Forage Friday #37 Witch Hazel

Hello friends! Tonight’s feature image is titled “Witch Hazel 121319A”. All of the photos are my original work and are available for purchase by the instructions at the bottom of the article.

The young boy was fighting back his tears as he sat on the edge of the tub while his mother washed the dirt and blood from his knees. The cool water from the tap helped to numb his wounds a little. The abrasions were not that bad once they were cleaned up but when you’re that young everything seems like an emergency. His mother spoke in a soothing voice and braced her child for the next step. She retrieved an amber bottle from the medicine cabinet and poured out a clear liquid into a cotton ball. The medicine stung his broken skin at first but soon the astringent qualities of the witch hazel kicked in and made the pain stop.

It’s rare that I do a Forage Friday post on a plant that to the best of my knowledge has absolutely no uses as food. But witch hazel is one of those plants that is probably already in your own medicine cabinet. The parts used are the leaves, twigs and inner bark. However, it’s because of it’s late Fall/Early Winter bloom that I’ve waited until now to include it in a Forage Friday post.

Witch Hazel flowers are a beautiful sight during the dark rainy days of December. 

The delicate flowers of witch hazel always seem to open at just the right time to add some beauty to the otherwise disheartening landscape.  They’re also pollinated by winter moths that are able to survive freezing temperatures by living in the leaf litter to hide from the cold. Wild witch hazel is what we see in tonight’s pictures but a quick Google search shows that there are cultivars that can be planted and have a bloom that is more showy and displays various shades of red and orange.

I also learned while researching the article that there is only one industrial provider of witch hazel in the United States. The trees are farmed on a river bank. Once they’re ready for harvest the entire tree is coppiced (cut so that it will regenerate and friends back) and chipped. The chips are then dumped into vats of alcohol where the tannins are leeched out and then the alcohol is cooked off. The description of the process implies that the steam is collected and condensed into the liquid we find under various labels. It all comes from one supplier and there seems to be a lot of regulatory requirements that guide the production.

A witch hazel twig showing the bud and leaf scar. Leaf scars are like fingerprints that help identify the tree. Witch hazel buds resemble a deer’s hoof.

I also found a process for home production.  It was rather simple.  Collect the leaves, twigs and inner bark (one tablespoon per cup of distilled water) and soak them in water for about 30 minutes and then bring it to a boil. Simmer for ten minutes. Allow the decoction to steep for another ten minutes before straining and bottling.

The beautiful witch hazel growing with the alder from last night’s article.

I’m constantly scanning the environment for native species to incorporate into my landscape. While I’m probably never going to produce enough witch hazel to unseat the one supplier it is not only a beautiful flowering bush to help add color in the winter but a handy resource to have around a homestead.

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