Because Halloween is this Friday, I thought it appropriate to write about an unassuming tree in my yard, Hazel. (Yep, I’m one of those people that names my trees, I talk to them too…but that’s for another post.) She sure doesn’t look like much, does she? But don’t let her rough and scrubby appearance deceive you, like so many things we call weeds, Hazel is quite a tree.
First, you need to know that I intentionally planted her. And by that I mean I wanted the native species, Hamamelis virginiana L., not a cultivar or variety bred to bloom or grow differently than the native tree. Like so many landscaping plants, witch hazels have been bred to be showier than their great-grandparent plants. I specifically wanted the fall blooming, stinky, ungainly, native, under story tree because I wanted the medicinal properties and the fall blooms, which is rare thing in a flowering tree or shrub.
I was a disappointment to learn that there wasn’t more folklore tied to this tree, especially because it does bloom around Halloween. According to the Reader’s Digest book, “Magic and Medicine of Plants”, the English settlers named this native shrub witch hazel because of the forked twigs of the trees, and the word “witch” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word that means “to bend”.
This shrub or small tree can grow to 15′ and can be found growing from Nova Scotia to Georgia and as far west as Minnesota and Missouri. Native American Indians used decoctions of the tree’s bark, twigs and leaves to treat hemorrhoids, internal hemorrhages, excessive menstrual flow, as an eye wash. Today it’s one of the most commonly used home remedies as a facial astringent or tonic, and to treat bruises and strains.
This year I decided to harvest some witch hazel and make my own witch hazel astringent. I found all sorts of interesting information online, but all the sources returned to one simple recipe found on the Handmaiden’s Kitchen blog, which was originally found in The Herb Quarterly, Winter 1994:
- Prune one pound of fresh twigs from shrubs as soon as they have flowered. This practice produces the strongest tonic.
- Strip off the leaves and flowers (save these for sachets) and chop the twigs into a coarse mulch using either a mechanical mulcher or pruning clippers.
- Place the chopped twigs into a two-gallon stainless steel pot.
- Cover the twigs with distilled water (available at the supermarket) and bring the contents to a boil.
- Reduce heat to simmer, then cover and cook for at least eight hours; add water as needed to cover the mulch.
- Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature.
- Pour the witch hazel tonic through a funnel containing a cheesecloth filter and into clean plastic squeeze bottles or other suitable, tightly-capped containers.
- Use the tonic within a week unless it is kept refrigerated. You can preserve your tonic for long-term room temperature storage by adding nine ounces of vodka or grain alcohol to 23 ounces of tonic. Yield: one gallon.
Warning: Do NOT use internally! Keep out of the reach of children.
I didn’t like the idea of simmering something on my stove top for 8 hours – I didn’t know when I’d be home for an 8 hour stretch to keep an eye on the stove, or at least not an 8 hour stretch that didn’t involve sleeping. So I modified this recipe a bit. I filled my crock-pot pot with the coarse mulch and water, and then let it cook in the crock-pot overnight and proceeded to follow the rest of the directions. My finished product yielded about 80 ounces (2 quarts, 1 pint).
The first thing I’ve learned about my homemade witch hazel is that it is less expensive than store bought, 80 ounces for the about $10, and I could most likely dilute it even more with out sacrificing too much potency.
The second, and most dramatic thing I noticed is that mine isn’t clear. So I did a little research. The recipe I followed is not supposed to be clear – and that’s what I suspected based on the fact that witch hazel is an astringent due to the tannin found in the tree’s bark and leaves. If you are a black tea drinker, natural dyer, or brewer you are familiar with tannin. If you aren’t, tannin is a naturally occurring compound often found in plants that is most commonly known for it’s dark color and astringent qualities.
But why is store bought clear? I found, what is most likely the answer on another blog, Celebrating Gaia’s Herbal Gifts. Most commercial witch hazel is made using steam distillation. And since I don’t have a distillery but am essentially making an herbal decoction, or tea, from the bark and leaves of a plant high in tannin, my end product will be darker than a distilled product, and like an herbal tea, it will contain more of the natural elements like the tannin and the plant’s scent.
That bring me to my third finding. I have some what permanent dark circles under my eyes, I have heard them referred to as “allergy eyes”. I’ve been told that those of us with seasonal and year round allergies often tend to have dark circles under our eyes – something about swollen veins and sinus cavities and having thin skin under our eyes (Have you ever see dark circles on a young child you know shouldn’t be lacking sleep? Sometimes, they’re “allergy eyes”.). Because dark circles under the eyes are also a visible sign of stress and lack of sleep, there are hundreds, and I mean hundreds, of creams, lotions and tonics out there to help lessen them. Women, in particular, spend a lot of money on these topical treatments, and I’ll admit to having tried a number of them myself. Since adding my homemade witch hazel astringent to my morning and evening routine, I feel like the dark circles under my eyes have gotten less visible. This is most likely from the higher tannin concentration in my homemade version. But what an unexpected bonus! That alone will most likely be enough of an incentive for me to continue making my own astringent.
So which witch hazel will I use? Mine! Thanks Hazel.