You may have eaten hazelnuts, and you might have used, or at least heard of, witch hazel.
But do they come from the same plant?
They definitely do not, and I’m going to describe here the difference between hazel and witch hazel.
I’ll also explain why they have similar names even though they’re not related at all.
First, the Words
Both plants, the hazel tree (Corylus spp.) and witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.) have the word hazel as a part of their common, English names. Note that they’re not the same in other languages!
In other Germanic languages, like German and Dutch, for example, the hazel tree is called something similar to hazel (Haselbaum and hazelaar), but the witch hazel’s common name has nothing to do with hazel. More on this in a bit.
Old Words and Etymology of Witch Hazel
This shared use of hazel in English comes from the fact that, hundreds of years ago, the Middle English word hasel and its ancestor the Old English word hœsel (itself of Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European linguistic origin) were applied to a wide variety of trees and shrubs.
First identified in written history in around 1540, the term witch hazel (wyche hasille) was used to refer to multiple trees that had pliant or flexible branches. The “witch” part of the name is the part the denotes the pliability and most likely comes from the Old English wice, itself from wican meaning “to bend”.
A similar linguistic pattern can be seen with the wych elm (Ulmus glabra), which in fact was sometimes referred to as witch hazel at that time.
“True” witch hazel, i.e., Hamamelis, is native to North America and was widely used medicinally by the Native American populations before European colonists/invaders arrived; they had their own names for the plant which have sadly not made it into our modern lexicon.
When the British settlers learned of the plant, they called it witch hazel possibly because its leaves reminded them of the leaves of the true hazel tree — they are very similar — or because it fit the description of a generic “witch hazel” tree with its flexible branches.
Another, related likelihood is due to the fact that some Native American peoples used witch hazel for dowsing and water divining (finding underground water sources in the landscape) as hazel and wych elm were (and indeed still are) used in Europe for the same purposes.
That would have provided another cognitive link in the minds of early British settlers to the hazel or witch hazel trees they knew from home.
A Different Sort of Witch
Some among you might wonder how, if the word “witch” is involved, there’s been no mention so far of the magical sorts of witches. Language is a funny thing. Whereas I’ve been talking about the old word wice, the old word for witch as in a female practitioner of magic is wicce.
The etymological origins of this older word are themselves a bit muddy, and no one’s really sure from where it came. But it seems that there are two distinct streams of linguistic evolution: one involving wice to wych and its meaning of flexibility, and the other concerning wicce to witch and its meaning of magic or sorcery.
It’s not impossible that there may have been some crossover at some point, but for the most part, when we talk about witch hazel, we mean flexible hazel, not magic hazel.
German and Dutch
Or at least, we usually don’t mean magic hazel: I did say for the most part after all. In modern German and Dutch, witch hazel as in Hamamelis is Zaubernuss and toverhazelaar respectively. The German basically means magic nut, and the Dutch means magic hazel (more or less). So why the emphasis on magic?
One likely explanation is that these words both came to German and Dutch through English, and took the witch aspect of witch hazel in its modern form.
After all, it was English-speaking colonists who named Hamamelis the witch hazel, so its name in other languages may have derived from that. (The French don’t bother with a common name and just call it Hamamélis.)
That is, however, speculation; there may be another reason best known to speakers of German and Dutch!
Now that we’ve got that settled, or at least a bit more clear, I’ll move onto the specifics of the two plants, hazel and witch hazel.
The most common form of hazel is Corylus avellana. A part of the same overall plant family as birch trees (Betulaceae), “common hazel” is a relatively small deciduous tree or large shrub. While I will primarily discuss the common hazel here, it’s worth knowing that there are actually around 18 different species of hazel throughout the world.
The common hazel is native to Europe and western Turkey, and it may also be found as far east in Russia as the Ural Mountains. It can be found in such diverse places as Britain and Scandinavia, the Iberian peninsula, and around the Mediterranean on both sides: its range extends into Morocco, Algeria, and Iran.
The filbert, or Corylus maxima is another species of hazel, this time native to the south-east of Europe and south-west Asia. Then there’s the beaked hazel (Corylus cornuta), which is native to North America. Other species of hazel share common characteristics with the three mentioned here.
The Wonders of Common Hazel
But back to the common hazel. Probably most widely known for its nuts, which can be called hazelnuts or cobnuts (or even filberts, occasionally, confusingly, and regionally), the common hazel can reach a height of 12 meters (39 feet) if it’s left alone to grow naturally.
However, hazels tend to be multi-stemmed plants and are often coppiced so that they repeatedly produce long, straight stems.
Coppicing is the ancient practice of regularly — every 8 years or so in hazel’s case — hard pruning or cutting the tree right down to the ground so that each remaining stem is only about 5cm in height. This cutting happens in spring, after the hazel’s catkins have fallen, and is carried out with a clean, sharp saw and a lot of care!
Not all trees can cope with being coppiced, so don’t try it on your whatever in the garden! But with hazel and some other species, when done correctly, coppicing can produce the straight, new growth that’s so useful in fencing, hedging, and some building works.
