Horsetail

Latin Name: Equisetum hyemale-Equisetum arvense 

Image by miheco

Image by miheco

Origin: Native of Europe, Asia and North America.

Alternative Name(s): Dutch Rush, Scouring Rush

Family: Equisetaceae.

Known Hazards: 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. The plant also contains equisetic acid – see the notes on medicinal uses for more information.

Habitat: Shady streambanks etc, to 500 metres.

Edibility Rating: 2 (1-5)

Medicinal Rating: 2 (1-5)

Harvest of Horsetails buds. Image by Sogni alPhysical Characteristics: Perennial fern ally with erect unbranched, mostly perennial, stems to 1.2 m high. Stems arise from extensive rhizomes. Stems unbranched, evergreen, 4–6 mm wide, with 8–34 grooves, ridges with two indistinct rows of wart-like structures (tubercles).
Flowers: Fertile stems end in club-shaped groupings of shield-shaped spore-bearing scales

Distinguishing features: Distinguished by hollow (for about half to two-thirds of width), longitudinally grooved, jointed stems with leaves reduced to fused cup-shaped sheaths as long as wide above each joint and with teeth that are soon shed; fertile stems end in club-shaped structures 0.8–1.5 cm long.

Dispersal: Spreads primarily by rhizomes and root pieces.

Confused With: Other Equisetum species, see taxonomic texts for detailed distinguishing features.

Edible Uses

Root; Stem. Strobil (the fertile shoots in spring) – cooked. An asparagus substitute. Caution is advised, see the notes above on toxicity. Roots – dried and then cooked. A source of starch. Caution is advised, see the notes above on toxicity. A further report says that the peeled stems, base of the plant, root and tubers were eaten raw by the N. American Indians, the report went on to say that this may be inadvisable.

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Medicinal Uses

Antibacterial; Antiinflammatory; Antispasmodic; Appetizer; Cancer; Diaphoretic; Diuretic; Expectorant; Febrifuge; Hypotensive; Styptic. Horsetails have an unusual chemistry compared to most other plants. They are rich in silica, contain several alkaloids (including nicotine) and various minerals. The plant is anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, febrifuge, haemostatic, hypotensive and styptic. It also has an appetite-stimulating effect. The barren stems are used, they are most active when fresh but can also be dried and sometimes the ashes of the pant are used. The plant is a useful diuretic when taken internally and is used in the treatment of kidney and bladder problems. A decoction applied externally will stop the bleeding of wounds and promote healing. The plant contains polyphenolic flavonoids with bactericidal activity.

Other Uses

Dye; Fungicide; Liquid feed; Musical; Paper; Parasiticide; Polish; Sandpaper; Scourer. The stems are very rich in silica. They are used for scouring and polishing metal and as a fine sandpaper. The stems are first bleached by repeated wetting and drying in the sun. They can also be used as a polish for wooden floors and furniture. The infused stem is an effective fungicide against mildew, mint rust and blackspot on roses. It also makes a good liquid feed. Used as a hair rinse it can eliminate fleas, lice and mites. A light pink dye is obtained from the stem. The hollow stems have been used as whistles. Another report says that the stem joints are pulled apart and used by children to produce a whistling sound.

Notes: A garden escape that is extremely difficult to eradicate, especially in rocky soils. Grows mainly in damp places. Outbreaks have been controlled following spread from plantings in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and WA. Plants have a high silicon content and have been used for scouring pots, hence the common name, Scouring Rush.

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