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Witch hazel

Category: Medicines - plant based



Introduction and description


Witch-hazel (Hamamelis) is a genus of flowering plants in the family Hamamelidaceae, with one species native to Japan (H. japonica), one to China (H. mollis) and three species in North America (H. ovalis, H. virginiana and H. vernalis). The North American species are occasionally called winterbloom.  The genus name, Hamamelis, means "together with fruit", referring to the fact that the plant’s flowers bloom in winter and thus simultaneously occur with the maturing fruit from the previous year. 

They have become a popular garden plant, especially in Europe where their beautiful winter flowers stand out in yellows, reds and golds against the winter snow.

The name Witch in witch-hazel has its origins in Middle English wiche, from the Old English wice, meaning "pliant" or "bendable".  As Wikipedia says “The use of the twigs as divining rods, just as hazel twigs were used in England, may also have, by folk etymology, influenced the "witch" part of the name”.  Diviners, witches, healers, sorcerors and shamans – all lumped in together when it comes to naming plants.



The witch-hazels are generally deciduous shrubs growing to 3–8 metres (9.8–26.2 ft) tall, although some species are capable of growing to 12 metres (39 ft) tall, at which point they might be better classified as a tree.

The leaves are alternately arranged, oval, 4–16 centimetres (1.6–6.3 in) long and 3–11 centimetres (1.2–4.3 in) broad, with a smooth or wavy margin.

H. virginiana blooms in September-November while the other species bloom from January-March. Each flower has four slender strap-shaped petals 1–2 centimetres (0.39–0.79 in) long, pale to dark yellow, orange, or red.

The fruit is a two-part capsule 1 centimetre (0.39 in) long, containing a single 5 millimetres (0.20 in) glossy black seed in each of the two parts; the capsule splits explosively at maturity in the autumn about 8 months after flowering, ejecting the seeds with sufficient force to fly for distances of up to 10 metres (33 ft), thus another alternative name "Snapping Hazel".



Hamamelis virginiana was introduced into English gardens by Peter Collinson, who maintained correspondence with plant hunters in the American colonies. Nowadays, it is rarely seen in the nursery trade except for woodland/wildlife restoration projects and native plant enthusiasts. The plant-hunter Charles Maries collected for Veitch Nurseries in the Chinese district of Jiujiang in 1879. It languished for years until it was noticed, propagated and put on the market in 1902.

Much more common is H. mollis, which has bright red flowers that bloom in late winter. Numerous cultivars have been selected for use as garden shrubs, many of them derived from the hybrid H. × intermedia Rehder (H. japonica × H. mollis). Jelena and Robert de Belder of Arboretum Kalmthout, selecting for red cultivars, found three: the first, with bronze flowers, was named 'Jelena'; the next, with red flowers, was named 'Diane' (the name of their daughter); the last, with deep red flowers, was called 'Livia' (the name of their granddaughter).

Medicinal uses


The leaves and bark of the North American Witch-hazel Hamamelis virginiana have been used to produce an astringent, also referred to as witch hazel, which is used medicinally. This plant extract was widely used for medicinal purposes by Native American Indians.

But this plant has other uses described in the observations, some from Dr Duke and some from other sources.



Related observations