The Latin root equis and common name horsetail refer to this primitive plant's thin, branchlike leaves, which resemble the coarse hair of a horse's tail. Its other common name, scouring rush, derives from the tough plant's use as a natural scouring pad for pots and pans.
The fertile stems are produced in early spring and are non-photosynthetic, while the green sterile stems start to grow after the fertile stems have wilted, and persist through the summer until the first autumn frosts. It dies back completely in winter.
For the gardener, it is is an invasive, deep-rooted perennial weed that will spread quickly to form a dense carpet of foliage, crowding out less vigorous plants in beds and borders. Roots extend to 2m deep.
Though mostly inhabitants of watery places, flourishing where they can lodge their perennial roots in water or string clay which holds the wet, the Equisetums will grow in a garden near water, under a wall, or in the shade and will spread rapidly.
The Horsetails belong to a class of plants, the Equisetaceae, that has no direct affinity with any other group of British plants. They are nearest allied to the Ferns. Like ferns, field horsetail does not produce flowers or seeds.
The class includes only a single genus, Equisetum, the name derived from the Latin words equus (a horse) and seta (a bristle), from the peculiar bristly appearance of the jointed stems of the plants, which have also earned them their popular names of Horsetail, Bottle-brush and Paddock-pipes.
Other common names are pewter brush, scouring rush, pewterwort, shave grass, bottle-brush, paddock pipes and Dutch rushes. These names refer to the many historical uses of this plant. Because of its abrasive silica content, horsetail was used for polishing a wide variety of materials. In Europe it was used on objects made of pewter. European comb makers polished their wares and dairy maids scrubbed their milk pails with horsetail. It was also used for polishing wood in both Europe and North America.
It is so rough and brittle that it once was used to clean and polish metal instruments and utensils. Its old German name was "tin weed."
Horsetail is a member of the Equisetaceae family; the sole survivor of a line of plants going back three hundred million years. Horsetail is descended from huge, tree like plants that thrived 400 million years ago during the Paleozoic era. These ancient plants that grew as tall as trees during the carboniferous period of prehistoric times and members of this family gave rise to many of our coal deposits.
In the first century AD, Galen described it as cooling and drying to the body. Culpeper, in the 17th century, described it as a hardening medicine, meaning it reduced inflammation and excess moisture in the body.
Since being recommended by the Roman physician Galen, several cultures have employed horsetail as a folk remedy for kidney and bladder troubles, arthritis, bleeding ulcers, and tuberculosis. The Chinese use it to cool fevers and as a remedy for eye inflammations such as conjunctivitis and corneal disorders, dysentery, flu, swellings and hemorrhoids.
Horsetail is an astringent herb and has a diuretic action. It has an affinity for the urinary tract where it can be used to sooth inflammation, haemorrhaging, cystic ulceration, ulcers, cystitis and to treat infections. It is considered a specific remedy in cases of inflammation or benign enlargement of the prostate gland and is also used to quicken the removal of kidney stones.
Horsetail remedies prepared from Equisetum arvense are generally considered safe when used properly. Another species of horsetail, however, called Equisetum palustre is poisonous to horses. To be safe, never take that form of horsetail. Be sure to buy products made by an established company with a good reputation. When possible, select products with guaranteed potency or standardized extracts.
Horsetail must be properly dosed (no more that 2-4g per half litre). Overdoses can be irritating and deplete vitamin B.
Field horsetail is reported as very toxic to livestock. Animals poisoned by this plant are said to have "equisetosis", a phenomenon documented on several continents and throughout the world. In monogastric animals such as horses, consumption of field horsetail can cause vitamin B1 deficiency. This species also contains high levels of toxic alkaloids. Sheep and cattle are more likely to be poisoned by fresh plants, while horses are more susceptible to poisoning from contaminated hay. General symptoms of poisoning include weakness, lack of coordination, and difficulty breathing.
In the days when blacksmiths were closely allied with alchemists and knew some of their secrets, Horsetail was valued for giving magical strength to weapons and armour
Strange but True
Field horsetail may accumulate more gold than any other plant. Up to 4 1/2 ounces of gold per ton of fresh plant material has been recovered. Mining engineers consider field horsetail an indicator species of gold, but not a viable commercial source.