Okay, like many of you, when used to hear the term “Witch Hazel” I would always think of this:
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“A cup of tea, a cookie, and youuuu …”
I eventually found out that although it sounds slightly diabolical, witch hazel is a flowering shrub that produces an astringent used in hundreds of products, from skin care to first aid. It grows abundantly in the forests of the Northeast — you may noticed it when hiking in late fall or early winter as that’s when it blooms with fairly bright yellow flowers.
As it turns out, Connecticut is the commercial witch hazel production capital of the world. Dickinson’s Brands is based in East Hampton, and supplies many major corporations with the pure distilled astringent that is used in many formulations. The Hartford Courant recently ran a nice profile of the company as well as providing some good information about the history of witch hazel.
From the article —
Native Americans called the plant “winterbloom” because of the distinctive yellow flowers produced in the late fall. They exploited the plant’s astringent qualities by boiling the branches and bark in water to make a catch-all remedy for bruises and insect bites. These uses were passed on to the early New England settlers, who probably adopted the name witch hazel from the old English word “wych,” meaning flexible, or because the distinctive yellow blooms colored the woods around Halloween.
Eastern Connecticut became a major center of witch hazel production after the Civil War, when a Baptist minister named Thomas Dickinson began distilling the hamamelis plant in Essex and nearby towns. After the Jackowitz family bought the operation in the 1970s, the plant was modernized and consolidated at East Hampton.
The article goes on to talk about how witch hazel is harvested, how much is produced and distributed. It’s also a “green” type business because it falls under the amorphous heading of “sustainability,” so it’s got that going for it, too. In addition, by clearing the shrubby plant out of forests, allows hardwoods to grow. Sounds like a “win” all around.
Personally, I’m always curious how people come to discoveries like witch hazel. Like, did Native Americans try burning every tree and bush to see which ones would give up something useful, or did they have a fire going with some witch hazel in it, and accidentally discovered its healing properties?
I guess it’s like with the first person who looked at a lobster — a giant, green underwater grasshopper — and said, “Wow, I bet that might make good eating.” We may never know.