The Horsetails

The green infertile stems of the horsetail (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Equisetum arvense or Field Horsetail, Shavegrass, Bottlebrush and Pewterwort

Other species of Equisetum with a traditional medicinal use in Britain are              E. sylvaticum or  Wood Horsetail and E. hyemale or Rough Horsetail.

These are found in the Equisetaceae family which is family number 5 in the Calomophyte group of the Pteridophytes (Ferns & Fern allies) (St.  Page 11) and are one the most primitive of vascular plants.

A man on one of my allotments reminded me to write this week’s blog about the humble horsetail. On his particular side of the allotment the plant grows everywhere, whilst it does not seem to grow much at all on the rest of the allotment.  As I get a bit sad hearing criticism about any wild plants, I tried to convince him about its virtues, in that it combats mildew and that it was used in the past to clean pewter and even silver.

So I decided I must research the horsetail and then write this blog. I read a nice chapter in one of my older books and start off with this before listing all its virtues.

“It is a common enough plant – you will find it growing everywhere – and yet quite extraordinary.

Extraordinary because of its history, for it existed in the earliest ages of the earth. It grew in abundance and left us a precious heritage in the form of thick layers of coal in which impressions have been found that show that it has not changed in shape: hollow stalk, slender and straight, jointed at regular intervals, with sheaths at the joints from which spring the coronas of leaves also segmented, like long needles; but instead of measuring 30 to 120 centimetres as they do today, they grew to the height and size of a fir tree.

Extraordinary by its very nature as it does not produce flowers but reproduces by means of spores on the fertile stem, like mushrooms, ferns and mosses. The stalks which we see throughout the summer, in the damp places and sandy soils it prefers, are sterile. They have been preceded in the spring by other fertile stems, which rarely grow to a height of more than 20 centimetres, and are different in every way: they are reddish and bare, terminating in an egg-shaped head of spores which give them the appearance of drumsticks poking out of the ground; it is only when the spores have reached maturity that these stems, which ensure the future of the species, wither, and the other starts to develop, so that in fact one might easily think there were two different plants.

Extraordinary, lastly, because of its composition. It is an absolute reservoir of silica; its ashes contain as much as 80 percent, and if we examine the rib of the leaves through a magnifying glass we can distinguish little crystals of this mineral to which we owe, among other valuable stones, quartz, amethyst, agate and opal. However this is not all: it also contains calcium, sodium, iron manganese, potassium, sulphur, magnesium, tannin, a complex of alkaloids and a bitter glucoside.

The Romans – including Pliny, who called it the ‘hair of the earth’- considered it a general tonic and restorative and recommended eating the young shoots as a salad. It was employed by artisans for polishing wood used in cabinet-making and marquetry, and by housewives for scouring wooden, pewter and brass vessels.

(extract from ‘Grandmother’s Secrets; her green guide to health from plants’  by Jean Palaiseul, translated from the French by Pamela Swinglehurst, published by Penguin Books, 1973

The plant contains several substances that can be used medicinally. It is rich in the minerals silicon (10%), potassiumcalcium, manganese, magnesium and phosphorus, phytosterols, dietary fibre, vitamins A, E and C, tannins, alkaloids, saponins, flavonoids, glycosides and caffeic acid phenolic ester. (source Wikipedia)

Below is information from ‘Wikipedia’, ‘Hedgerow Medicine’, as well as from the brilliant database of ‘Plants for a Future’: see here

A key virtue of the horsetail is that its silica is water-soluble, meaning that it can be readily transported around the body in solution form. Taken as a tea or syrup, it reaches your nails and joints, hair and skin; externally it makes a good poultice and hair rinse, or can be added to the bath or body lotion. (from Hedgerow Medicine, p. 82)

The green infertile stems are used, they are most active when fresh but can also be harvested in late summer and dried for later use. Sometimes the ashes of the plant are used.

I have placed the Medicinal and other uses in convenient bullet points.

Medicinal uses:

  • Horsetail is very astringent and makes an excellent clotting agent, staunching wounds, stopping nosebleeds and reducing coughing up of blood.
  • It helps speed the repair of damaged connective tissue, improving its strength and elasticity.
  • The plant is a useful diuretic when taken internally and is used in the treatment of kidney and bladder problems, cystitis, urethritis, prostate disease and internal bleeding, proving especially useful when there is bleeding in the urinary tract.
  • A decoction applied externally will stop the bleeding of wounds and promote healing. It is especially effective on nose bleeds.
  • A decoction of the herb added to a bath benefits slow-healing sprains and fractures, as well as certain irritable skin conditions such as eczema.
  • The plant contains equisetic acid, which is thought to be identical to aconitic acid. This substance is a potent heart and nerve sedative that is a dangerous poison when taken in high doses. This plant contains irritant substances and should only be used for short periods of time. It is also best only used under the supervision of a qualified practitioner.
  • A homeopathic remedy is made from the fresh plant. It is used in the treatment of cystitis and other complaints of the urinary system.
  • Externally it was traditionally used for chilblains and wounds.
  • E. arvense has been used in traditional Austrian herbal medicine internally as tea, or externally as baths or compresses, for treatment of disorders of the skin, locomotor system, kidneys and urinary tract, rheumatism and gout.
  • To sum up therefore:
  • The plant is an anodyne, antihaemorrhagic, antiseptic, astringent, carminative, diaphoretic, diuretic, galactogogue, haemostatic and vulnerary.                                                                                                                   Food:
  • The buds are eaten as a vegetable in Japan and Korea in spring.
  • All other Equisetum species are toxic. See also Robin Harford’s blog here: Large quantities of the plant can be toxic. This is because it contains the enzyme thiaminase, a substance that can rob the body of the vitamin B complex. In small quantities this enzyme will do no harm to people eating an adequate diet that is rich in vitamin B, though large quantities can cause severe health problems. The enzyme is destroyed by heat or thorough drying, so cooking the plant will remove the thiaminase (Source with thanks)                                                                                                                                                                 Other uses:
  • The stems contain 10% silica and are used for scouring metal and as a fine sandpaper.
  • It was also once used to polish pewter and wood (gaining the name pewterwort) and to strengthen fingernails. It is also an abrasive. It was used by hurdy-gurdy players to dress the wheels of their instruments by removing resin build up.
  • Powdered horsetail ash mixed with water is still the best silver cleaner.
  • The infused stem is an effective fungicide against mildew, mint rust and blackspot on roses.
  • It also makes a good liquid feed.
  • A light pink dye is obtained from the stem. It is yellow-grey according to another report.
  • The plant has been used for making whistles
  • In polluted conditions, it may synthesize nicotine.
  • Equisetum is used in biodynamic farming (preparation BD 508) in particular to reduce the effects of excessive water around plants (such as fungal growth). The high silica content of the plant reduces the impact of moisture.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                I found some really good information in somebody else’s blog which I like to suggest finally for you to read as it’s got some nice recipes here:

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