It’s likely that if you use just about any skin care item, you’re using something that had its beginnings in a Connecticut forest. That’s because nearly all of the world’s witch hazel comes from American Distilling in East Hampton, which in turn gets most of its witch hazel from Connecticut’s state forests. “If you look at the ingredients label and if it says witch hazel, chances are it came from here,” says Bryan Jackowitz, vice president of American Distilling and president of Dickinson’s Brands.
Used in everything from cleansers and body washes to hair care, eye gel and personal hygiene products, witch hazel got its commercial start in Essex in the 1800s when T.N. Dickinson used it to create the first commercially viable astringent. He was inspired by watching the state’s Native Americans use the plant to treat minor skin irritations and wounds. His company is now part of American Distilling, which comprises three witch hazel brands — Dickinson’s, which creates skin care products; Humphreys, an organic skin care brand; and T.N. Dickinson’s, which makes first aid products. Clinique, Estée Lauder, and Neutrogena are just a few of the brands using American Distilling witch hazel. Pharmaceutical companies use it as well.
“This is the center of the universe for witch hazel because it’s where it grows in the greatest abundance in the wild,” Jackowitz says. The shrub grows in clusters and can reach nearly 20 feet tall. Its bark is speckled gray and it features yellow blossoms. Harvest season is typically November–April, after the leaves fall but before they begin to grow again.
Harvesting, which is overseen in state forests by the forestry management division of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), helps promote forest health, according to forester David Irwin. “Harvesting helps with our forestry objectives,” he says, noting the department issues permits for harvesting to about six brush cutters annually. “Sometimes we have them come through in areas where we want to regenerate the trees.”
Forester Jeremy Clark, who oversees cutting in Housatonic State Forest in the Northwest Corner, says, “Cutting the midstory canopy shrubs allows the sun to reach more of the forest floor. It gives everything a boost. It helps create vegetation growth for browsing, and that helps promote more diversity in the forest.”
Cutters rotate around the state’s forests so the witch hazel has a chance to regenerate. DEEP typically receives $10 for each ton of harvested brush.
Bill Hall, 80, of East Hampton, has been cutting witch hazel since he was 16. Taught by his father, Hall started working roadside clusters with an ax and a sled for hauling. “I made a little extra money for gas and chasing girls,” he says of his first forays.
Harvesting equipment has come a long way from axes and, eventually, chain saws. Today Ben, who is joined by his son, Troy, and grandson, TJ, uses an excavator fitted with a hydraulic tree shear to cut the trees at their base. A forwarder brings the brush to where they pile it for pickup (a less invasive option than dragging). Then it’s into a logging truck for hauling back to their East Hampton lumber company for storage until American Distilling is ready for it to be chipped and delivered. Last year the Halls delivered 220 tons to American Distilling.
Despite the large equipment, harvesting leaves a small footprint. Cutters often work off forest access roads and the frozen ground means the equipment doesn’t leave much of a trace or mar the forest floor. DEEP foresters make sure cutters steer away from marshes and wetlands.
The sustainability of the process, which is certified organic annually by the USDA, DEEP and American Distilling, continues once on site, Jackowitz says. The company sells waste chips as landscaping mulch and uses chips for fuel in its boilers. “From the earth back to the earth,” he says.
Jackowitz says Connecticut’s standing as the witch hazel capital of the world is likely solid. “Witch hazel as a product is hotter than ever,” he says, noting the public’s interest in all things natural and organic. “We have expanded our product line, but it’s all produced based on the original witch hazel formulations we’ve had here for 100 years.”