Well, I’m a bit disappointed (but not surprised) that the new British prince has not been named Alfred, but I must return to my more mundane life. The heat wave is over, thank goodness, but I am remain aggrieved: bruised and beaten from gardening and various athletic activities, bitten by a variety of bugs, burned by the sun. Consequently I have become completely dependent on, and enraptured with, witch hazel. I can’t get enough. I love its simplicity, its cheapness, its effectiveness, its old-fashionedness. Yet I know little about it–there are so many bottles around the house my stepson asked me what it was, and I had to admit complete ignorance. So I looked it up.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginica): fruiting stem with flowers and seed. Colored engraving, c. 1792, after F. J. Schultz; Pierre Redouté, Hamamelis Virginica = Hamamélide de Virginie, c. 1801-19, New York Public Library.
I do know quite a bit about European medicinal plants and their history, but witch hazel is a North American native (actually there are Asian varieties too) so it doesn’t turn up in any of the medieval or Renaissance herbals with which I am familiar. The Native Americans used its bark medicinally, but Europeans (in typical European adaptive fashion) amplified its potency by mixing it with distilled alcohol–and consequently it became a stillrooom/medicine cabinet staple. The standard recipe seems to be 84% witch hazel extract and 16% alcohol today; I’m not sure what is was several centuries ago, but certainly not standard. From past to present, it has been prepared in a variety of forms–poultices, lotions, potions, tinctures and salves–as well as the common “tonic”.
John White’s depiction of a Virginian chief with witch-hazel bow, c. 1585-93, British Museum; an advertisement for Hazeline Witch Hazel, c. 1903, Wellcome Library, London. This latter image reminded me of John Derian‘s apothecary series of decoupage trays, so I clicked over, and there was witch hazel, of course.
Apparently the witch hazel shrub is also beautiful, and a very early bloomer: I might have to get one of my own. Or I could just by a print. And lots and lots of more bottles of this panacea.
Witch Hazel at the New York Botanical Garden this early spring, photograph by Ivo M. Vermeulen; “Witch Hazels on Salmon Wood” by Kate Halpin, Etsy.