Foraging Along Pimmit Run: Harvesting Witch Hazel

Our native Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a fabulous small native tree that is not just pretty to look at! In addition to its ecological benefits, it has medicinal value and is easy to harvest and enjoy as a topical astringent. It's exquisite blooms bring cheer during some of the dreariest days of fall and winter, even standing up to snow and ice. The native Witch Hazel provides multi-season interest and is a wonderful addition to a residential landscape as well as a welcome sight in the native plant communities of the forest, where it is a key member of several common native plant communities in our area, including small stream oak-beech and hardwood forests (see https://explorer.natureserve.org).

The native Witch Hazel in winter

The structure of the native Witch Hazel flowers is fascinating. A close up look reveals the female part of the flower (pistil) surrounded by four pollen-bearing males (stamens). The female parts develop into small, hard, capsules that develop over the next growing season and the following fall expel seeds 10 to 20 feet away.

The exquisite blooms of our native Witch Hazel

Like many of our native plants, Witch Hazel also has many medicinal uses! Native Americans have long used its twigs and bark to treat many conditions (see http://naeb.brit.org/. Its most valuable uses are to sooth common skin concerns. As someone who spends a lot of time in the woods, I frequently get poison ivy rashes and am always in search of relief from bug bites in the warmer months. Fortunately, Witch Hazel is terrific at soothing bites, bruises, stings, and skin cuts. It is also effective as an anti-inflammatory and as a skin astringent or toner.

The telltale amber color signals the real deal

While Witch Hazel is readily found in drugstores, it’s much more potent if made from scratch. That's suggested by the deep amber color that is retained when it is homemade. Fortunately, it’s really easy to make a Witch Hazel decoction that can be used as a skin soothing lotion throughout the year. My only caveat is to limit your foraging to Witch Hazels on your property or where you have clear permission to forage. It’s never a good idea to forage native plants in parks or other wild areas where the ecosystem benefits from them.

All it takes to make a Witch Hazel astringent is a bunch of Witch Hazel twigs, branches and (optionally) blossoms. As it happens, the best time of year to harvest these is at the time of bloom or just afterward, because this is when the medicinal qualities of the plant are most potent. Peak Witch Hazel blossom time also happens to be the perfect time to prune or trim your Witch Hazel. It’s not difficult to gather a bunch of twigs when tending to annual shaping!

Witch Hazel twigs and branches are key ingredients, flowers optional

I pruned my two Witch Hazels and ended up with about 1/2 pound of twigs, branches and blossoms. I cut the twigs and branches into small pieces and used a carrot peeler to scrap the bark from the branches and reveal their inner surfaces. I removed the leaves (for compost), but left most of the blossoms intact. I put everything in a stainless steel pot and covered it with water to cover plus about one inch. I brought this to a boil, covered and lowered the flame, and left to simmer for about 3-4 hours. Recipes call for simmering for anywhere from 2-8 hours. The water turned to a deep amber. After removing it from the heat, I let it sit overnight away from the heat.

Witch Hazel brew at the beginning of its cooking session

The next morning I strained the Witch Hazel twigs and branches out with cheesecloth. I ended up with more base than I needed, so I reduced and strengthened the base by boiling it down by half. I strained it again with cheesecloth and put the remainder in sterilized 12 ounce glass Mason jars. I put 8 ounces of the base into each jar and added another 4 ounces of vodka so that it will last a long time and I won't need to refrigerate it. I have a handy little roll-on dispenser jar that I can keep nearby during the summer months to apply the astringent as needed. That's it! Now I am ready for this summer's onslaught of poison ivy and mosquito bites!

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