Each woody seed capsule holds two shiny, black, rice-sized seeds that are
explosively catapulted into the air on a dry autumn day. The seeds are flung
quite a distance – up to 30 feet – and people who are collecting witch hazel seed
capsules are advised to put them in a closed container. Other seed collecting
advice includes being patient, because unless exposed to a warm-cold regime,
the seeds may not germinate until the second spring. Dense clusters of witch
hazel may appear because of the plant’s ability to spread by way of suckers at
the base of a parent tree.
South of central New England, witch hazel frequently dominates the
understory and can be an aggressive invader of abandoned fields, so it’s good
that there’s a market for it. In 1866, cutters began delivering
witch hazel to Essex, Connecticut, where Thomas
Newton Dickinson set up a distillery to
manufacture the eponymous astringent
lotion that has soothed itchy rashes
and insect bites ever since. He worked
with his brother for a while, but the two didn’t
get along, and for many years there were two
competing witch hazel lotion manufacturers:
T.N. Dickinson and E.E. Dickinson. Now both
branches have been bought by a third company,
which still operates from nearby Hamden.
To make the lotion, stems are cut in winter,
chipped, and distilled to produce an extract
that is then mixed with alcohol. After being
cut, witch hazel resprouts vigorously, and
commercially harvested plants can be whacked to the ground
again after five to eight years. Heat from the stills heats the factory,
and after the branches have been cooked and the essence has been
extracted, the branches are chipped and sold for mulch, so this is a
business with a minimal waste stream.
Witch hazel is sold not only as the familiar clear liquid used on
inflamed skin, but also as an ingredient in many skin products, from
deodorants to soap. The original Dickinsons are said to have gotten the
recipe for witch hazel from Native Americans, who used witch hazel for many
of the same skin problems it is used for today.
Though this species is generally considered to be short-lived, a large multibranched witch hazel has flowered and popped seeds at the Arnold Arboretum
in Massachusetts for more than 100 years. It was collected as a young plant in
1883. A specimen planted there in 1925 may yet outdo its predecessor.