January and February can be dreary months, no place more so than in the garden; whilst a few bulbs are beginning to make their presence known, it takes a brave flower to face the cruel, harsh elements of Winter…. A few do rise to the challenge though – winter pansies and jasmin, hellibores and of course, witch hazel….
The one we have here in this garden, Hamamelis mollis (Chinese witch hazel) has done itself proud this year…. Planted soon after we moved in, some thirteen or fourteen years ago, it has taken its time to establish and get its roots down; this is the first year it has really flowered well….
‘Hamamelis’ literally means ‘together with fruit’ – flowers, fruit and next year’s leaf buds can all appear together on the plant…. It is a shrub with several tricks up its sleeve; its early flowers, the foliage that turns to pleasing Autumn colour before the leaves fall….and then it has its party-piece…. The Hamamelis produces a seed pod in the form of a two-part capsule that contains just one black, glossy seed – the pod explodes open and can catapult the seed up to 30ft away….
Witch hazel is a genus of flowering plants in the Hamamelidaceae family; there are four species native to North America, one in Japan and another in China….
The first to be called witch hazel – because of its resemblance to the European hazelnut tree – is the Native American species H.virginiana. It was discovered in 1687 and first grown in England by Henry Compton, the Bishop of London….
The Japanese variety (H.japonica), which is similar to H.virginiana but with bigger flowers, was first introduced to Europe in 1863. In Japan the witch hazel is known as ‘mansaku’ – translating as ‘rich crop’. Folklore says when the flowers appear in great numbers a good crop is predicted for the coming harvest….
The Chinese (H.mollis) was first marketed in the West by the Arnold Arboretum, Massachusetts, in 1914. Although similar to H.viginiana it has a much stronger scent and is sometimes considered to be the most attractive of the witch hazels, as its flowers have a less twisted appearance. Native to central and Eastern China, it matures into a large shrub or even small tree, but potentially reaches only up to 10ft in height in our gardens….
The Latin ‘mollis’ means ‘soft’ and refers to the leaves which turn a buttery yellow in the Autumn. The yellow flowers are usually tinged red at the base, with 4 long petals, 4 short stamens and grow in clusters. Flowering from mid to late Winter through to early Spring, it is an ideal plant to cut a few stems from to bring indoors, so that its lovely citrusy fragrance can be enjoyed….
Since the 1930s hybrids have been produced from the two Asian species, forming the Hamamelis Xintermedia hybrids: the first named ‘Arnold Promise’ arriving in 1963 has fragrant, yellow flowers. In 1969 ‘Diane’ was brought to us, with its lightly scented red flowers and long flowering season. Since the mid 80s a whole host of new varieties have been introduced to the market….
Witch hazel is a fabulous feature plant; the darker varieties produce spectacular Autumn colour, changing from green to yellow, to orange and finally to dark red…. It is perfect for the British climate, as the winter chill is needed for full flowering potential to be achieved; it is incredibly frost tolerant and is disease resistant…. Witch hazel is easy to grow but prefers non-chalky soil and is extremely low maintenance….with no need for pruning – just remove any dead wood….
Of course, witch hazel’s talents don’t stop there…. The bark, twigs and leaves contain tannins and polyphenols which can be extracted and added to water (sometimes with alcohol) to produce distilled witch hazel…. Thomas Newton Dickinson, a Baptist minister, was the first to distill witch hazel commercially. He built a distillery in 1866, after learning of its medicinal properties from Native American Indian tribes. He used 86% double distilled witch hazel with 14% alcohol – the brand is still available today….and little has changed to its formula….
Witch hazel is a natural astringent – removing excess oil from the skin and shrinking the pores. It helps prevent spots, blackheads and blemishes and is one of the best treatments for acne…. It is often added as an ingredient to beauty and health products….
It is useful to help fight signs of aging and can reduce puffiness and brighten the eye area – (just take care not to get in the eye itself, as it will sting)…. It is also known to help fade bruises and speed up the healing process….
Applied to minor cuts and scrapes witch hazel will stem. Bleeding and is a good choice for the cleansing of wounds – (especially the shop bought variety as it usually contains isopropyl alcohol)…. Used after shaving it will stop any nicks from bleeding and will help prevent razor burn….(good to use after a wax treatment too, ladies)….
It will also relieve the itching caused by insect bites and stings – sooth a baby’s nappy rash and will cool down sun burn…. It is thought to help eczema….
A few drops inserted into the ear canal will help break down troublesome ear wax…. It can help varicose veins, by temporarily reducing the swelling and so relieving pain…. It is a common ingredient used in haemorrhoid treatments….
To sooth a sore throat, gargle with natural (no alcohol) witch hazel; it can ease the symptoms of tonsillitis, laryngitis and sinusitis….
Pure witch hazel will also help reduce the swelling and discomfort associated with gum disease and can relieve the pain of a troublesome wisdom tooth…. Mix together a teaspoonful of pure witch hazel with a drop of clove oil and myrrh oil to rub on the gums of a teething baby….
As you can see witch hazel really is one of Mother Nature’s most precious natural remedies; can you really afford not to have a bottle to hand in your bathroom cabinet…?
There seems to be no end to the wonders of witch hazel…. If you missed the last blog post but would like to read more about this very special and versatile plant How divine….