Lavender blue, dilly-dilly….

There was a time, not so long ago, when many of us associated lavender with little old ladies and viewed it as being slightly old-fashioned…. How times have changed – now it appears we cannot get enough of it…. Whether it’s the current trend for French Shabby Chic or our love affair with English nostalgia – lavender certainly earns a place in either category….

A couple of weeks ago I found myself wandering through the fields of a lavender farm…. It was a thoroughly delightful way to spend an afternoon – with the sun blazing down, the gentle buzz of bees and the fluttering of butterflies….and oh that glorious scent.

It wasn’t hard to imagine being in Provence but it was in fact far from the sunny depths of Southern France…. To be precise this lavender farm is located just 15 miles from the heart of London; Mayfield Lavender is situated in the North Surrey Hills, not far from Carlshalton. When it was founded some 13 years ago it was one of only 15 commercial farms in the UK; now there are over 30, a number that is growing year by year…. But what may come as a surprise is that once upon a time this area of Surrey, particularly Mitcham, Carlshalton, Sutton, Merton and Wallington was the capital of English lavender….

The history of lavender use goes back at least 2,500 years – certainly the Egyptians used it in the mummification process. It is quite likely it first came to these shores with the Romans….lavender’s origins are believed to be from the Mediterranean, India and the Middle East. Today it is cultivated not only in its native regions but throughout much of the rest of the World – North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Japan, Europe….and of course, Britain….

The uses for lavender are endless…. It’s name derives from the Latin ‘lavare’ meaning ‘to wash’. We know the Romans used it to scent their clothing, bed linen (as it deters bed bugs and lice) and in their baths….

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It was also the Romans who discovered the medicinal properties of lavender. The oil is used as an anti-inflammatory, an antiseptic and disinfectant. It can help soothe insect bites, stings, sunburn and minor burns, small grazes, cuts and acne. It helps with indigestion and heartburn and can ease headaches and migraines – it can even help travel sickness. Of course, lavender is also well-known as a relaxation aid, reducing stress levels and inducing sleep….

Recorded evidence of its use in Britain starts in the 12th Century…. Washerwomen in Northern England were called Lavenders, as they scented newly washed linen with it, as it was thought to keep moths and insects away…. It has been grown commercially in the UK since the 1500s; Queen Elizabeth I was an advocate of it – she had it scattered before her as she walked and carried posies of it….the belief being in the Renaissance period not only did it mask bad smells but actually protected against plague…. In fact she loved lavender so much that she even had a special jam made from the herb….

Such became the desire for lavender that commercial growing began; everybody was using it, from scattering it amongst the rushes strewn upon their floors, to it being the main ingredient of their nose gays…. People would of course grow the plant in their gardens – it was even cultivated in monasteries and convents – but the high demand meant growing it on a much larger scale was a viable proposition….

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Surrey proved to be a particularly good region and it was Mitcham and the surrounding area that was to become the heart of lavender growth in the UK. Mitcham itself industrialised initially along the banks of the River Wandle, with varied industries including copper, iron, dye, flour and snuff. By 1750 Mitcham and nearby Merton Abbey had become the printing centre of calico cloth in England….1781 saw this expand to include silk printing…. William Morris opened a factory at Merton – ‘Merton Abbey Mills’ – and here the famous Liberty Silk printing works were based…. All this industrial activity led to the building of the Surrey Iron Railway, the World’s first public railway, in 1803….

But it was back in 1749 that the distillation of lavender water became a commercial venture on an industrial scale – led by two local physic (or medicinal herb) gardeners ~ Messrs Ephraim Potter and William Moore. Together they founded a company to produce toiletries and other products from locally grown lavender (and peppermint which was also grown in the area) – the company was called ‘Potter & Moore’….

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Author Motacilla via Wikimedia

The company set up a distillery to extract lavender oil in Eveline Road, Mitcham – overlooking what is now known as Figges Marsh. The business grew and flourished – and even more so when William Moore’s grandson James took over the helm…. An expert nurseryman with an excellent business head, he bought up surrounding land – by the end of the 1800s Potter & Moore owned 500 acres of land, on which they grew lavender, peppermint, chamomile, roses and pennyroyal….

The lavender was harvested in August; women would cut and bundle (referred to as ‘mats’) and these were then taken to the still room. Work in the fields was hard and poorly paid; in the peak of production during the 1800s the wage was just 10-15 shillings a day for a 14 hour shift – (this is actually good in comparison to what workers in lavender fields further south were paid – they could expect just 8 shillings a day – that’s 40p in today’s money!)….

