs collected in autumn, winter and early spring. The witch hazel in cosmetic products comes from stripped leaves and bark collected in summer and early fall in the southern Appalachians. Witch hazel production is a substantial industry.
In some years, more than a million gallons of hamamelis water has been produced. Given the growing popularity of medicinal plants, it is unlikely that witch hazel will become obsolete. To improve production efficiency, more information is needed on patterns of variation in chemical composition and the influences of ecological factors. With the growing trend to protect wild plants from over-harvesting, cultivation of this medicinal crop appears to have considerable promise.
Myths, Legends, Tales, Folklore, and Interesting Facts
- The genus name Hamamelis was the Greek name used by Hippocrates for the medlar, Mespilus germanica L., a small Eurasian tree of the rose family, with fruits resembling a crab apple that are used to make preserves.
- The origin of the
"witch"in witch hazel has been attributed to an Old English term for pliant branches (which are characteristic of the plant). Nevertheless, witch hazel is often associated with witchcraft, an apparent misunderstanding of how the name originated. Historical analysis has shown that the name witch hazel was likely originally applied to English elms with flexible Y-shaped forked branches that were used as the source of divining rods, and the name became transferred by colonists to H. virginiana which has similar branches. Divining rods were used to search for water and ores, especially by charlatans (recommended technique: find a branch with forks pointing north and south; twirl it between the fingers and thumbs of the two hands, and point the base of the Y downwards; find a location where the base is attracted by water or minerals, especially gold). Those who dowsed for water by this technique were called
- The Menominee Indians (whose former range included northern Wisconsin and adjacent upper Michigan, through which runs the Menominee River) used witch hazel seeds as sacred beads in medicine ceremonies.
- The largest known tree of H. virginiana, with a height of 10.6 m and a trunk diameter of 0.4 m, was recorded from Bedford, Virginia in 1994.
- Anonymous. 1991. Drug therapy of hemorrhoids. Proven results of therapy with a hamamelis containing hemorrhoid ointment. [Results of a meeting of experts. Dresden, 30 August 1991.] Fortschr. Med. Suppl. 116: 1-11. [In German.]
- Berry, E.W. 1920. The geological history of the sweet gum and witch hazel. Plant World 22: 345-354.
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