A highly valued native shrub, Ozark Witch Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), derives its name from a “disputable” practice. Some say the ritual of dowsing or “water witching” to be pseudoscience or hog wash, but with biblical references (Moses, Numbers 20:9-11), century old accounts, and endorsements of local water witches from Eureka Springs to Bolivar to Joplin, the procedural act has deep roots here in the Ozarks and I like to think of the practice as a revered art that has grown to be part of our heritage.
Historically, the name “witch hazel” has zip to do with actual witchcraft. In translation, the common name is believed to have originated from the Anglo-Saxon word “wych” meaning pliable or to bend, and the second half of the name comes from the fact that this shrub’s leaves are nearly identical to those of the genus Hazel, Corylus.
A second fascinating aspect of the plant can be derived from the scientific name, Hamamelis, coming from a Greek word meaning “together with fruit.” This refers to the fact that the flowers and fruit of this species coexist on the same plant at the same time—quite exceptional! This ability attributes to the plant’s rare mode of ejecting the tiny, hard black seeds. When temps finally warm up (near vernalis, Latin for spring) and the fruit matures, Witch Hazel has the capacity to literally catapult these seeds up to 30 feet! It would be interesting to test this phenomenon and bring a bouquet of cut branches indoors!
The nutty seeds are said to have a flavor reminiscent of pistachios and were highly relished by Native Americans. The seeds may be quite tasty, but the plant’s true otherworldly powers reside within the bark, twigs, shoots, and leaves (in that order). Various Indian tribes, including the Osage, Oneida, and Iroquois, used the plant to create tinctures, hydrosols, ointments, etc. to abate numerous ailments.
Today, we find Witch Hazel extract stocked along pharmaceutical, personal hygiene, and beauty product shelves around the globe. The plant’s wickedly high tannin count, aided by flavonoids and chemical processes not yet fully understood by modern science, is what enhances the natural astringency. This is the predominant reasoning for its inclusion in such products as deodorant, aftershave, diapers, soaps, hemorrhoid pads, etc. The tannins have been characterized as hamamelitannin and it should be dually noted that the bark contains 31x more of this hamamelitannin than other parts of the plant. Another tannin found in Witch Hazel, proanthocyanidins, is being heavily researched for its ability to act as an anti-viral against Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1). Further investigation has confirmed the plant’s ability to act as an antioxidant, radiation-protective, and anti-inflammatory agent. It doesn’t stop there; more research is being conducted to prove its effectiveness as an anti-aging/anti-wrinkle agent!
It’s curious how plants play vital roles in our everyday lives, please stay tuned for next month’s medicinal plant!
“He who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come to these enchantments, is the rich and royal man.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson Sincerely- Sam