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After the harvest had been taken to the still room the process of distillation could begin. The cut plants would be put into a ‘retort’ – a large vessel partly filled with water; it was then sealed, either with a door or a lid. Next it was heated; as the water reached boiling point a mixture of steam and oil rises – which then passed through a pipe into a condenser. The steam and oil were combined back into a liquid and ran through another pipe to a ‘separator’ – a tank where the oil would float to the top and the water would be allowed to drain away, leaving behind the pure lavender oil…. 3/4 of a ton of lavender plant would produce 11 or 12 pounds of oil ~ but a little of which goes a long way….

James Moore died in 1851 and then the business passed to his illegitimate son, James Bridger. The success of the company continued under Bridger; after his death in 1885 it was bought by W.J.Bush. In 1968 it was merged with two other companies to form Bush Boake Allen – to become the World’s largest supplier of perfumes. The Potter & Moore section of the business was then sold on again – as is so often the case in business it changed hands and became associated with other names several times more…. But on doing a quick search it is soon evident that Potter & Moore is still very much alive today….

The peak of lavender’s popularity can perhaps be attributed to one formidable woman, Queen Victoria ~ she loved it…. This in turn encouraged most other English ladies to follow suit – from the wearing of lavender eau de cologne, to scenting their linen and making tussie-mussies….they couldn’t get enough. Lavender symbolised cleanliness and purity – an important quality in Victorian times…. It is often said that Queen Victoria even preferred lavender jelly to mint sauce with her lamb….

Oil from British lavender was far more desirable than that of plants from other countries such as France – arguably the scent of English lavender is by far the sweetest (and the most superior of this being from the Mitcham area) – and so lavender from England fetched a much higher price….

By the 1930s most of the lavender fields in the Mitcham area had gone. The land was needed to satisfy the demand for housing; another contributing factor to the industry’s demise was that English grown lavender’s prices were being heavily undercut by French growers…. But the third and final nail in the coffin for Surrey’s lavender presented itself in the form of disease….Lavender Shab Disease to be precise – a fungus that kills the stems of the plant, the first signs being that the shoots wilt suddenly, even when there is no shortage of water….

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Potter & Moore took the necessary measures to protect their own business and by the 1930s had relocated their operation to East Anglia. So, it was to be that the English lavender industry was to fall into decline, with the only real exception being Norfolk lavender – and it was to stay this way until approximately 20 years ago….

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However, the Mitcham area has always remained proud of its lavender heritage; the local football team – Tooting and Mitcham United FC – have it on their badge and Merton Council features in on their coat of arms…. It must have been a great delight to many when lavender returned on a commercial scale to the region…. The owner of Mayfield Lavender had connections with Yardley, an old and established perfumery….and now Mayfield Lavender is a flourishing business in its own right – producing a varied range of lavender products, from bath and beauty preparations, essential oils to scented sachets, lavender tea and even shortbread. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing from the onset; in the first year magpies and crows destroyed nearly 70,000 young lavender plugs – and planting had to start all over again the following year….

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Early morning at Mayfield Lavender Image credit: Beeches Photography – Rudoni Productions via flickr.com

Maybe Mayfield Lavender happened to read the market correctly and recognised an opportunity as English lavender began to rise in popularity once again – or perhaps the likes of Mayfield are responsible for this resurgence …. Whichever reason it cannot be denied English lavender is once again very much in vogue…. In fact, it is now French lavender that is in decline….

Our revived love of lavender includes all the old traditional ways of using it: perfumes, cosmetics, room and laundry fresheners, dried flower arranging or even as a natural confetti at weddings ~ but we are also embracing its merits in the kitchen too…. Its culinary use doesn’t just stop at the lavender jelly Queen Victoria favoured…. Use it in salads, soups, meat and seafood dishes, desserts, confectionery – even cheese making! In baking it is especially popular – lavender cookies are a favourite…. Use the leaves as you would rosemary to flavour meat and vegetables and the flower buds for baking…. And of course, lavender produces abundant nectar, making a glorious high quality honey….

We can’t all grow lavender on a commercial scale but for those of us with a garden it makes a wonderful addition – both for its beauty and the wealth of uses its harvest can bring…. Lavender thrives best in dry, well-drained soil – either sandy or gravelly and it prefers full sun. It needs pruning once a year to prevent it from growing ‘leggy’ and becoming too woody – but apart from that it needs little care…. Grow it in the garden for fewer slugs, snails and aphids….but at the same time attract butterflies and bees….

“Lavender blue, dilly~dilly
Lavender green
If I were king, dilly~dilly, I’d need a queen”…

Please…. If you have read this post through to the end – then I assume you have found it of interest and I hope you’ve enjoyed it…. If you have found this via Facebook a little ‘like’ for the Cottage Capers page would be very much appreciated…. I’m not trying to sell you anything – I’m simply a blogger trying to establish myself…. Many thanX….

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June’s Jewels….

