If you live in a wooded area, you might already be familiar with witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). It is a deciduous, shrubby tree that grows in the understory of forests and is most easily noticed and recognized in the late fall and early winter due to its yellow feathery blooms.
To many, witch hazel is simply a clear liquid that you buy in a bottle at the pharmacy and keep in your bathroom cabinet until someone has a rash or a bunch of itchy insect bites.
If you have the space in your yard and the time and patience, you can grow a witch hazel tree for yourself to bring joy to your summer garden and a splash of unusual floral texture and color in the colder months. You can also learn to use the tree’s leaves and bark to make your own witch hazel medicine.
How Do I Spot a Witch Hazel Tree?
Source: Forestry and Natural Resources Extension/Youtube
American witch hazel is a shrub or small tree that usually grows to about 12-15 feet high but can get much larger if left unpruned. When looking for witch hazel in the wild, glance in the understory and look for a plant that has multiple stems coming up from the ground rather than one main trunk.
In the summer, it has lush green leaves that are a lighter color on the underside. The leaves are egg-shaped, and the edges are wavy.
In the autumn, the leaves turn a yellow/orange color. By far, the easiest way to identify a witch hazel is when it is in bloom. If you look at the naked trees of the forest in late fall, the bright yellow blooms of the witch hazel stand out a mile. The flowers have long wiggly petals that seem spider-like.
How Can I Grow Witch Hazel in My Yard?
Witch hazel is very hardy and doesn’t require too much fuss. It is native to North America and is hardy to zones 3-9. Once established, your shrub will require nothing more than a little water during hot spells and some pruning after it has bloomed to keep it from becoming leggy.
Choose a spot in your yard that gets a lot of sun but catches a little afternoon shade. It is an understory tree so dappled shade would be okay, too, if you live in an area that gets hot summers.
Your witch hazel plant will be able to adapt to most soil conditions, but ideally, it enjoys rich, loamy, and acid soil. It requires good drainage but likes to be kept moist. Give your shrub a good layer of mulch around its stems and out to the drip line.
Witch hazel is pretty resilient and can hold its own against browsing deer and other pests.
You can grow witch hazel from seed, but it may take a year or two to germinate, so it would be easier to find an outlet that sells witch hazel in bare-root or sapling form. That said, once you have an established witch hazel shrub in your yard, it will self-seed, meaning that you will likely find more volunteer saplings in the years to come.
How Do I Harvest and Use My Witch Hazel Shrub?
Witch Hazel is a natural astringent that is used topically to relieve itchy, dry, or inflamed skin. You can buy witch hazel rather cheap over the counter at most pharmacies or supermarkets, but you can also create some for yourself at home. The witch hazel that you buy in the stores has most likely been made from distilled bark and twigs and has been mixed with alcohol.
You can harvest from your witch hazel shrub throughout the growing season, but it is best to harvest in the spring when there is fresh leaf growth. Both fresh and dried leaves and twigs may be used to make topical medicine.
- Infusion: Just as you would make herbal tea to drink, you can infuse dried or fresh leaves into hot water to make an infusion that you can apply to your skin. One tablespoon of dried leaves to every cup of water is a good ratio. You will need to use more fresh leaves and leave the mixture to infuse for longer for similar results. Allow the infusion to cool before using it on your skin. You should only make enough to use that day.
- Decoction: A decoction of bark, leaves, and twigs can be made for a stronger blend. To make this, put some witch hazel twigs and bark into a pot and cover them with water. Distilled water is ideal. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer for about half an hour, then leave the decoction to cool. Strain the liquid into a glass jar and be sure to use it within a few days. You may keep it in the fridge.
You can use your infusion or decoction as you would the witch hazel you buy from the store, but it does not keep as long as the alcohol-based blends.
This is for informational purposes only. Consult a medical professional before using herbal medicine to treat any condition. If you have never used witch hazel on your skin before, do a spot test on a small patch of skin to check for any allergic reactions.
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