Witch-Hazel: The Old Time Mountain Skin Medicine

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Ulmann, Doris, photographer. "Granny" Minton, near Abingdon, Va. , ca. 1930.
Ulmann, Doris, photographer. “Granny” Minton, near Abingdon, Va. , ca. 1930.

Growing up, my grandmother had what seemed to be dozens of plants growing around her mountain home, each with a specific purpose should my cousins or me find ourselves injured or sick.

Newborn babies would be given catnip tea, a bad sunburn always meant that we’d be snapping one of the gooie leaves of her aloe vera plant, and each spring everybody who came near the homeplace would find themselves drinking a cup of sassafras tea simply “because” she said so!

My grandmother was the last of her kind, a mountain granny woman who trusted the wisdom of her ancestors belief in tonics, herbs and old wives tales far more than the city slicker doctors who worked in the county-seat.

Of all her beliefs which included, “flipping babies”, staying up with the dead and countless superstitions, nothing stands out in my mind quite as much as her unending trust in witch-hazel.

Suffering from psoriasis or eczema? Her advice was to rub some witch-hazel on it.

Git e’t plum up with skeeters? Rub some witch-hazel on the area.

Acne on your face? Rub some witch-hazel on your face.

Poison ivy?  Yep. You guessed it! Witch-hazel.

When it came to any type of skin-related ailment in her home, you could bet confidently that witch-hazel was going be applied.

It was almost laughable at how much she relied upon this plant’s medicinal qualities in her curing, but she was in good company — Appalachian residents had been relying on the plants extract long before the mountains were ever called “Appalachia” and centuries prior to the arrival of white settlers.

Native Americans are believed to have been the first to use witch-hazel extensively for medicinal purposes.  The extract was produced by boiling the stems of the shrub and producing a decoction that was used in treating swellings, inflammations and tumors.

In addition to being used as a medication, early European settlers also observed Native Americans using American witch-hazel to find underground sources of water. This activity is probably where the common name witch-hazel came from.

Because of the native’s association of the plant appearing where underground sources of water appeared, early white settlers began using forks from the plant’s branches for dowsing and water divining; it is from this practice that the plant probably received the name, “witch hazel”.

Upon being introduced to the plant’s medicinal qualities, early settlers quickly began implementing the plant into their own treasure-trove of medical knowledge and soon, the plant was being used by colonists throughout the American coast, as well as in Europe.

A missionary, Dr. Charles Hawes, learned of the preparation’s therapeutic properties, and then determined through extensive study that the product of distillation (likely steam distillation) of the plant’s twigs was even more efficacious. “Hawes Extract” was first produced and sold in Essex, Connecticut, in 1846, by druggist and chemist Alvan Whittemore.

In the years that followed, witch-hazel’s popularity with regard to folk medicine only intensified and reached its zenith when it was determined to be capable of “easing discomfort” to women during the healing process following childbirth.

The plant was so popular at the turn of the century that it even had a jingle published in its name:

“Witch-hazel bough! Witch-hazel bough,
Though wizards’ arts are powerless now,
A high resolve, a steadfast will,
A fearless heart work wonders still.
To find and win a needful store,
Of goods, and gold, and wisdom’s lore,
The true divining-rods for me,
Henceforeth must toil and patience be!
Then welcome, honest Labor!
Thou shalt bloom unplucked, Witch-hazel bough!”

These days, there aren’t very many people who still grow or produce the extract of witch-hazel; however, its popularity is still going strong, centuries after it first entered the English lexicon.  Today, like years prior, it’s still being used to treat acne, poison ivy, and a host of other skin irritants.

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