Horsetail: Foraging and Uses

Could there be a plant that may not only help keep your skin, teeth, bones, fingernails, and hair healthy, but also aid in repairing those parts of the body?

horsetail plants
a field of horsetail

For centuries, herbalists have been using the horsetail plant in remedies designed to address those issues and many more.

The horsetail plant (Equisetum hyemale in particular) compounds include a specific type of absorbable silica that may help strengthen and repair connective tissues, teeth, hair, bones, and nails.

The horsetail plant may also contain antimicrobial compounds that could facilitate wound healing, aid in the lowering of high cholesterol, and may help the bladder and kidney function more optimally.

Equisetum Genus

The Equisetum genus is likely more than 350 million years old. The term Equisetum is a minglingo the term “equi” which means horse and “seti” which means bristle. The names aptly describe the bristly and rough texture of the horsetail plant.

The term hyemale is a reference to the word winter and is a nod to the frequent tendency of horsetail to be an evergreen plant in some warm climates.

Members of this genus are somewhat related to non-flowering spore producers. The closest relative of the horsetail plant is ferns.

Horsetail Varieties

It is not uncommon for the different varieties of the horsetail plant to be confused with one another. You must be able to accurately identify the variety of horsetail plant you are foraging because not all varieties are equally infused with either herbal or edible properties.

Some types of horsetail plants have toxic look alikes. The unbranching stems present on horsetail plants and the “sheaths” around the nodes on the stems will help foragers be able to tell a true horsetail plant from a potentially toxic imposter.

Never confuse horsetail from the Equisetum arvense variety with horsetail of the Equisetum palustre variety. Palustre horsetail is potentially toxic.

Water horsetail is also widely known as swamp horsetail (Equisetum fluviatile L.) and it has both hollow and jointed stems. A cone or spore style structure grows at the top of the stems. This is also an edible form of the horsetail plant.

Field horsetail (Equisetum arvense L.) boasts rhizomes that are both tuberous and extremely fleshy in texture. The fertile stems of this type of horsetail die after dispersing the spores and do not contain chlorophyll.

A field horsetail plant resembles asparagus and is edible. The stems on this type of horsetail plant are wiry and tough in texture.

Silica

The silica compounds found at high percentage in horsetail plants are the primary reason it has garnered favored status with both Native Americans and herbalists around the world. Silica plays a critical role in the successful completion of the life cycle of this wild herbal plant.

It is the intensely large amount of silica found in horsetail that causes its bristly stem texture. This texture is also why horsetail has been used as a primitive or bushcraft scouring and sanding tool.

You can use a horsetail plant to scour pots and pans – especially if they are made of cast iron with stuck on food or rust.

The horsetail plant has also been used as a fine grit type of sandpaper on wood as well as the scrubbing or polishing of metal.

Native Americans would “bleach” horsetail plants by thoroughly wetting them and then allowing them to completely dry in the sun before making use of their silica properties or sanding and scrubbing.

The sanding of woodworking with horsetail plants by the tribe members would create a shiny and silky finish. It has been said that Medieval knights used horsetail plants to shine up their armor so that it glistened in the sun.

The silica compound is found in great abundance in nature, but most often in the form of poorly absorbed minerals, like quartz. Many if not most forms of silica are not readily absorbed by the human body.

The unique form of silica in horsetail plants is so potentially beneficial to our overall health because it is absorbed so readily. Because it is so easily absorbed, far lower amounts of silica is needed to aid the body.

The presence of this variety of silica in the human body’s digestive tract could also iad in the absorption of calcium and other minerals vital to our good health. Silica makes up a total of 35 percent of the dry weight of a horsetail plant.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not classified silica as a nutrient nor has it approved horsetail to be deemed any type of a supplement or medicine.

Photosynthesis is carried out mainly by the stems, which are usually non-branching. The stalks are evergreen in warmer regions and are deciduous in colder areas.

At certain stages of growth, some of the stems will be topped by a pine cone-like structure, which produces the plant’s spores.

Horsetail Plant Facts And Growing Tips

  • This wild plant is a perennial, but each portion of its life cycle occurs for only a short amount of time.
  • Most modern varieties of horsetail plants generally grow to be only about one or two feet tall. The tallest variety of horsetail can sometimes reach six feet in height.
  • This herbal plant is part of the Quisetaceae family.
  • The leaves on the horsetail plant are positioned in whorls and boast a branched stem.
  • Horsetail plant stems are a vibrant shade of green and thick.
  • Horsetail has a strong rhizome that grows deeply into the soil.
  • This plant can grow in up to four inches of water.
  • Horsetail prefers to grow in partial shade but can withstand a decent amount of sun. When cultivated in places of high latitudes it is common to spot wild horsetail growing in full sun.
  • You can grow horsetail in deep planters in your yard or in boggy areas.
  • Horsetail is far easier to grow from root cuttings than it is from the spores it generates.
  • This wild plant does not flower nor does it produce seed. Instead, horsetail reproduces via inside of a cone shaped organ that is located at the top portion of the herbal plant.
  • Unlike the fern plants that it is related to, horsetail plants do not have feathery leaves. This plant appears a lot more like a rush plant (hence the other ‘rush’ names it is also known by) with multiple stems that are staunchly upright in position and have no seemingly obvious leaves. The “leaves” on a horsetail plant are extremely small and wrap around the stem to form a type of sheath on top of its nodes. A thin black line shows above and below the node covering tiny leaves.
  • The above ground portions of this plant is used in both edible and herbal recipes.
  • It has a bittersweet flavor when consumed.
  • Horsetail plants (like many beneficial wild plants) are often dubbed to be nothing more than a mere “weed.”
  • These plants typically grow in marshes, wetlands, rivers, swamps, and creeks.
  • Horsetail plants are capable of both reproducing and spreading quiet quickly and easily – so much so that this wild herbal plant has been deemed invasive by some property owners. It thrives in wet sand and clay style soil.
  • The horsetail plant is also known as: scouring rush, barred horsetail, Dutch rush, Kamchatka horsetail, winter scouring rush, snake grass, and rough horsetail.
  • Approximately 20 species of the horsetail plant exist.
  • Horsetail grows nearly everywhere around the globe, except in Antarctica, a few Pacific Ocean islands, New Zealand, and Australia.
  • Earliest forms of the horsetail plant were capable of reaching heights up 50 to 85 feet tall.
  • Horsetail is a hardy plant that is not really susceptible to bacterial or viral infections. This herbal wild plant is also prone to a high pesticide tolerance – hence why some folks look at it as an unwanted and invasive plant.

