Witch hazel is native to Maine and grows wild here. It's a common ingredient in many over the counter remedies and skin treatments. Credit: Courtesy of Katie Krebs

Wild witch hazel is a native plant in Maine with a centuries-old track record of medical uses so well proven that it’s one of the few botanicals approved by the federal government.

Anyone who has the plant growing in their yard has the basic ingredient to make remedies for treating everything from itchy skin to sore muscles.

Often found under beech and birch trees growing with wild hazelnuts and honeysuckle, witch hazel was used by original inhabitants of New England, according to Arthur Haines, a Maine-based senior research botanist with the Native Plant Trust.

“The astrigant and anti-inflammatory actions have a long founded reputation for treatment of bruising, inflammation, sore muscles, burns, bleeding, hemorrhoids and diarrhea,” Haines said. “The Cherokee, Chippewa, Iroquois and Mohegan all used [witch hazel] as a dermatological aid for wounds, sores, insect bites and similar superficial issues.”

According to Haines, the plant contains tannins, flavonoids and other phytochemicals that combine to produce a natural astringent and anti-inflammatory.

Thanks to having government approval as a drug, witch hazel remains a common ingredient in skin cleansers, deep cleansing pore nose strips, over-the-counter astringents and hemorrhoid creams.

If you have witch hazel growing on your property, or have access to wild plants and want to use it as a topical remedy, there are two ways to prepare it.

One way is to prepare a decoction. Place some chopped witch hazel bark and twigs in a pot and cover with water. Bring the water to a boil on top of the stove at high heat. After it comes to a boil, cover the pot, reduce the temperature to low and let the mixture simmer for at least 30 minutes. Then let it sit in a cool place overnight. The next day it can be strained into a glass jar and covered. This will last up to four days when stored in a cool, dark space.

For a longer-lasting witch hazel topical, you can make a tincture by putting chopped bark and twigs into a glass jar and covering them with vodka. Cover the jar and put it in a cool, dark place for six weeks. After six weeks, strain the liquid into another glass jar, cover it and store in a cool, dark place. Stored properly, it will last up to three years. Before applying it to your skin, dilute two tablespoons of the tincture in a half-cup of water.

To use either the decoction or diluted tincture, soak clean gauze, a washcloth or cotton balls in the mixture and then apply. Or you can place some of the liquid into a spray bottle to spritz directly onto your skin.

Both the plant’s bark and leaves can also be steeped in hot water to make tea. But before drinking or otherwise ingesting any form of witch hazel tea, you should first consult with your doctor or health care provider.

According to Jennifer Kinney, pharmacist with Northern Light Health, medical literature does reference drinking witch hazel tea or taking it internally to treat vomiting, diarrhea and fevers. But she cautions against overdoing it. Ingesting too much witch hazel, she said, can do more harm than good.

“Taking witch hazel in large doses is not recommended,” Kinney said. “This is due to potential harm to the liver.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.