You may think you know about Hamamelis virginiana, the plant more commonly known as witch hazel, but there’s a lot still to learn about this diminutive tree that has long been a favorite of herbalists and horticulturists alike. One of the earliest blooming specimens in the landscape, witch hazel is prized for its fragrant flowers and interesting branching structure. Interestingly, parts of this native plant have many health and beauty benefits as well. Both the leaves and bark of Hamamelis virginiana contain hamamelitannin, a compound that is useful as an astringent, as a blood clotter, and as an antioxidant. From promoting clear, healthy skin to curing hemorrhoids, the benefits of Hamamelis virginiana are nearly countless, with new potential uses being discovered everyday.
The common name for Hamamelis virginiana is misleading; it is neither a hazel nor does it have any association with witches. The “witch” part comes from the Old English wych, a word meaning “flexible branch,” and the leaves are very similar in appearance to those of true hazels. Native Americans have known about the beneficial properties of Hamamelis virginiana for centuries, and they used the leaves and the bark to heal wounds, soothe skin irritations and sore muscles, settle upset stomachs, and help with breathing problems. European settlers used the branches as “witching sticks” to search out water, but they soon caught on to the health benefits. It wasn’t until the mid 18th century that witch hazel was used in a commercial product, and the FDA has since approved the use of Hamamelis virginiana in many over-the-counter products.
The most common uses of Hamamelis virginiana, and all of those approved by the FDA, are external. Witch hazel water is used as an astringent to tone skin, reduce pore size, prevent acne, and soothe itching and skin irritation due to insect bites. It’s also an ingredient in many of the medicated pads that are used to treat hemorrhoids. There has been some evidence that Hamamelis virginiana protects skin from harmful UV rays, and that it may also have some anti-aging properties, which is why you’ll see it popping up in a range of skin care products currently on the market. Compresses of witch hazel and yarrow tea can help reduce discomfort associated with varicose veins, and there’s some rudimentary evidence it may help with the management of cold sores. For minor cuts, Hamamelis virginiana can be used to stop bleeding, making it a common ingredient in aftershave.
Anecdotally, ingesting Hamamelis virginiana extract in either capsule or tea form may have some health benefits. It has been used as an herbal remedy for diarrhea, colitis, tuberculosis, the common cold, and internal bleeding (including that due to excessive menstrual flow). There is preliminary evidence that it may have some use in the treatment of certain cancers. None of these uses have been approved by the FDA, though, and they should be undertaken with caution. An incorrect dosage can cause an upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, constipation, and even potential liver damage. Do not take Hamamelis virginiana over long periods of time, and do not take Hamamelis virginiana internally without first consulting with your doctor. Because little is known about its effect on women who are pregnant or nursing, it’s best to avoid its use altogether if you fall under these categories.