by Jennifer Heath
She was my first encounter with the name, “witch hazel.” Later, a little bit older, I watched in awe as my mother performed her nightly ritual, beginning with witch hazel, clear liquid in a bottle with a yellow cap, which she applied as an astringent, before (or was it after?) piling on Pond’s Cold Cream and rubbing her face gently in circles for what seemed like hours, before removing the gloppy goo with a soft flannel cloth (we didn’t have Kleenex tissues in La Paz). My father used to joke that she sometimes looked like an astronaut in bed, what with the “wings” she wore glued between her eyes to soften the frown lines, the creams, the hair rollers, and the gloves and socks to keep her Vaselined hands and feet soft.
I’ve maintained the tradition of using witch hazel as an astringent, or toner as it’s now called, but I can’t get near Ponds. It’s like dipping my hands in honey ─ unnervingly sticky. And forget the hair curlers and the forehead wings ─ I wear my frown lines with pride.
The witch hazel I buy still comes in bottles almost exactly like my mother’s, except hers were probably glass whereas mine are plastic. Nowadays, you can find expensive witch hazel variations whipped up as salve or mixed with cucumber and aloe vera. I find mine on the bottom shelf of the grocery store cosmetics aisle.
According to the herbals, witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is an astringent not just used for beautifying the skin, but good for bruises, muscle aches, burns, sores and oozing skin conditions. The parts processed are the leaves and bark.
Mimi Hedl’s wonderful post about witch hazel brought on a lot of discussion. Nita Hill had the sudden epiphany that witch hazel might be the right shrub in her new garden. I ─ of course ─ wondered about its folklore and medicinal aspects. I think now I really hadn’t thought of witch hazel as an actual plant you could actually grow. Nita tells me it thrives in areas as chilly as zone 3 (and we are zone 4-5). Now I’m trying to think where it might enjoy living in my own garden.
Witch hazel ─ whose folk names include snapping hazelnut, spotted alder, and winterbloom ─ has long been used to fashion divining rods, which apparently explains the “witch” part of its name. What’s more, the bark and twigs are useful against evil influences. Wearing it close or keeping it in a handy pocket helps to mend a broken heart and to cool anger and uncontrolled passion.
Today another bit of sweet magic was passed on to me by Nita from a friend of hers. One more exquisite gift from friendly Witch Hazel:
“My mom passed yesterday morning. We had moved her on Monday to the hospice care center … she was, I think, relatively comfortable. Dad and I were holding her hands and Kerry was there holding my hand. We were all listening to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s recording of Bach’s Cantatas #82 (Ich habe genug) and #199 (Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut). Dad had brought in some witch hazel branches whose aroma filled the room. I wished her a safe journey and minutes after Dad told her it was all right to go, she did.”