What a treat to encounter fragrant witch hazel flowers in the autumn woods. The narrow yellow flower petals, miniature streamers, warm the landscape just before winter.

Yankee Magazine featured this useful native plant, Hamamelis virginiana, in its Nov./Dec. 2008 issue (yankeemagazine.com/issues/2008-11/features/witch-hazel/all). Hampton, Conn., is “the heart of witch hazel country,” said writer Steve Kemper.

In central and eastern Connecticut, from November to April, a small number of local families cut hazel to deliver to American Distilling in East Hampton, where the bulk of the world’s supply of distillate is manufactured from the chipped stems. From there the product is shipped to manufacturers of L’Oreal, Neutrogena, Proactiv, Tom’s of Maine, Preparation H and other goods. You can probably find witch hazel in products used from head to toe and everywhere in between.

According to WebMD, witch hazel is applied to the skin to treat such irritations as itching, pain, injury and inflammation, mucous membrane inflammation, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, bruises, insect bites and minor burns. Leaf extract, bark extract and witch hazel water are used as astringents to tighten the skin and in some medications to slow or stop bleeding. Witch hazel has long been recommended for mitigating acne.

Ingredients that may be responsible for the medicinal properties of witch hazel include flavonoids, tannins (hamamelitannin and proanthocyanidins) and volatile oil, writes herbalist Steven Foster at stevenfoster.com/education/monograph/witchhazel.html. “Antioxidant, radiation-protective, and anti-inflammatory activity have been confirmed,” he adds.

The seed capsules of witch hazel have the interesting mechanical trait of “exploding” — shooting seeds up to 30 feet from the parent plant, sending its young out into the world, a bit, where they’ll have room to grow on their own without competition from the old ones. I brought a few of these capsules indoors once, put them in a covered Mason jar and forgot about them — until some time later, when a very loud “ping” made me think a rock had hit a window. Of course it was the exploding witch hazel capsule.

One hazel harvester interviewed for Yankee said the seeds often hit him in the face. Michael Dirr, in his "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants," said the capsules don’t discharge their seeds until 12 months after flowering — maybe sooner, if brought indoors. “Remember this,” writes Steven Foster, “if you bring a bouquet of witch hazel twigs indoors when flowering in autumn. The seed capsules of the previous year are there at the same time. When they heat-up in the warm confines of a home, they will explode!”

This tall shrub, growing to 20 feet, can be a beautiful addition to the landscape, with its brilliant yellow fall foliage. While the native plants are understory species in the woods, they grow fuller given more sun. Other species of Hamamelis include H. japonica, Japanese witch hazel; H. mollis, Chinese witch hazel; and their hybrid, H. x intermedia. Many cultivars exist, some flowering in early spring, some with purple flowers.

To make your own witch hazel preparation for external use, Maine herbalist Corinne Martin says to gather individual leaves or small, leaf-bearing twigs from spring through early fall, or strip bits of bark from the shrub in early spring (leaving enough bark so that the stems survive). Make a strong tea from these materials to apply externally to the skin. Martin’s book Herbal Remedies from the Wild has other suggested uses of the herb.

Jean English lives in Lincolnville.