Coppicing also functions as a method of woodland management which can allow particular ecosystems and endangered species to thrive. It even extends the age of the coppiced trees when done correctly; a coppiced hazel can live for hundreds of years whereas otherwise, its lifespan might only be about 80.
What Hazel Looks Like
The common hazel has beautiful, textured, bright green leaves with pale undersides. They’re round to oval in shape, with pointed tips and a covering of gently bristly hairs. They’re doubly serrated leaves, which means double toothed: each leaf’s edge is toothed, or jagged, and each tooth has its own little tooth on it.
Like many other trees, hazels are monoecious, which means that they have both male and female flowers on the same tree. However, female hazel flowers are pollinated by male hazel flowers from a different tree.
The male flowers take the form of long, yellow (with a hint of green) catkins that appear in the early spring. Female flowers look like tiny buds with little red tufts at the ends (officially, styles, but tufts sounds nicer).
If pollination is successful, the female flowers will develop into what we know as hazelnuts. These fruits (because they are technically fruits) are found in clusters of one to four. When young, each nut is a pale green surround by bright green leafy cups.
As they mature, the nuts’ shells become dark brown and hard, and the leafy cups also dry, stiffen, and turn brown.
Wonderful for Wildlife
Hazelnuts are an excellent food source for humans and wildlife, and in fact the entire tree provides food and a habitat for a wide variety of creatures. Hazel is particularly associated with the dormouse, often called the hazel dormouse due to how important hazel is to its survival.
Seriously threatened and endangered, the dormouse’s varied diet consists in part of hazelnuts and also of the caterpillars that eat hazel leaves in spring.
As I mentioned above, hazel has long been used for dowsing and water divining. A forked hazel rod, held and carried in the right way, will “jump” in the hands of the dowser when it detects water or indeed certain other substances. This may sound ridiculous, but it isn’t.
Petroleum companies have been known to use dowsers — successfully — to find oil wells. Mining companies have used dowsing to locate mineral seams. And the dowsing rod or other tools doesn’t have to be hazel either. Other woods have been used: witch hazel, wych elm, willow.
Some dowsers use copper rods, and I even knew someone who dowsed very successfully with two old bucket handles.
As an aside, if you’re interested, do some research into dowsing and try it for yourself. It really is fascinating!
Why We Need Hazel
A tree that’s been part of European landscapes for a very long time, the hazel and all the species it encourages and protects are vital to biodiversity and the continued survival of threatened species. Plus, of course, hazelnuts are wonderful in breakfast or cake.
Now that you know about hazel, I’ll explain about witch hazel. Native to North America as I said, that particular species of Hamamelis, American / Virginian witch hazel or common witch hazel, is Hamamelis virginiana.
There are in fact 5 different species including Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) and Japanese witch hazel (Hamamelis japonica). There are also a wide variety of cultivars.
Physical Characteristics of American witch hazel
However, we’re primarily interested here in the common witch hazel, as it’s from this species that the medicinal witch hazel extract is made. A deciduous shrub, it usually grows up to about 5 meters (16 feet) tall but can occasionally reach 10 meters (33 feet) as a small tree.
Its dark green leaves begin as a light green color and are smooth in texture. They may be almost round or a variety of ovoid shapes, and are still green on the plant when its flowers emerge. Ranging from yellow to orange to part crimson in some witch hazel species, the flowers of H. virginiana are a pale yellow.
They blossom in mid-autumn to late-autumn and can remain on the branches through winter after the leaves have fallen and even into early spring. Sweetly-scented, the flowers have long (up to 16cm or 6inches long), crimped, and gently-twisted petals.
Medicinal Uses of Witch Hazel
As remarkable as the witch hazel’s flowers are, most people know it from the astringent extract made from its fresh leaves and young twigs (and sometimes bark). Used by Native American peoples for a variety of applications, witch hazel’s traditional medicinal actions are described in the excellent book A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve.
Do get the paper version if you can; it’s a wonderful two-volume reference book with very useful illustrations.
Useful for bruises, bleeding, and swelling, witch hazel was also used in bowel complaints like diarrhoea and dysentery, for mucous and ophthalmia.
It is still recommended by some medical experts for external use on varicose veins, haemorrhoids, minor skin irritation and inflammation, insect bites and stings, minor bleeding, sunburn, and stretch marks, along with being used by many people as a general astringent skin toning lotion.
If you’d like to try witch hazel yourself, talk to your healthcare professional and see if it’s right for you.
Now you know the difference between hazel and witch hazel. If you’d like to plant either, or both, find the variety best suited to your planting zone and your soil type, and do some research into how best to grow your chosen species. Witch hazels can be a bit tricky to grow, but a little learning can help you with that.
Whatever you choose, happy planting and happy growing.
Featured Image by Maja Dumat at Flickr
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Kira Nash lives with her family in the sunny French countryside amidst bees and swallows. A writer, editor, and artist by trade, she also teaches creative meditation. She’s passionate about nature and ecology and tries to live as green a life as possible. In her spare time, she surfs, reads, and plays with her cats, although not usually all at once. She loves tea a little too much.