A.k.a. hamamelis virginiana, spotted alder, winterbloom or snapping hazelnut. It's a shrub whose leaves and bark have medicinal properties. Native North Americans used it as poultices for painful swellings and tumours. Works well on eczema and hemorrhoids as it is a fairly powerful astringent. Pretty good anti-inflammatory too, and studies have shown it helps strengthen veins!

It's usually found in a liquid form, although many types of creams and ointments exist. Sometimes its combined with horse chestnut.

Don't drink it, put it on your bum.

Witch hazel is also good for razor burn. Just put a little on a cotton ball and apply it to the affected area.

Witch Hazel or Hamamelis virginiana is found as a native in the eastern parts of North America. It is a yellow flowered, fall blooming shrub. H. virginiana has also been extensively hybridized with H. mollis, the Chinese witch hazel and H. japonica, from Japan, originally by British plants men. Today, it is the hybrids that are common in commerce.

Depending on the cultivars, the modern witch hazels may bloom in fall or be winter blooming.

Hybrids can now be found with flowers ranging from white to yellow to red and are sized from small multi-branched bushes to small trees topping off at about 30 feet. They can be pruned to have one or multiple trunks. The intensity of the lovely smell varies by cultivars but it is typically a very fragrant bloom. The fragrance is most noticeable when the air is warm, which can be infrequent during the blooming period.

The shrub/small tree is deciduous, with an attractive branching pattern, and a nice gray bark and frequently nice fall colors but in my opinion its best feature is the early winter bloom. Looking a bit like forsythia from a distance the flowers petals are narrow and long. The flowers emerge before the leaves so there is not competition from green to draw the eye from the color. The flowers can be relatively inconsequential some years except they are ALL THERE IS at the time they bloom which still makes them quite impressive. Other years the bloom is quite strong and the entire bush will be covered with color and is absolutely magnificent. The flowers have the cute habit of opening in the sun, and curling up again in the cold. The flowering season is long, 4 - 6 weeks is common, with bloom lasting longer in colder years.

The seeds are edible but even more notable; they are self-governed pyrotechnics. Well, not really … but the seed capsules do explode with a noise when ripe. Another one of Mother Nature’s little tricks for seed dispersal! This can be significant for the gardener or flower arranger because the seeds from the previous year mature as this year’s bloom forms. Bringing branches indoors for flower arranging can accelerate the process and one can have Witch Hazel explosions of one’s own.

“The generic name, Hamamelis, comes from a name that Hippocrates applied to the medlar (a small hawthorn-like fruit). The name combines two Greek word roots meaning fruit (apple) and ‘together,’ referring to the plant's habit of producing flowers at the same time the previous year's fruits mature and disperse seed.”

Witch hazel is also used for many skin care and medicinal products due to the astringent properties of the leaves and bark.


SOURCES:
Multiple images available on Google image search under "witch hazel flower"
"A Modern Herbal", by Mrs. Maud Grieve
http://www.stevenfoster.com/index.html (source of the quote above)
http://www3.pei.sympatico.ca/garyschneider/shrub/witchhazel.html
http://magazines.ivillage.com/countryliving/garden/your/articles/0,12922,284660_294156,00.htm

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