One of my favorite native Ozark plants to work with is the witch hazel or Hamamelis vernalis. It’s beautiful, uniquely shaped flowers are a wonderful change to the dead landscape of late winter, and the smell of the newly sprouted leaves fills the woods with an intoxicating scent. This plant is a wonderful native medicinal, as a gentle astringent the witch hazel has been used in cosmetics and external medicine for hundreds of years.
Back in the late 1800′s early 1900′s the Ozark witch hazel was almost completely wiped out by collectors who would come into the Ozark hills and strip entire witch hazel trees of their leaves in order to sell to cosmetic companies. Here’s some information about the plant from A Modern Herbal:
“The properties of the leaves and bark are similar, astringent, tonic, sedative, valuable in checking internal and external haemorrhage, most efficacious in the treatment of piles, a good pain-killer for the same, useful for bruises and inflammatory swellings, also for diarrhoea, dysentery and mucous discharges. It has long been used by the North American Indians as poultices for painful swellings and tumours.The decoction has been utilized for incipient phthisis, gleet, ophthalmia, menorrhagia and the debilitated state resultingfrom abortion. A tea made of the leaves or bark may be taken freely with advantage, being good for bleeding of the stomach and in complaints of the bowels, and an injection of this tea is excellent for inwardly bleeding piles, the relief being marvellous and the cure speedy. An ointment made of 1 part fluid extract of bark to 9 parts simple ointment is also used as a local application, the concentration Hamamelin being also employed, mainly in the form of suppositories. Witch Hazel has been supposed to owe its utility to an action on the muscular fibre of veins. The distilled extract from the fresh leaves and young twigs forms an excellent remedy for internal or external uses, being beneficial for bleeding from the lungs and nose, as well as from other internal organs. In the treatment of varicose veins, it should be applied on a lint bandage, which must be constantly kept moist: a pad of Witch Hazel applied to a burst varicose vein will stop the bleeding and often save life by its instant application. In cases of bites of insects and mosquitoes a pad of cotton-wool, moistened with the extract and applied to the spot will soon cause the pain and swelling to subside. Diluted with warm water, the extract is used for inflammation of the eyelids.”
Witch hazel was often used as a dowsing wood for “witch wigglers” or “water witches” searching out underground water sources.