If you are born in the month of June, then you are lucky enough to have not one but three main birthstones….

Perhaps the most well-known is the pearl. Unlike most gems – (which are found within the Earth) – pearls are formed in the shells of oysters, clams or mussels and are organic in origin….

A particle of rock, a grain of sand or a parasite may find its way into the mollusk’s shell…. As it becomes an irritant the creature then encases the foreign body with layer upon layer of the material that forms its shell. This material is actually a relatively soft form of a carbonate mineral called ‘aragonite’ – and when pearls are formed inside the shell they are often very irregular in shape and have little commercial value. The pearls that are sought after are the ones that form within the tissue of the mollusk; these are spherical or teardrop in shape and are perfect for jewellery making…. Today oyster farms produce a steady supply of ‘cultured pearls’….

A newly-opened freshwater oyster, showing the rows of cultured pearls inside. Photographed in Shanghai, China. Author: Istara via Wikimedia Commons

Kokichi Mikimoto was the creator of cultivated pearls and Japan is famous for its cultured pearls; Australia and the Pacific Islands are also well-known for them. Oysters that are two or three years old have an irritant, such as a fragment of mother of pearl, inserted into their fleshy part – they are then submerged into water in mesh bags and fed for up to 7-9 years – then they are harvested for their pearls….

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Image: Mikimoto Kokichi inserts nucleus in a pearl shell via Wikimedia Commons (between 1945 & 1954 – Public domain)

Some of the most exquisite pearls are found in Sri Lankan waters and the Persian Gulf; with their soft cream colour they are known as Orientals. Pearls can be found in fresh water too, (known as freshwater pearls), for example – in mussels in the forest streams of Bavaria, Germany and the Mississippi River….

Generally we think of a pearl as being white or a soft cream; however, depending on the environment and the species of mollusk colours can vary – green, lavender, yellow, blue, grey – even black pearls (found in the Gulf of Mexico and the waters of certain Pacific Ocean islands)….

Akoya Pearls black & white. Author Mauro Cateb via Wikimedia Commons

The most beautiful pearl ever (considered by experts) is ‘La Peregrina’ – or ‘The Wanderer’ and was once given by the actor Richard Burton to his wife, Elizabeth Taylor; but the gem has a much longer provenance than that…. Originally it was found in the waters of the Panama by a slave in the 1500s ~ who used it to buy his freedom…. In 1570 the pearl was given to King Phillip II of Spain; the pearl was mounted in platinum, its one and a half-inch length adorned with diamonds. It then came into the hands of England’s Queen Mary I and then into those of Prince Louis Napoleon of France. He sold it to Britain’s Marquis of Abercorn, where it remained in the family until 1969 – when they put it up for sale at Sotheby’s; which is where Richard Burton acquired it….

Queen Mary I wearing ‘La Peregrina” – Public domain

The largest pearl ever is believed to be the ‘Pearl of Asia’, weighing over 5oz and measuring about 3 inches long and 2 inches wide…. The Shah Jahan of India gave it to his favourite wife, ‘Mumtaz” – he must have adored her as it was also she he built the Taj Mahal for….

Pearls were thought to have medicinal properties and were used in Europe until the 1600s to treat various diseases, including insanity. Even today medicine in Asia uses ground-up low-grade pearls….

Pearls are believed to bring longevity, wealth and power…. And – we all know that saying “Pearls of wisdom”…. a biblical term – “that to waste wisdom on fools is like casting pearls before swine”….

The second birthstone associated with June is Alexandrite – an extremely rare gem which is highly desirable. It is named after Czar Alexander II, when he was still Prince Alexander of Russia, as the stone was first discovered in an emerald mine in Russia’s Ural Mountains during 1839 and on the Prince’s birthday….

Alexandrite is unusual in that it changes colour according to the light…. In day light it is green, occasionally with a blue tint. However, in artificial light it becomes violet, or a reddish-purple…. Sri Lanka is the main source of Alexandrite but has also been found in Brazil, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Burma….

Chrysoberyl var. alexandrite under UV light long waves. Image: Geri Parent via flickr.com

Because the gem is only a relatively recent discovery there has been little time for myths and legends to surround it….but in Russia particularly it is believed to being luck….

The third birthstone for June is the Moonstone; so named as silvery rays appear within the gem as it is moved around, resembling moonbeams. ‘Pliny’ – an ancient Roman historian, believed the moonstone changed in colour with the different phases of the Moon; this belief remained widespread amongst people until the 1500s. Ancient Romans also thought the image of the goddess of the Moon, Diana, was captured within the gem….

