First, here's a few paragraphs from the accompanying article on Witch Hazel:
Witch Hazel has a long history of medicinal use, primarily as an antiseptic and an astringent. The herb was listed in the United States Pharmacopoeia of 1882, and it was still listed in the National Formulary as late as 1955. Native Americans applied the leaves and bark as a poultice on painful swellings and tumors and to reduce inflammation. According to James Duke (Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, 1989), the fresh leaves are highly astringent, and were used in tea form by the Cherokee "for colds, fevers, periodic pain, sore throat, and tuberculosis, and to wash sores and wounds." Other tribes used the herb to treat bruises, scratches, bad backs, and sprains, and in a steam bath to relieve rheumatism.
Many of these treatments passed on to the American colonists. In the 19th century, witch hazel extracts of various kinds were used internally and externally to treat myriad conditions, among them burns, diarrhea, dysentery, inflammation, phlebitis, wounds, and ulcers. Witch hazel is still used externally to treat hemorrhoids and varicose veins, and very dilute distilled witch hazel can be used in eye lotions.
Pure witch hazel extract, available in many drugstores and supermarkets, is the most frequently used form of the herb--more than a million gallons are sold each year. Useful as an antiseptic, astringent, or make-up remover, and even providing relief from hermorrhoidal pain and bleeding, it is a all-purpose first-aid lotion and cosmetic aid.
Witch Hazel is an oddball shrub. It flowers from October to April, when all other shrubs and trees lose their leaves. The leaves turn yellow in the autumn and stay that way throughout the winter. "Witch hazel flowers have four-inch long golden-yellow strap-shaped petals that are tinged with red at the base." Hamamelis virginiana is an attractive shrub. You might want to get a tree/shrub identification book and see if you can find some near you. I know of two of them in the valley here, but hadn't thought to harvest any of the twigs. If I can still ID these two to my satisfaction, then I'll see about making some of the following extract. You can see images of witch hazel bushes by using Google images and typing in witch hazel. Sometimes that can help you ID what you are looking for.
Here's the recipe:
Although the Pilgrims' tonic is not as potent as the commercial extract, you can follow this easy recipe to have fun brewing your own witch hazel remedy:
- Prune one pound of fresh twigs from shrubs as soon as they have flowered. This practice produces the strongest tonic.
- Strip off the leaves and flowers (save these for sachets) and chop the twigs into a coarse mulch using either a mechanical mulcher or pruning clippers.
- Place the chopped twigs into a two-gallon stainless steel pot.
- Cover the twigs with distilled water (available at the supermarket) and bring the contents to a boil.
- Reduce heat to simmer, then cover and cook for at least eight hours; add water as needed to cover the mulch.
- Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature.
- Pour the witch hazel tonic through a funnel containing a cheesecloth filter and into clean plastic squeeze bottles or other suitable, tightly-capped containers.
- Use the tonic within a week unless it is kept refrigerated. You can preserve your tonic for long-term room temperature storage by adding nine ounces of vodka or grain alcohol to 23 ounces of tonic. Yield: one gallon.
Warning: Do NOT use internally! Keep out of the reach of children.
I don't know about you, but witch hazel is one of those common household things I've always kept around. I use my commercial witch hazel extract to clean my skin at times. Or, in summer when I tend to sweat, I use it on my face. Or I swab my armpits with it to kill the bacteria there (I don't use deodorants). Also good for cleaning wounds, etc. It's useful stuff and I'll enjoy making my own.