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Herb Lore: How witch hazel made its way into everything

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Davis Dunavin
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WSHU Public Radio
Bottles of witch hazel at American Distilling's headquarters in East Hampton, Connecticut.

Witch hazel comes from a small tree — really more of a shrub. It’s light brown with green leaves and yellow flowers. You might see it growing in clusters in the woods anywhere in the eastern United States.

“In these swampy areas, witch hazel grows really well,” said Melissa Josefiak, director of the Essex Historical Society. “Even if you prune it all the way down, it will grow back to its full height in seven years. You’re making the most of a nuisance shrub, and we’ve got a lot of it in the Connecticut River Valley.”

Witch hazel has been a staple of self-care since before Europeans came to America. The Mohegan tribe in Connecticut used it to treat the common cold, eye and skin conditions, muscle aches and a bunch of other ailments.

“In a nutshell, you could say witch hazel is a soothing salve,” Josefiak said. And it’s an unusual plant because it blooms in the winter.

“So to Native Americans and to European settlers,” she said, “it was considered almost magical, because that’s a time when most plants are dead.”

The most basic method was to gather up the branches and flowers, and carry them back to town in bushels — then grind them up and boil them to make herbal salves.

“But when you take those branches, especially as they’re blooming, and you chop them up, and you distill them, or put them through water, and you steam them, then they produce an extract,” Josefiak said.

That extract is what ends up on drugstore shelves around the world today. A local missionary named Charles Hawes first pioneered the formula in 1846 and sold it in Essex. Within a few decades, a local entrepreneur named T.N. Dickinson took over the witch hazel market and built a factory on the railroad tracks in the center of town. The business got its start in the snake-oil era — when newspapers sold all sorts of weird remedies, some not very effective.

“And they are clever enough, savvy enough, marketable enough to take it from the snake-oil salesman pitch into something that you need — through advertising, through careful product placement, this is something that every American should have,” Josefiak said. “Witch hazel in your medicine cabinet.”

The Essex Historical Society contains a huge scrapbook of newspaper clippings from the first half of the 20th century. Some are ads for Dickinson’s Witch Hazel with a picture of a cartoon witch for marketing. That’s a misnomer, because the name has nothing to do with witches — it comes from an old English word that means soft and pliable, like the branches. But of course, a clever marketing campaign can mean everything.

The witch conveys a certain ‘magic,’ a certain healing power, an approachable witch if you want to look at it that way, and she could solve your family’s ills with this astringent,” Josefiak said. “Dickinsons’ claimed, or Witch Hazel would claim, that it would cure everything from acne to cancer at certain points.”

“Witch hazel choppers require no complicated equipment,” which appeared in a 1914 newspaper article about the traditional method of harvesting the plant. “Rough, warm clothing and a small axe, well-sharpened, cover the case. Oxen are used for hauling the brush since they work much better in the swamp than horses would.”

Harvesters still venture out into the woods. Only now the oxen have been replaced by trucks and heavy machinery.

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Davis Dunavin
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WSHU Public Radio
Harvester Bob Haines loads bundles of witch hazel into a chipper in Southbury, Connecticut.

In the Connecticut River Valley, it’s made by American Distilling in East Hampton. Vice President Bryan Jackowitz led me onto the factory floor. Empty bottles roll down assembly lines as workers man giant machines. Big metal vats line the walls.

“Smells like witch hazel!” he said. “Witch hazel permeates every floor of this building. Like a woodsy, earthy smell.”

Dickinson’s hydrating toner runs on one line. On another line, bottles that will make their way into pharmaceuticals. Witch hazel ends up in sunscreen, acne pads, anti-itch cream, anti-aging cream and just about anything else you can imagine putting on your skin. Witch Hazel became really popular with the organic, natural skin care movements that started in the 1970s.

“I mean, what is more organic, local, native than witch hazel, right?” Jackowitz said. “It literally grows in the woodlands of New England.”

The business has come a long way from the early operation of T.N. Dickinson. Dickinson’s sons ran competing businesses until they were brought together by Bryan Jackowitz’s father under the American Distilling label.

“My father had the vision to say, ‘Hey there’s only a few companies making genuine witch hazel in the world, I can probably produce it better, faster, cheaper than everyone else —that’s his saying: better, faster, cheaper — if I can figure out how to automate this,’” Jackowitz said.

He said he’s proud of his family business — and all those familiar bottles still found on the shelves of American medicine cabinets.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.