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Witch Hazel

IT’S ONLY A SLIGHT STRETCH to say that the skin of America’s women depends upon a handful of New England woodsmen with rough hands and weathered faces. Without these “brush cutters,” as they call themselves, there would be no witch hazel to put into dozens of lotions, creams, gels, moisturizers, cleansers, conditioners, and shampoos made by, among others, Clinique, L’Oreal, Estée Lauder, Neutrogena, and Suave. Teenagers would panic at the disappearance of Clearasil. New Agers would miss mouthwash and deodorant from Tom’s of Maine. The deskbound would gingerly pine for Tucks Pads and Preparation H. Not to mention the throngs who pour witch hazel straight from the bottle to remove make-up or soothe burns and bites.

Curtis Strong, Ben Hall, and Ben’s son Troy don’t seem burdened by this responsibility for the hide, hair, and backsides of the American public. They do like to talk about witch hazel—its peculiarities, the difficulty of finding it in the woods, the hard work of dragging the brush through snow and scrub, and how some things in the trade have changed while others never do.

Strong, like most who’ve done this work, comes from a long line of brush cutters—he’s the fourth generation. He’s also an amateur historian of witch hazel. As a boy working with his grandfather, he chopped through the slender trunks—“usually two swipes”—dragged them to a wooden sled, and piled them high. Oxen or horses pulled the load from the woods to a wagon. Now 66, Strong semi-retired his ax some years ago (and his razor long before that, judging by the length of his gray beard), but he still enjoys swinging at a good stand of brush.

The white-bearded Hall, also 66, calls himself the “new guy” because he’s only been at it since age 16. Brush cutting is part-time and seasonal—November to April—so Hall and Troy, 39, piece together a living that also includes firewood, excavations, and bulldozing. All three grew up in East Hampton, Connecticut, the heart of witch hazel country.

“You know the path on the right side of the Salmon River, near the covered bridge?” asks Strong. Hall nods. They’re standing in Hall’s barnyard in East Hampton. “We took a lot of brush out of there years ago,” continues Strong. “Must be ready for cutting again.” Hall’s eyebrows go up like radar. Witch hazel regenerates.

Cutters spend a lot of time walking the woods, scouting. Sometimes they get tips from state foresters. They pay a set rate to cut in state forests, and make individual deals with private owners. Then they sell their brush to the witch hazel distillery in East Hampton.

“You probably spend more time looking than cutting,” says Strong. “But hard as it is to find it, I think it’s even harder now to get permission to cut it.” That reminds him of a dairy farm with a big stand of brush, probably 10 tons. “But they would never let me cut it,” he says. “I even used to bring the wife perfume. But nope.”

“Now people are buying up the old farms,” says Hall.

“And they turn them into house lots or they won’t let you on to cut,” says Strong.

“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 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.”

Witch hazel’s topsy-turvy ways exhilarated Thoreau: “October and November’s child,” he wrote of it in his journal, “and yet reminds me of the very earliest spring. Its blossoms smell like the spring . . . by their color as well as fragrance they belong to the saffron dawn of the year, suggesting amid all these signs of autumn, falling leaves and frost, that the life of Nature, by which she eternally flourishes, is untouched. . . . While its leaves fall, its blossoms spring. The autumn, then, is indeed a spring.”

The Indians 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. The Indians 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 1870S WITCH HAZEL EXTRACT became a Connecticut industry when a minister named Thomas Dickinson opened a distillery in Essex. Two generations later, after some nasty intra-Dickinson warfare, two rival brands of Dickinson’s witch hazel were being manufactured in the state, one in Essex, the other in East Hampton.

In 1973, 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 a decade ago, 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, 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 an eight ounce bottle, 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.

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—that 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 found antiviral, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties in witch hazel. These antioxidants, concluded one, might be effective in anti-aging and anti-wrinkling creams—another instance, Thoreau might say, of witch hazel’s power to turn autumn into spring.

BUT FIRST THE BRUSH MUST BE CUT. 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,” Hall says, “but it’s scattered.”

He and Troy move quickly from trunk to trunk. Hall flicks away snow at the base with his chainsaw, then cuts while Troy holds. Hall 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, Hall 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 to everything,” 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?

©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.