Ellen Mary uncovers the reasons you should be growing beautiful witch hazel in your garden
The wellbeing benefits of growing your own food and connecting with plants is becoming well-documented and we know that spending time in the garden and on the allotment plot can help with our mental and physical health. Just looking at flowers gives us a feeling of happiness, and eating our own produce is one of the most satisfying things to do, not least because it provides a healthy diet. But plants give us so much more! The benefits to our wellbeing are immense and as science improves we may find even more reasons to immerse ourselves in the plant world to improve our health.
When we enjoy gardening we are also understanding and working with the seasons, watching insects, birds and the bees, ensuring productivity and developing a biodiverse garden. All of these elements provide a greater sense of the natural world and how it works around us and with us. Having this connection can help to clear the mind and naturally enter a mindful state. So when you are tending to your vegetables, allow your mind to focus on the job at hand and forget all the tasks you have to do at home or work. You are likely to be more productive and stress-free with this approach, and after a hard day’s work, don’t forget to sit in the garden and observe everything you’ve achieved, with a smile.
It’s main draw has to be the incredible fragrance during the months where little else is in bloom. There is the most beautiful Hamamelis mollis (Chinese Witch Hazel) in Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park, and the fragrance drifts around the garden, inviting you to take a look at the tassel-like yellow flowers. It was this very tree that provoked my research into its medicinal properties – I had a memory of being a child with my mum always dabbing witch hazel on bruises. ‘It’ll bring out that bruise quicker’ she used to say. Not only is it beautiful and fragrant, but also really easy to care for, and as it’s slow growing, it can also be grown in a large pot as well.
All parts of the witch hazel have been used for hundreds of years by native Americans: they used the branches to make bows, and stored the seeds for food. As an astringent, it’s incredibly calming and reduces swelling and bruises, itching, stings, burns and minor cuts. Also used in cosmetics, witch hazel can reduce eye bags, and calms irritated skin. There are many benefits for common health complaints, plus it’s simply beautiful to admire on a cold winter’s day. If you only have a small space or you don’t want to take up too much room in your kitchen garden, why not choose a variety you love and grow it in a large pot by the greenhouse or shed? That way, every time you walk past you’ll be bewitched by the incredible scent.
There are many to choose from, including varieties with yellow, orange or red flowers, so pick the variety that best suits your kitchen garden and consider the ultimate height and spread. The position will need to be sunny, although part-shade would be fine with a free-draining soil. When you plant your new witch hazel, make sure there is plenty of well-rotted organic matter incorporated into the soil; this time of year is the perfect time to get planting, unless the soil is frozen or too wet. They need regular water for the first couple of years, but deadheading and pruning isn’t necessary. So all in all, it’s a pretty easy one to grow for maximum reward!
Witch hazel can be bought from health food stores as a topical solution. Many people use it as a face toner, but it can dry out the skin, so use a good moisturiser afterwards. It is anti-inflammatory and can be applied straight onto the skin from a piece of cotton wool. Some people have reported that using a little on the scalp before washing their hair has improved sensitivity and itching as well. Due to the fragrance and its many beautiful properties, my favourite way to use witch hazel is in a natural deodorant… and everyone needs some of that when digging all day in the garden! Again, this can be bought from a shop, but why not try making your own? The process of growing something in the garden and using it as a natural approach to health is both fun and empowering.
1. Put 225g witch hazel bark into a saucepan
2. Cover with filtered water (ensure the water is about 3cm above the bark)
3. Boil the water and then simmer with the lid on for about 25 minutes
4. Allow to completely cool and strain into a bottle
5. Put one tablespoon of filtered water into a bowl
6. Stir into the water about half a tablespoon of magnesium flakes into the water
7. Add in a pinch of sea salt and stir
8. If you would like to add some essential oil, pick your favourite and add in 12 drops, or combine a few such as lavender and grapefruit (12 drops each)
9. Use a funnel to transfer into a roll-on deodorant bottle 10 Top up with the witch hazel tonic and shake well
* Always check with your doctor before using any natural skincare, and do a skin test for allergies first
Stay up to date with Ellen Mary! Visit ellenmarygardening.co.uk and follow her on instagram @ellenmarygardening
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