The Hamamelis virginiana (American witch-hazel) is one species of the Hamamelis genus that originates from eastern North America, inhabiting the deciduous forests of Canada and the United States. Specifically, the native sites of the American witch-hazel range from Nova Scotia to Wisconsin, and northern Florida to eastern Texas. The first detailed account of the American witch-hazel was in 1588, when English colonist and ethnographer Thomas Hariot’s book “A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia,” in which he described how the indigenous population used “witch hazel” to make bows and arrows. The genus name “Hamamelis” describes how fruit and flower appear on the tree at the same time, and the species name “virginiana” comes from Carolus Linnaeus who designated that the species habitat was Virginia. It is unconfirmed the exact origin of the common name “witch-hazel,” though it is hypothesized that “witch” refers to the old English word meaning “to bend” and “hazel” refers to its resemblance to true hazels of the Corylus genus. The name is also associated with the idea of a “witching rod,” which was used to locate sources of water.
The American witch-hazel is culturally significant for its history of being used by indigenous populations as food, medicine, and for sacred purposes. Its historical medicinal purposes included being used to treat colds, fevers, sore throats, tuberculosis, pain, poisoning, insect bites, hemorrhages, and other common ailments. The seeds of the witch-hazel were also used to divine if a person were sick or not. The indigenous populations used the witch-hazel by creating infusions or adding witch-hazel branches to their baths.
Watching the practices of the indigenous populations, the colonists began creating pharmaceuticals and extracts from witch-hazel, which has now led to the commonplace usage of witch-hazel in modern medicines and cosmetics. Currently, witch-hazel is included in skincare products like toners to treat oily complexion or inflammation. Medicinal uses of witch-hazel also include treating sunburns, soothing irritation from bug bites, and relieving discomfort from hemorrhoids. Using witch-hazel in food, over-the-counter medications, and cosmetics is FDA approved. Connecticut is actually known as the “witch hazel capital of the world” given that it falls within the native habitat of the witch-hazel and is the site of many distillation facilities.
All the information above was provided by Engels and Brinckmann .