Gronov. ex L.
Witch-hazels or witch hazels (Hamamelis, //) are a genus of flowering plants in the family Hamamelidaceae, with four species in North America (H. mexicana, H. ovalis, H. virginiana, and H. vernalis), and one each in Japan (H. japonica) and China (H. mollis). The North American species are occasionally called winterbloom.
The witch-hazels are deciduous shrubs or (rarely) small trees growing to 10–25 feet (3.0–7.6 m) tall, rarely to 40 feet (12 m) tall. The leaves are alternately arranged, oval, 2–6 inches (5.1–15.2 cm) long and 1–4 inches (2.5–10.2 cm) broad, with a smooth or wavy margin. The genus name, Hamamelis, means "together with fruit", referring to the simultaneous occurrence of flowers with the maturing fruit from the previous year. H. virginiana blooms in September–November while the other species bloom from January–March. Each flower has four slender strap-shaped petals 3⁄8–3⁄4 inch (0.95–1.91 cm) long, pale to dark yellow, orange, or red. The fruit is a two-part capsule 3⁄8 inch (0.95 cm) long, containing a single 1⁄4 inch (0.64 cm) 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 30 feet (9.1 m), thus another alternative name "Snapping Hazel".
The name witch in witch-hazel has its origins in Middle English wiche, from the Old English wice, meaning "pliant" or "bendable", and is not related to the word witch meaning a practitioner of magic. Jacob George Strutt's 1822 book, Sylva Britannica attests that "Wych Hazel" was used in England as a synonym for wych elm, Ulmus glabra; 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.
The Persian ironwood, a closely related tree formerly treated as Hamamelis persica, is now given a genus of its own, as Parrotia persica, as it differs in the flowers not having petals. Other closely allied genera are Parrotiopsis, Fothergilla, and Sycopsis (see under Hamamelidaceae). Witch-hazels are not closely related to the true Corylus hazels, though they have a few superficially similar characteristics which may cause one to believe that they are.
They are popular ornamental plants, grown for their clusters of rich yellow to orange-red flowers which begin to expand in the autumn as or slightly before the leaves fall, and continue throughout the winter.
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. Much more common is H. mollis, which has bright yellow flowers that bloom in late winter instead of the yellow blossoms of H. virginiana which tend to be lost among the plant's fall foliage. The plant-hunter Charles Maries collected for Veitch Nurseries in the Chinese district of Jiujiang in 1879. It languished in nursery rows for years until it was noticed, propagated and put on the market in 1902.
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).
Extracts of witch-hazel may be used as a supposed remedy for psoriasis and eczema; in aftershave and ingrown nail applications, to prevent dehydration of skin; and for insect bites and poison ivy. Clinical studies supporting its effectiveness for these skin conditions are absent. Despite this lack of evidence, it is used in folk medicine to "ease discomfort" involving vaginal soreness and hemorrhoids while they heal after childbirth. There is no good clinical evidence for its other purported traditional uses, including gastrointestinal illnesses (diarrhea), common colds, tuberculosis, and inflammation. Distilled witch-hazel water does not contain the tannic acid found in Hamamelis bark, and does not have the therapeutic attributes often claimed for it.
The leaves and bark of the North American witch-hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, may be used to produce an astringent decoction as a cooling agent for various uses in traditional medicine, herbalism, and skincare products. This decoction was widely used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans and is typically sold in modern pharmacies as witch-hazel water and as semisolid ointments, creams, gels, and salves. It is commonly used to treat diaper rash in infants. Witch-hazel water can be produced by maceration and by distillation. As an ingredient and as topical agent, witch hazel water is regulated in the United States as an over-the-counter drug for external use only to soothe minor skin irritations.
The main constituents of witch-hazel extract include calcium oxalate, gallotannins, safrole, and chemicals found in the essential oil (carvacrol, eugenol). Witch hazel is mainly used externally on hemorrhoids, minor bleeding, and skin irritation.
Native Americans used extract of witch-hazel extensively for medicinal purposes. Many people produced witch hazel extract by boiling the stems of the shrub and producing a decoction, which was used to treat swellings, inflammations, and tumors. Early Puritan settlers in New England adopted this remedy from the natives, and its use became widely established in the United States.
A missionary, Dr. Charles Hawes, learned of the preparation's therapeutic properties, and then determined through extensive study that the product of distillation (likely steam distillation) of the plant's twigs was even more efficacious. "Hawes Extract" was first produced and sold in Essex, Connecticut, in 1846, by druggist and chemist Alvan Whittemore.
Hawes' process was further refined by Thomas Newton Dickinson, Sr., who is credited with starting the commercial production of witch hazel extract, also in Essex, Connecticut, in 1866, and eventually establishing nine production sites in eastern Connecticut. Following his death, his two sons, Thomas N. Dickinson, Jr., of Mystic, Connecticut, and Everett E. Dickinson of Essex, each inherited parts of the family business and continued the manufacture of witch hazel extract, operating competing "Dickinson's" businesses that were continued by their descendants.
Although not fatal, oral consumption of witch hazel water is potentially toxic resulting from the high content of tannins remaining in commercial products. As a result, the ingestion of witch hazel water is inadvisable during pregnancy and lactation.
In the United States, witch hazel water can be used as an ingredient for topical applications, but individual products are not approved as drugs. In 2017, one manufacturer of skincare products containing witch hazel was warned by the Food and Drug Administration for making unsubstantiated health claims and for not providing evidence the products are safe.
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- Noted in Ernest Thompson Seton, The Book of Woodcraft and Indian Lore (1921:422), but rare.
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