scientific name: Hamamelis virginiana
other common names: Agua maravilla, winter bloom, spotted alder
growing areas: Native to the eastern United States
physical description: A perennial shrub that sheds its leaves in the fall, Hamamelis virginiana sends up a number of twisting stems that end in branches containing oval leaves. The plant's seed pods burst open with an audible popping sound and propel two black seeds several yards. The plant produces yellow flowers.
traditional uses: Witch hazel is the extract prepared from the twigs of Hamamelis virginiana through a distillation process. It was used by Native Americans before the colonists arrived, and the settlers soon learned of witch hazel's astringent qualities. The name witch hazel is thought to derive from either the use of the plant's wood to make brooms or else the popping sound made by the seed pods, perhaps thought to be a hint of some occult power. In any case, a decoction of the plant became widely used as an astringent and antiseptic in the United States during the nineteenth century. It was then that controversy erupted following the commercial use of distillation to make extracts of witch hazel. According to author and herbal expert Michael Castleman, some critics contend that distillation removes many of the astringent tannins, leaving water that is of little medicinal value. Castleman has noted that while herbalists recommend that only a decoction of witch hazel be used, the commercially prepared liquid has properties that are reportedly antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, astringent, and anesthetic.
In Puerto Rican communities, a witch hazel compound known as agua maravilla is sometimes reported to be used as a therapy for asthma. The mixture, containing juice of aloe vera, honey, garlic, onion, and other substances, is ingested.
availability and dosage: Witch hazel is readily available in the United States in most pharmacies, supermarkets, and botdnicas. It is also present in hemorrhoid preparations. Agua maravilla is available in botdnicas. Herbalists recommend using up to 2 grams of dried leaves or bark to make a tea to use as a gargle. For an astringent decoction, a similar amount can be used per cup of boiling water. For external topical use, consult the directions on the product.
contraindications: Pregnant and breast-feeding women should avoid using it internally.
special precautions: Consult your physician before beginning any use of an ethnobotanical substance for medicinal purposes.
There is the risk of nausea and vomiting if large amounts are ingested. Skin irritation may also result from topical use.
medical research: None noted.