Witch Hazel: Connecticut is the Source
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.
Many scientists have doubted that witch hazel really works, attributing its effect to the added alcohol. “Oh no, there’s something in it,” says Strong, who often uses it and has studied its make-up. “It’s an astringent.” Chemists searching for its secret have found tannins, flavonoids, volatile oils, and other compounds, but nothing that definitively explains its effectiveness. American Distilling is doing clinical trials on the many ways — owner Ed Jackowitz won’t say which ones — in which people have used witch hazel for decades. “We still don’t know why it works,” he says. Folk wisdom may be proven right. Recent studies have found anti-viral, anti-oxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties in witch hazel. The anti-oxidants, one researcher concluded, might be effective in anti-aging and anti-wrinkle creams — another instance, Thoreau might say, of witch hazel’s power to turn autumn into spring.
But first you have to cut the brush. On a brisk day in January, the Halls are working a few miles from home in privately owned woods, where they hope to harvest 30 tons. “It’s everywhere,” Ben Hall says, “but it’s scattered.”
He and Troy move quickly from trunk to trunk. Ben flicks away snow at the base with his chainsaw, then cuts while Troy holds. Ben trims the trunks at ground level because stumps could puncture loggers’ tires. “Besides,” he adds, “if you leave six inches, you’re leaving a few cents. That isn’t much, but over 30 tons, it adds up.” He even cuts trunks no thicker than his finger. “Collect enough feathers, you’ve got a pound,” he says. They pull the brush to a sled attached to a skidder, which hauls the load to a clearing. There, Ben operates the claws of a log loader to grab a pile of brush and guide it into a chipper. A stream of chopped witch hazel shoots into a big dump truck.
There will always be plenty of witch hazel in Connecticut, but Strong and Hall sometimes wonder who will cut it. “Most young people don’t want to know anything about witch hazel,” says Strong.
Hall nods: “Nine out of ten who try it don’t do it more than once, because it’s hard work.”
“And the cutters are the key,” says Strong. “If you don’t have brush, you don’t have a product.”
And then what would happen to the skin of America’s women?
Find a recipe for witch hazel extract and read about its uses.