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At this moment, a small tree patiently waits along Indian Moccasin Trail at Natural Bridge State Park, biding its time until the sure signs of colder weather signal that its moment to shine has come.
The maples still gleam and the sumacs still glow. Most of the flowers have long since shriveled and fallen away. But common witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is only now starting to bloom.
The large shrub is seen frequently in damp woods all over the eastern United States and west to southeastern Minnesota, and it doesn't get very big – only 15 feet or so. But it is unusual. From late September to November, after its leaves have dropped, spidery one-inch flowers will open, each with four slender, yellow petals. For a while, the witch hazel, in its own modest way, is the queen of the forest.
Its leaves have straight veins, with scalloped edges. Its twigs are covered by rough, brown hairs. Its forked branches were often used by settlers as divining rods.
When its seed capsules mature the following autumn, they burst with a pop, throwing seeds up to 50 feet in all directions.
In a different form, witch hazel has been present for more than a century in just about every pharmacy and barber shop in the United States, and beyond.
Up Indian Moccasin Trail, a sign close to a witch hazel tree offers a brief history lesson: how all parts of the tree have been used for medicinal reasons by Native Americans for ages; how it is still used by people today in a distilled form, as a skin toner. And there is a reprint of an advertisement from the 1890s from the Pond's Extract Company of New York and London, describing the virtues of its witch hazel "extract." "The People's Remedy," Pond's called it. "For burns, scalds, bruises, sprains...lame back, frozen limbs...broken breast...rheumatism...bleeding piles...toothache...sore throat...bleeding lungs...sting of insects...memorrhages (sic)."
Whether witch hazel extract cured a bleeding lung malady, we may never know. A century ago, Theron T. Pond was employing solid Yankee ingenuity, working with the Oneida Indians of Utica, New York to market one of their traditional remedies to the growing European population. They called it "Golden Treasure."
The Oneida weren't the only Native Americans to find witch hazel appealing. The Potawatomi, Ojibwa (Chippewa), Iroquois, and Menominee used witch hazel infusions – leaves and inner bark steeped in water – to extract the active ingredient, tannic acid. These brews were used as teas to relieve lung ailments, diarrhea, sore muscles, and various skin troubles. The Iroquois tried to inhibit vomiting with a witch hazel poultice, while the Ojibwa used the plant to induce it.
The tree also held spiritual significance beyond its direct medicinal properties. According to a 1923 publication of the Public Museum of Milwaukee, the Menominee used witch hazel seeds as sacred beads in medicine ceremonies.
Today's pharmacies regularly stock distilled witch hazel and carry ointments containing witch hazel to reduce inflammation, slow bleeding and relieve pain. Homeopathic remedies for various conditions also use witch hazel. The clean, slightly medicinal scent of witch hazel water returns me to my childhood. I recall the ritual of my grandfather applying it to his face every day after shaving. I don't remember watching him shave, but I do remember the smell, so I guess I must have been there.
Of course, in the midst of all this praise for witch hazel's myriad uses, there has to be a little all-American marketing exaggeration. For Varro E. Tyler, author of The Honest Herbal , it arises over the use of distilled witch hazel. While infusions and poultices retain the plant's tannic acid, the distillate does not.
The mystery of how the distilled product manages to work without its active ingredient is not often discussed. Tyler is an exception.
"Hamamelis water is especially interesting in that, due to its method of preparation by distillation, the final product is devoid of tannin; it is essentially a mixture of 14 percent alcohol in water, with a trace of volatile oil," Tyler writes.
One might just as soon splash a little red wine on the face, he adds. It contains just as much alcohol, plus a trace of tannin.
Hmmph. Whatever. He may be right, though I don't expect to test his theory anytime soon. But don't blame the little witch hazel tree. It just wants to look pretty for a spell at the edge of the forest in autumn.
Katherine Esposito writes about natural resource and environmental issues for Wisconsin Natural Resources.