The Mysterious Past and Present of Witch Hazel

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One of the few products that's both FDA-approved and endorsed by real witches

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The golden flowers blooming in the dead of winter may have been the first clue to Native Americans that there was something unusual about witch hazel. Beyond being used in the first mass-marketed American-made toiletry (originally called Golden Treasure, then renamed Pond's Extract) -- and being one of the only medicinal plants approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a non-prescription drug ingredient -- witch hazel has been pressed, boiled, and steamed into the service of human health for centuries.

The Osage used witch hazel bark to treat skin ulcers and sores; the Potawatomi steamed twigs over hot rocks in their sweat lodges to soothe sore muscles; the Iroquoi brewed a tea to treat dysentery, colds, and coughs. Since then studies have found active compounds in witch hazel such as flavonoids, tannins (hamamelitannin and proanthocyanidins), and volatile oil that give it astringent action to stop bleeding. The same witch hazel bark tea that was sipped to stop internal bleeding was also injected into the rectum to reduce the pain and itching of hemorrhoids. 

Given its versatility, some believed tea made from witch hazel leaves and bark would heighten occult powers as well. Many modern witches consider witch hazel a magical herb, using it to keep away evil and to heal broken hearts.

But it isn't only distillations made from parts of the witch hazel shrub that have mysterious histories.

The Mohegans are also believed to be the first to show English settlers how to use Y-shaped witch hazel sticks for dowsing, an ancient method for finding underground water. In fact the name witch hazel is believed to have come from the Middle English "wicke" for "lively" -- the dowsing stick bends toward the ground when water is detected below -- and "wych," an old Anglo-Saxon word for "bend."

A lot of people poo-poo the idea that a witch hazel stick can actually detect subterranean water. "They say it's a bunch of witchery," says Curtis Strong, a fourth-generation witch hazel harvester, better known as a "brush cutter." A native of East Hampton, Connecticut, Strong's family has been in the area long enough that his ancestors had land grants from the King of England before America was a nation.

"An Old Timer showed me how it works," says the 72-year-old Strong, "and I have used it to find water, 20 to 30 wells, and every one of them had water right where I told them it was going to be."

When he's not dowsing for water or enjoying retirement from his career as an electrical engineer and farmer, Curt Strong and his sons can be found -- at least in the late fall and early winter -- in the "boonies" of eastern Connecticut, harvesting the 80 tons of witch hazel they sell each year to American Distilling. The world's largest manufacturer of witch hazel products happens to be right in their hometown of East Hampton.

***

Naturally an American company whose business revolves around a product with the mystical qualities and long history of witch hazel would need a mystique and interesting story of it own. So it is with American Distilling.

Baptist minister Thomas Newton Dickinson wanted a new venture after making a fortune supplying uniforms to Yankee troops during the Civil War. People in the area often had a stand of witch hazel in their backyard, and a still to cook it down, bottle it up, and sell it. Figuring a consortium of small operators would add up to a big business, Dickinson in 1866 opened a distillery in Essex, Connecticut.

Unfortunately, his sons disliked each other and broke apart the company when their father died and left it to them. Their sons in turn continued the family spat and operated rival Dickinson companies, one in Essex and the other in East Hampton.

Forty years ago, Ed Jackowitz first bought the T.N. Dickinson brand and distillery in East Hampton, then bought the competition, E.E. Dickinson, in Essex. Consolidating operations in East Hampton, Jackowitz hired none other than Curt Strong -- wearing his electrical engineer's cap, rather than his brush cutter's -- to automate the plant.

Decades on, the automated network is a marvel to behold: The hoppers filled with witch hazel chips; conveyers that move the chips to the augurs and into the stills; three deep wells from which water used to steam the chips is triple-filtered, removing minerals and anything else there might be down to the microscopic size of a virus; tanks that purify and then infuse a 14 percent ethyl (grain) alcohol into the witch hazel distillate as a natural preservative; 10 massive 25,000-gallon storage tanks filled with the re-liquified witch hazel that will be shipped in containers ranging from five-gallon jugs to 6,000-gallon tankers to become a key ingredient in cosmetic and first aid products around the world.

Bryan Jackowitz, one of the owner's two sons who work with American Distilling and its marketing director, says the company supplies bulk witch hazel that is used as a natural base for toners, cleansers, clarifying products and makeup removers produced by such top-shelf cosmetics companies as Estée Lauder, L'Oreal, Revlon and Neutrogena.

Because all of American Distilling's witch hazel is made according to the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) standards, products such as Preparation H and TUCKS pads for hemorrhoids, and Playtex personal cleansing wipes highlight the witch hazel they contain. Its own branded products include the yellow-label Dickinson's facial cleansers and toners and blue-label T.N. Dickinson's anti-bacterial spray and cleansing pads.

"You hear about all these different extracts, like aloe and chamomile," says Bryan Jackowitz. "People say 'I've heard it's good for me. We'll 'I've heard it's good for me' and documented proof that it actually works for this application, this application, and this application are two different things." He adds, "We have both a history of use and our own analytical chemists and microbiologists that control the quality of our product and continue to extend our understanding of witch hazel -- what makes it tick and how we can make it tick better."

With all it has going for it, how is it the liquid with the strange-spooky name is still for so many just an oddity stuck in the corner of someone's bathroom cabinet? "A lot of people view witch hazel as a commodity product," says Jackowitz, "like alcohol or peroxide. Those people buy one bottle a year and it sits under their cabinet or sink, and if they have an issue they use it."

On the other hand, he adds, "What we like to say is we have a few people buy a lot." The reason? "Those people are educated on the uses of witch hazel." Touché.


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The author of Victory Deferred, John-Manuel Andriote has specialized in HIV/AIDS reporting since 1986. His research materials, correspondence, and recorded interviews are part of a special collection curated by the Smithsonian.

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