Wednesday, September 28, 2016
WITCH HAZEL: Hamamelis Virginiana, Hamamelis Verralis
Also known as: Winterbloom, Tobacco Wood, Snapping Hazel, Spotted Alder, Striped Elder, Pistachio, Shaping Hazel
Parts Used: bark, twigs, leaves
Systems/Organs affected: skin, venal system, oral, intestinal, female and male reproductive, rectal, eyes, lungs, stomach, nose, kidneys, heart, circulatory
Properties: astringent, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-aging, tonic, sedative, styptic/hemostatic, antifungal, anti-abortive, anodyne
WITCH HAZEL is a member of the Hamamleidaceae family. It is referred to as both a shrub and a tree so take your pick. It has several crooked trunks that branch from one root. These ‘trunks’ can be between 4-6 inches around and up to 3 inches wide. The leaves are ovate, toothed and drop off in the autumn at which time the yellow, reddish to orange flowers appear (the color of flowers depends on the variety). Witch hazel blooms from September to November (depending on the location) and are in clusters at the joints of the branches (they kind of resemble spiders to me). The flowers are followed by black nuts which contain white edible seeds known as hazelnuts or filberts. (Interestingly the British variety doesn’t contain seeds/nuts). The seeds/nuts are violently ejected from the tree when they are ripe (usually happens in summer after the winter blooming) which is why this tree is sometimes referred to as the snapping hazelnut. The bark, leaves and twigs are what is/are harvested for medicinal use. This amazing herb is native to North America-mainly the eastern united states and Canada although it can now be found all over the usa and parts of Japan and China as well. It grows in moist, temperate climates near forested areas, roadsides and places where the soil is typically damp.
The stories and superstitions attached to this plant made me guffaw. There are many cultures with folklore passed down regarding this herb. It was believed by many early cultures to have magical/mystical properties. The Romans believed that Apollo gave Mercury a hazel rod to protect his godly virtue. The Norse believe that Thor carried a hazel rod to protect him from lightning and the Greeks believed that Hermes, the god of transitions and boundaries, carried a hazel rod to make himself more intelligent. The Welsh would make a cap of hazel twigs and leaves and wear it to make all of their wishes come true. The Prussians would make crosses of hazel wood in the spring during the first thunderstorm of the year to ensure that the blessing of rain would continue throughout the year. The Celts believed that the tree was sacred. They felt it was a tree of fertility, creativity and knowledge. The Irish mythological hunter/warrior Fionn MacCumhail (pronounced Finn MacCool) caught a salmon that had consumed hazelnuts and had become full of knowledge. While he was cooking said fish he burned his finger and immediately put it in his mouth to cool it. He believed the contact with the fish made him enlightened. He carried a hazel wood shield that supposedly made him invincible in battle. The Scottish refer to this plant as ‘calltuin’ (calton). A calton is considered to be a portal to the Otherworld. There is a place called Calton Hill between Ediburgh and Leith that was used for magical gatherings. In England the branches were gathered on Palm Sunday and kept in water inside the house to protect the inhabitants from lightning and thunder storms. According to Grimm’s Fairy tales, hazel branches are the best protection from the creepy crawlies of the Earth (snakes, spiders, insects, rodents, etc). The nuts were carried as a good health charm and believed to keep lumbago and rheumatism at bay. The nuts were also believed to enhance fertility and were given to brides on their wedding day. Fishing rods were often made from the wood believing the fish were attracted to the magical power of the wood. This was also the wood used as a divining rod to find water. The nuts were ground into flour for bread and also made into gruel. The nuts are also a well-known brain food and believed to enhance one’s creativity, focus and intelligence. There are A LOT more stories but lets cover the medicinal aspects of the plant before we get too carried away.
Witch Hazel has been used for centuries by Native American tribes as well as the Asian culture. It is highly astringent (due to the tannins) making it an excellent skin remedy to tighten and tone as well as heal. It’s been used by the Indians for treating sores, swelling and infections (both as a topical and oral agent). They used it to alleviate blisters, poison ivy, acne, as a skin wash for wounds and to speed healing. In fact, it works so well for the skin that you can find it in a variety of cosmetics and creams today from shampoo and after shave lotions to deodorant and acne or varicose vein treatments. It has been proven over the years to work very well for these things. What most people don’t know is that it works for a number of internal issues as well. For instance, witch hazel can be used topically or orally. It has been used to stop diarrhea, vomiting, colds, coughing, mucus colitis, internal hemorrhaging and prolapsed organs. It has been used in the place of hemorrhoid cream as it combats itchiness and bacteria and it has been used to great relief as a fomentation or poultice for varicose veins. It has also been used as a decoction for opthalmia, phthisis (infectious bacterial lung disease), menorrhagia and to heal the body from miscarriage or abortion.
Witch hazel contains a number of powerful and beneficial compounds. Some of these are proanthocyanidins, kaempferol, quercetin, choline, gallic acid, saponins and so much more. Witch hazel also contains minute amounts of safrole which is a known carcinogen-however, it is so small that it isn’t considered to be a health hazard.
Studies in Brazil have found that witch hazel combined with cinnamon, german chamomile, and horse chestnut act as anti-solar agents to protect one from too much sun (hence their use in creams used to treat sunburn).
Another study on a witch hazel ointment was done by the University Hospital of Luebeck in Germany. This study was done to test the efficacy of the ointment for children (used for rashes, burns, dry skin, etc) compared to a widely used pharmaceutical brand known as dexapanthenol. It was found to work just as well as the dexapanthenol with a higher tolerability than that brand. This is important to know as many children have sensitive skin.
In another more recent study, the tannins in witch hazel (called Hamamelitannins)were found to induce decay and death in colon cancer cells without negatively affecting healthy cells. (They used the bark for that study. Studies were also conducted in both England and Spain).
There are so many good things about this plant that it is worth investing some time and money to have some trees around. It is generally recognized as safe but WebMD cautions pregnant and nursing women against using it. They also caution against large doses as it may cause liver issues. Oral overdose can cause rashes, trouble breathing, upset stomach, itchiness, dizziness, inflammation and nausea. As always consult with a physician before beginning any herbal product or regimen.
As is customary with my posts I am including some links below for your perusal. Stay strong and healthy!