I learned something new last week - Hamamelis spp. a.k.a. witch hazel is actually a winter-blooming shrub! What a welcome bit of bright colour in what can be a very grey season in my part of the world. And what a special kind of tree that puts out flowers during such a cold time of the year.
Whenever a new plant gets brought to my attention, I usually try to learn a bunch about it and then keep an eye out for it when I'm being woodsy. I thought I'd fill you in on my review of witch hazel's identifying characteristics and medicinal properties.
Hamamelis virginiana is native to eastern North America including Ontario, however it's a popular species among horticulturalists and non-native Asian varieties are frequently used in landscaping and gardens. Mature witch hazel will be 6-15 ft in height with alternating (vs. opposite) branches that cluster at the base of the tree. Its foliage is present from spring to early fall, usually prior to the flowers blooming and will be 2-5" long , egg shaped and wavy-toothed. The yellow flowers are very distinctive with four long curling petals to a flower.
Medicinally, witch hazel is a stellar astringent and anti-inflammatory. Its bark is fully of tannins that help to tighten superficial cells when taken internally or used topically. Because of this, some of the ailments Hamamelis spp. is traditionally been used for include hemorrhoids (both internally and externally), varicose veins (internally), sore throat/tonsillitis (as a gargle), and topically on burns, cuts, scrapes, insect bites, itchy skin, and sunburns.
Keep your eye out for those distinctive yellow flowers as winter moves forward; come March a little burst of colour in the landscape will be a sight for sore (and cold) eyes.
Toronto Gardens Blog: http://torontogardens.blogspot.ca/2010/11/which-hazel-witch-hazel.html; accessed Jan. 27, 2014
Newcomb, L. Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. L, B & C, 1977.
Godfrey A. & PR Saunders. Naturopathic Botanical Medicine Volume 1: Botanical Medicine Monographs. CCNM Press, 2010.