Most of us walk by American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) on Land Trust preserves, or in most any woodland area in the Northeast, without giving it a thought. This small tree looks more like a big shrub. With no regular shape and crooked branches that spread every which way, witch hazel is mostly indistinguishable from other green leafy understory plants. That said, this resilient native plant has some remarkable characteristics, a bit of folklore and a unique history in Connecticut.
Witch hazel produces bright yellow, ribbony flowers in late fall – often the only vivid color in the drab, leafless woods. These flowers are thought to be pollinated at night by owlets moths (of family Noctuidae). These “winter moths” have evolved the ability to heat themselves by using energy to shiver violently enough to raise their body temperatures by as much as 50 degrees in order to fly in search of food on frigid nights – a cool (or perhaps “warm”) insect factoid. The fruit produced is a hard woody capsule, which splits explosively at the apex at maturity one year after pollination, ejecting the two shiny black seeds up to 30 feet from the parent plant. This makes a distinct sound responsible for another name for the plant, “snapping hawthorn.” From there it takes 2 years for the seeds to germinate and begin a new plant.
American Witch Hazel History and Folklore
In colonial folklore a forked branch of the plant, stripped of bark, has been used to make a “witching stick” for finding water. The practice is called “water dowsing” or divining. In the right hands, the stick is said to dive toward the ground where there is a spring or water underneath.
First nations brewed tea from the leaves and bark and used it as a cure-all for scratches, bug bites and skin irritations. They drank the tea to treat colds, coughs, diarrhea, tumors, and internal bleeding. Early settlers learned from the Native Americans and started using witch hazel for the same curative purposes. Eastern CT has always been considered the epicenter of witch hazel growth. And in the mid-1800s witch hazel extract became a Connecticut industry when a minister named Thomas Dickinson opened a distillery in Essex.
American Witch Hazel Today
Fast forward to today and several manufacturers have consolidated into American Distilling in East Hampton. Over 300 tons are harvested every year on state, private and water company lands, mostly by a few families who have been doing this for multiple generations. The plant regenerates and has thus always been a sustainable harvest. Cutters only harvest about 50 acres of witch hazel a year from the tens of thousands of acres where the plant occurs. Foresters see the harvest as beneficial to overall forest health. Occurring on the frozen ground of winter, it is low-impact and helps clear the forest floor for valuable hardwoods like oak seedlings to get light and space to grow. As Bryan Jackowitz, the marketing director at Dickinson’s Brands commented, “Being sustainable is just plain practical. We make sure that the way we cut witch hazel in the woods will guarantee that the plant comes back. In many cases the same plant has been re-harvested every seven years since native Americans first passed it on to the European settlers.”
There is still some mystery about what makes witch hazel work. Chemists have identified various compounds but nothing that definitively explains its effectiveness. American Distillers touts studies which have found anti-viral, anti-oxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties in witch hazel. As an astringent – witch hazel extract mixed with alcohol – it is found in about every U.S. drugstore and in many other countries. In other forms, the extract finds its way into facial cleansers, hemorrhoid wipes and anti-aging creams.
Who knew this unassuming plant had such an accomplished resume and interesting history?
(Article written by Board member Tom Reynolds. Photo taken by Tom at our Colhoun Preserve on Davenport Ridge Road. Check out the property here).