Witch Hazel: Connecticut is the Source
“You ought to let me cut all that brush on your place,” says Hall with a sly grin.
“He was just poking me,” Strong says later. “He knows he can cut as much as he wants, as long as he pays me the right price.”
Brush cutters have been having this conversation for 150 years, many of them within a few miles of this spot. “We’re standing at the center of where 90 percent of witch hazel comes from,” says Strong. The witch hazel industry requires hundreds of tons of brush per year, and it’s all supplied by about eight families of cutters, most of whom live in central and eastern Connecticut. The Halls cut about 80 tons a year within a few miles of home.
Witch hazel grows from southern Canada to Florida and from Minnesota to Texas, but it flourishes most densely in the eastern half of Connecticut. Not quite a tree but more than a shrub, witch hazel has speckled gray bark, a slim trunk typically just a few inches in diameter, and a bushy top that ends well shy of 20 feet. For three seasons of the year, it’s inconspicuous in the understory.
But after all the leaves have fallen and the last aster has succumbed to frost, witch hazel displays its exuberant eccentricity, bursting into festive yellow blossoms that Thoreau compared to “furies’ hair, or small ribbon streamers.” At the same time, the previous year’s blossoms have ripened into hard fruits, which now explode, propelling the small seeds up to 30 feet. “Out cutting, I’ve been hit in the face often,” says Strong. “It’s like getting snapped with a finger.”
The Native Americans called this strange plant “winterbloom” and ascribed special powers to it. They used it as a cure-all, steeping the bark and branches to make a tea (“kind of bitter,” says Strong), which they put on cuts, bruises, insect bites, pinkeye, hemorrhoids, and sore muscles — maladies for which witch hazel is still used. They also drank the tea to treat colds, coughs, diarrhea, tumors, and internal bleeding.
The first settlers were soon using the concoction. Some also stripped a branch of the plant to make a “witching stick” for finding water. Strong was deeply skeptical about this until an old dowser taught him how to do it. “The stick just dives toward the ground,” he says. He has located several wells this way himself.
In the mid-1800s, witch hazel extract became a Connecticut industry when a minister named Thomas Dickinson opened a distillery in Essex. Two generations later, after some nasty intrafamily warfare, two rival brands of Dickinson’s witch hazel were being manufactured in the state, one in Essex, the other in East Hampton.
In 1972, Ed Jackowitz bought the East Hampton distillery and the T. N. Dickinson brand. One day in 1981, when Strong brought in a load of witch hazel, Jackowitz asked him to help build an automated plant. Strong, an electrical engineer by training, accepted the challenge and ended up working there for 26 years.
Automation won the witch hazel war. The Essex plant closed in 1997, and American Distilling is now the world’s sole supplier. The plant runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The ingredients remain unchanged — witch hazel chips, pure water, natural alcohol added as a preservative. Ten stills empty into 10 tanks holding 25,000 gallons each. The distillate may leave the plant in a 6,000-gallon tanker truck, a 55-gallon drum, or a 16-ounce bottle, among other bulk and retail sizes, headed for Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, or manufacturing plants throughout the U.S., not to mention almost every drugstore in America. The discarded chips are sold to landscapers for mulch. Even the heat generated is recycled to warm the factory and its water.