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Witch Hazel: Plant & Uses

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Witch hazel is a plant with a traditional history of use to treat a variety of medical maladies. Read this lesson to learn about this plant and its many uses.

What Is Witch Hazel?

As the lesson's title indicates, witch hazel is a type of plant. More specifically, it's a deciduous bush or tree that can grow up to 18 feet high. It thrives in damp temperate forests, such as those found throughout North America, and, in fact, we have three different species of witch hazel found here.

Witch hazel typically produces golden yellow flowers that bloom in the fall, between mid-October and mid-November; however, different species may bloom at different times throughout the year.

Witch hazel plant characterisitcs
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The leaves are broad, and the plant produces dark brown or black capsules that eventually burst seeds out into the surrounding area.

Witch Hazel Medicinal Uses

Witch hazel has been used as a traditional medicine for a long time, particularly in the Americas. The plant contains a substance called tannins and is believed to help treat swelling, skin inflammation, and bacterial growth.

When used as a medicine, there are a few different ways the plant is prepared. The leaves, bark, and twigs from the plant are cut and dried. The prepared material can then be ingested orally, applied topically, or used to make witch hazel water.

Witch hazel flowers in bloom
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Traditionally, witch hazel is taken orally to treat:

  • diarrhea
  • mucous colitis
  • vomiting or coughing up blood
  • tuberculosis
  • colds
  • fevers
  • tumors
  • cancer

In contrast, it can be applied to the skin or eyes topically to treat:

  • itching
  • pain
  • swelling
  • inflammation
  • varicose veins
  • hemorrhoids
  • bruises
  • insect bites
  • minor burns
  • eye inflammation or infection

Witch hazel water is made by soaking freshly cut twigs in water and then adding alcohol to the resulting mixture. This is then used as an astringent.

Though witch hazel has been used as a traditional form of medicine for many years, there is little clinical evidence on its effectiveness for all of these uses. More research needs to be done, but this hasn't stopped a large commercial market from forming. You can buy witch hazel astringent, wipes, pads, lotions, and pills. Despite the lack of scientific evidence on the plant's effectiveness, it's believed that small doses are harmless for human consumption; however, larger doses may pose health risks so should be monitored by a medical professional.

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