Witch Hazel – Hamamelis Virginiana: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Most Popular Astringent of Wild Plants

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Witch hazel is one of those edible and medicinal plants that many people have used frequently without even thinking once about herbal medicine.

Witch hazel (hamamelis virginiana) isn’t listed in Haliburton Flora. We’re on the border of its natural distribution. It didn’t take off as an understory shrub here around Haliburton like, say, its floral lookalike leatherwood. It’s found to a much greater degree south of us, especially in Ontario’s Carolinian forests.

Witch Hazel - Hamamelis Virginiana
Witch Hazel – Hamamelis Virginiana, Beginning to change into its autumn gold

The hazel part of its name is likely do to the leaves resemblance to true hazel. The aforementioned similar looking plant around here, leatherwood, is also a shrub with threadlike yellow flowers. It’s easy to differentiate due to timing though; witch-hazel blooms much later in the year, and leatherwood is one of our early spring flowers! True hazel also blooms early spring, and ours has tiny bright red flowers. Witch hazel and true hazel are more likely to be confused later in the year after true hazels telltale hazelnuts have been eaten.

Edible Uses of Witch Hazel

The not so palatable leaves can be used to make a tea, but are typically mixed in with more flavourful herbs if used at all.

The pistachio-flavoured seed contents are also edible. They’d be more popular if they weren’t encased in a hard black shell.

In a pinch the astringent bark can be used to quench thirst. Just chew and spit.

Medicinal Uses of Witch Hazel

Witch Hazel is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive
  • Integumentary
  • Reproductive
  • Respiratory

Medicinal tags include Anti-Inflammatory, Astringent, Sedative and Styptic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes an extract of the plant as an astringent face wash. Factory-distilled witch hazel is available commercially. Pond’s Extract, Thayers, Mario Badescu may ring a bell. It’s used for a variety of skin support from the most popular – refreshingly treating minor blemishes on (oily) skin – to soothing burns including sunburn, douches, enemas, eye inflammations, gargles, and treating hemorrhoids.

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Like other strong astringents there are also usages for some digestive, upper respiratory and menses issues. If you sweat or have a sauna, you can add witch hazel to your hot rocks for clearing out phlegm.

Witch Hazel - Hamamelis Virginiana
Witch Hazel – Hamamelis Virginiana

Alternative Uses of Snapping Hazel

Forked branches are used for the folk practice of divining water, granting us the “witch” part of witch hazel. Some sources talk like this is a dead practice, but there are still diviners out there.

The extract is commonly used for aftershave, lotions, mouthwashes, soaps and other cosmetics.

Growing Hamamelis Virginiana

Witch hazel provides a golden show of autumn leaves and fall flowers, a winter bloom so to speak. The flowers hang on for a while after the yellowed leaves have dropped. True gold, and better yet, it’s native!

The pollinators that visit its flowers most are flies and wasps; owlet moths may play a primary role in its pollination as well. A few bees, moths, bugs and beetles visit it. And it’s the host plant for the witch hazel dagger moth (acronicta hamamelis).

Like jewelweed, the seed capsules are rather explosive. The exploding pods make an audible sound when the seeds are expelled. I skipped ahead and bought my shrub from ONPlants, and I look forward to seeing how well it will do here. For ample flowering, plant in full sun.


Consume in moderation.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Mi’kmaq Medicines (2nd edition): Remedies and Recollections

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

Stalking the Healthful Herbs (Field Guide Edition)

The Green Pharmacy: The Ultimate Compendium Of Natural Remedies From The World’s Foremost Authority On Healing Herbs

Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments

The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine

Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants

Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

The Earthwise Herbal, Volume II: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants

Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses

The Herb Bible

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

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