Witch hazel [Hamamelis virginiana] has a long history of medicinal use as an antiseptic & astringent, & is an indispensable household staple. Uses of this plant were passed onto American colonists by the Native Americans, who worked with it medicinally for hundreds of years. A deciduous shrub, it grows easily in the North East. While its leaves, flowers, & seeds all have lovely properties, it is in its bark that the most useful qualities live. Through its bark we can capture the strong astringent & healing compounds, called tannins. This bark is best harvested by pruning the shrubs in late Fall or early Spring. Right now is the perfect time to prune the shrubs & use these branches to make your own witch hazel extract.
While witch hazel extract is widely available in drugstores, commercially produced varieties are often adulterated with synthetic alcohols & chemical compounds, or produced through distillation. Many of the beneficial compounds from witch hazel bark do not survive traditional distilling processes & are best captured through infusion. Plus, if you make it yourself, you are 100% sure of the quality & ingredients! The extract you make with the following recipe will create an extra-strength witch hazel base that can be used directly, or to craft a myriad of wonderful products & potions-- definitely worth your time!
Once you become accustomed to high quality witch hazel extract, you will not want to be without it.
USES: I’d like to take a minute to review some of this extract’s many uses. Its calming, soothing properties not only reduce swelling, but promote healing of the skin & even fight bacteria; it is one of few botanicals recognized by the FDA as a drug due to this. Truly indispensable to the home first-aid kit, it is wonderful for treating cuts, bruises, scrapes, burns, bug-bites, & sunburns by easing pain & promoting fast healing. It is also a wonderful remedy for varicose veins & hemorrhoids, as well as easing the pain of episiotomy or perineal tears after childbirth. Some rub it into their underarms where it kills odor-producing bacteria & works as a natural deodorant.
Additionally, it is used widely in skin-care products & is suitable for all skin types -- I use it in all of our facial toners & aftershaves.
Witch hazel extract is truly a must have & the key to an endless supply may well be in your yard or neighboring woods! Please be sure to prune shrubs with care so as not to injure them; the shrubs will grow better for having had a ‘haircut’ & will continue to supply you with bark for years to come. Bark & pruned branches can be chopped, peeled, & stored for later use, but the fresh bark will always yield the most potent extract. [Witch hazel bark can also be purchased from many herb houses if you don’t have access to fresh]
My recipe can be adjusted for quantity easily, depending how large your stockpot is & how much plant material you have on hand.
Extra-Strength Witch Hazel Extract
Using pruning shears & a sharp veggie-peeler, chop the branches & twigs to small pieces & begin filling your pot. Use branches of varying size & peel or scrape bark off the larger branches. Be sure to throw the peeled branches in your pot as well as the scrapings; the inner bark contains the highest concentration of tannins. This combination will produce the strongest extract.
Cover with distilled water so the level is about 1” above the top branches & bring to a boil on your stovetop. Once your pot is boiling, reduce heat to simmer & cover it. Simmer for 2 hours. Remove from heat & allow the covered pot, branches, & tea to sit & steep overnight.
The following day, prepare the jars & bottles for your extract, ensuring they are clean & sterile. Remove the large branches & pieces of bark, then strain your extract. I prefer to do it twice, using a medium gauge strainer, then a fine mesh strainer. Compost the plant materials. You now have a super-strong witch hazel base! You may be surprised at the brown color, as most store bought witch hazel is completely clear. This illustrates how diluted the commercially made products are, for it is the tannins that provide all the benefits! In its pure form like this, it'll keep for about 2 weeks in your refrigerator. Should you wish for it to last longer or not require refrigeration, I recommend adding alcohol in a 2:1 ratio. [for 8 oz of extract, you would add 4 oz alcohol] The type of alcohol you choose to use is up to you. You can add pure grain/ethyl alcohol or vodka. You may also choose to add isopropyl/rubbing alcohol, though many prefer not to add this synthetic version to their natural base.
In this form you can use it directly for first-aid by applying it on cotton pads or as a poultice. If you wish to use it for a facial toner, you would need to dilute 2 TBS of this base into about 4 oz of distilled water. The addition of some essential oils to this is lovely & beneficial as well. Many people like to add essential oils to witch hazel to soften its smell, which is a bit strange. I have grown accustomed to the scent & find it does dissipate quickly.
One of my favorite ways to use this strong extract is to make an herbal liniment for muscle & joint pain with it.
Now some of you may be saying “Liniment? There's an ’old-timey’ concept!” but I stand strongly by this usage. As many of you know, I am a big proponent in finding herbal answers & solutions, as well as a strong believer that your grandmother’s grandmother had it right! For those of you who have never used a liniment, I believe you will be pleasantly surprised at how effective & flippin’ lovely they are!
Seriously -- give it a go & prepare to be delighted!
A liniment is a topical remedy for relief of stiff or sore muscles &/or pain. Alcohol or witch hazel based liniments are super effective because they are so quickly absorbed by the skin & can carry the benefits of other herbs along with them. Some people like to use it as a splash, others apply with cotton pads to affected areas, or prefer to apply it as a mist & then rub it in -- All valid ways to use them. There are many different types of liniments, & an endless combination of herbs that can be used to make them. I like to use a combination of herbs with both ‘cooling’ & ‘warming’ properties to give it that icy-hot effect. Please note that due to the menthol in my recipe, it is not recommended for use on broken skin.
The following recipe is a GUIDELINE. There is no wrong or right here. The herbs I am adding all provide their own benefits, but none of them are mandatory & there are certainly TONS of other herbs you could substitute that would also be lovely. Let your judgement & nose [& possible allergies!] guide you.
Don’t let lack of ingredients in hand stop you from trying your hand at making a liniment.
Get a little witchy with it, be creative, & enjoy!
Herbal Muscle & Pain Relief Liniment
Add fresh ginger [if using] & menthol crystals to a clean jar [amber if possible.] Cover with dried herbs. Add the witch hazel base & shake to combine, ensuring all materials are covered with liquid. Allow to sit covered for 4-6 weeks, shaking occasionally.
Strain to completely remove all plant material [throw them in your compost] & then add tincture/s or essential oils. Pour into either a spray bottle or splash bottle to store & use.
Use as needed on stiff & sore muscles or painful joints [great for arthritis] by misting, splashing, or applying on cotton. Rub to penetrate; it will evaporate quickly on skin.
Again, use this only on unbroken skin.
This liniment will be shelf stable for years. If you have very sensitive skin, you may wish to leave the menthol out. You can use whatever herbs you choose in a similar ratios.
The herbs I have chosen provide the following benefits:
Whew! This is a long one! Thank you for joining me. I hope this info is helpful to you. Hopefully, it will inspire you to get out there, get creative, & get making!
Please share with me how it goes & what herbs you decide to use --
I love to hear what you are all up to! Take care!
My husband & I were blessed with 2 beautiful girls. When I was diagnosed with MS, I couldn't keep up the pace working retail. We decided on a simpler life, built a cabin in the woods, & moved to mid-coast Maine