Credit: Amelia ISA via flickr.com

Moonstones belong to a family of minerals called feldspars – roughly 50% of the Earth’s crust is made up of feldspar. The best moonstones are found in Sri Lanka but they are also found in the Alps, Madagascar, India and Burma. A common variety of the gem is labradorite which is a popular choice for jewellery. Those who wear moonstones are thought to be brought the power of wisdom, victory and health…. In India moonstones are often displayed upon yellow cloth – the colour being sacred…. It is believed a spirit lives within the gem that is meant to bring good fortune….

Mad March Hares….

If you follow the meteorological seasons Spring is already with us; however, if it is the astronomical method you use, you will have to wait until March the 20th…. Either way Spring will finally be with us this month – and you might be lucky enough to spot a mad March hare….

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Brown Hare (Leveret) Smudge9000 via Foter.com / CC BY-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/smudge9000/34618450662/

Some believe the European hare (Lepus Europaeus) was brought to the UK by the Romans; whilst they most likely did introduce them to the rest of Europe (probably from Asia) there is evidence hares did not actually arrive in the UK until just after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Nowadays the European hare can be found widespread throughout Central and Western Europe and most of the UK – preferring flat countryside with open grassland. As they are more active at night they will rest during the day in woodland and hedgerows….

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Mad March Hares oldbilluk via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/oldbilluk/4454938937/

Hares are members of the Lagomorpha family and so are related to the rabbit, but unlike their bunny cousins they have never been domesticated. Although similar in appearance, hares are larger in size than rabbits; they also have longer black tipped ears, longer tails and longer more powerful limbs, enabling them to reach speeds of potentially 45mph – making them Britain’s fastest land animal….

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Brown Hare Wimog via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/32750626@N07/3760703539/

Their breeding season is between January and August – and is accompanied by high jinx leaps, bounds and ‘boxing’ – (hares can jump backwards and sideways as well as forwards)…. We associate this mad behaviour with March but this is only because it is more visible to us in March and April. We also often assume the boxing is two males fighting – but more often it is the female throwing the punches….trying to ward off an over-amorous male – she may also be seeing how strong he is and deciding whether he is a worthy mate….

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Brown Hares naturelengland via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/naturelengland/14590700893/

A male hare is called a ‘jack’, whereas the female is known as a ‘jill’…. She will produce up to 3 litters a year of up to 4 leverets at a time…. Unlike rabbits, hares do not live underground in burrows but have simple nests; the young are born with fur and open eyes….

Generally hares are solitary or live in pairs; the collective name is a ‘drove’…. Hares are herbivores, eating herbs, bark and twigs but mainly grass in the Winter months….they do not hibernate….

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Winter hare Tomi Tapio via Foter.com / CC BY-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tomitapio/4797323020/

The hare population in the UK is under serious threat; since the late 1800s the numbers have declined by some 80%. Predators include foxes, weasels, stoats, polecats, buzzards and golden eagles – but the biggest predator of all has to be man. Traditionally the hare is a game animal – it is also sometimes considered a pest as it can cause damage to crops and cereal. Around 300,000 a year are shot in Britain; unlike much other game the hare is not protected by a closed hunting season, so even during the breeding season they can be shot. This in itself is a double whammy for the hare population as it means by killing the adults their young are left to starve….

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Brown Hares in the stubble Ian-S via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/Ian-s/6629931133/

Disease takes its toll; particularly European Brown Hare Syndrome (EBHS) which is highly contagious – (hares are not affected by Myxomatosis)…. Other causes of death include being killed on roads and by farm machinery – especially during grass cutting time…. Another major contributor to their decline is modern-day farming methods….in the last 50 years 150,000 miles of hedgerow have been destroyed in the UK – depriving the brown hare of shelter and food….

These wonderful creatures have been around since the time of the dinosaurs (proven by fossil evidence)…. It would be unthinkable to allow the European brown hare to disappear from Britain altogether – the least we can do is to stop shooting them!

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European Hare Sergei Yeliseev via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/yeliseev/4561167961/

 

The Captivating Spell of Witch Hazel….

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….

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Hamamelis mollis

‘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….

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Witch Hazel along the Appalachian Trail – UGArdener via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ugardener/5160810695/

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….

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Hamamelis japonica – ashitaka-f studio k2 via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/iwahige/12010335123/

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….

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20120223_UBCBG_HamamelisMollis_Cutler_DSCO6514 via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wlcutler/6778791480/

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….

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Hamamelis mollis ‘Princeton Gold’ – Tie Guy II via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/versicolor/3278823053/

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….

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Hamamelis ‘Diane’ – LEMills via Foter.com / CC BY=NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8366835@N05/2338781939/

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….

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Humphreys’ Witch Hazel Oil (front) – Boston Public Library via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/855829956/

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….

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Humphreys’ Witch Hazel Oil – an ointment for the people (back) – Boston Public Library via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/8557191659/

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….