Horsetail Life Cycle

The horsetail plant’s life cycle has two distinct stages: sporophyte and gametophyte. During the sporophyte portion of the life cycle changes to the horsetail plant are visibly present.

But, during the gametophyte portion of its quickly changing life cycle all of the microscopic changes to minute structures in the plant are not visible to the naked eye.

During the sporophyte stage spores are produced and will later develop during the gametophyte stage. It is during the gametophyte stage of horsetail’s life cycle that the cells that are necessary for reproduction grow.

The sporophyte includes both the fertile and sterile portions of the horsetail plant. The fertile portion of the stem starts growing in the spring and then quickly dies after releasing its spores.

The sterile part of the horsetail’s green stem grows from the rhizome during the hot weeks of summer.

Harvesting

Horsetail plants can be harvested at any time of the year as long as their stems are green. Before harvesting horsetail plants you must remember how invasive it can be.

If you want to fill an entire acre of your land with this valuable wild plant, start whacking at the stems with reckless abandon.

But, if you do not want horsetail plants to take over the land and possibly kill off other equally valuable wild plants, commit the harvesting tips below to memory.

Green Tops

If you harvest horsetail during the latter months of spring the leaves on this wild plant will boast leaves that are a brilliant shade of green and pout either straight out or straight up.

Simply pinch off a part of the stem about two to four inches above the ground – remaining careful not to remove the entire plant. Next, remove the paperlike brown covering from the harvested stems.

If you plan on making horsetail tea, many herbalists swear by the good taste that comes from this portion of the plant. These shoots are also good for powdering, for use in a saute dish, or chopped finely and tossed into a stew or soup.

Tan Stems

The stems on a horsetail plant will have a tan cast after first emerging from the earth in the early weeks of spring. It is during this period of growth that the stems will be less fibrous and far less tough.

If you are going to use the horsetail stems for chewing as part of a natural oral health regime, harvesting them at this time of year will make the chewing process a lot easier on your teeth and gums.

Fall Harvesting

When harvesting horsetail plants during this time of the year, the silica content has dropped a bit, but remains relatively high. But, the shoots will be incredibly tough at this point, making them last tasty in teas and far more difficult to chew.

Breaking the stems of a horsetail plant will not kill it but actually stimulate new stem production. If you till up a section of horsetail plants more will start growing in its place from every little fragment of root that you have dispersed.

While horsetail plants can be harvested and keep coming back for a long time, eventually the constant harvesting or tilling will ultimately weaken the plant to the point where the harvest will be weakened or no longer be sustainable.

To harvest horsetail wisely so that it keeps coming back yet does not smother out all of plant growth as it expands its area, cut only roughly one-eighth of any plant stem to allow it to continue to grow and not disperse chunks of its roots.

While some property owners loathe horsetail because it can take over a space where it is planted, bushcrafters and wildcrafters love it. This wild plant has many valuable uses and can easily be preserved to create a shelf-stable herbal remedy.

If hanging drying horsetail stems as you would cultivated or foraged herbs, be careful not to band too many together or to arrange them so tightly that proper air ventilation does not occur. When thick bunches of horsetail plant and hang dried they will often sweat and mildew will grow, ruining the whole bunch.

When dehydrated and stored in a Mason jar with a firm fitting lid (or similar airtight container) and kept in a dry place out of direct sunlight, dried horsetail should keep and retain its potency for a minimum of two years.

How to Use Horsetail

Traditionally, herbalists and Native Americans have touted what they believe to be the antimicrobial, blood clotting, diuretic, wound healing, integumentary, and tonic attributes of the horsetail plant. It has also been used to address urinary and renal issues.

Horsetail is most often used in a powdered form when used as part of a home remedy recipe. The plant is sun-dried or dried in a dehydrator and then pulverized using a mortar and pestle or a food processor, into a powder.

The aerial portions of horsetail have also been simply harvested and the fresh plant parts chewed upon. The Kiowa tribe used the base portion of the horsetail plant as a food dish chewed upon alone or as an ingredient in soups.

Homesteaders, farmers, and ranchers have also cultivated a small portion of their pastures with horsetail so livestock, members of the equine family in particular, can use it as a free choice grazing or foraging meal.

But, horses and some other animals can be poisoned if they consume high doses of a protein known as thiaminase.

If a lot of horsetail is consumed all at once or large amounts on a regular basis, this same type of poisoning could occur.

Horsetail Nutrients

  • Iron
  • Potassium
  • Manganese
  • Calcium
  • Vitamin A
  • Magnesium

Primary Horsetail Uses

  • Teeth and Gums – To help stabilize or aid in repairing imbalanced weakness in both tendons and bones.
  • Tendons and Bones – Horsetail has most frequently been used by herbalists and Native Americans to help keep both teeth and gums healthy and to aid in their recovery when damaged or sore.
  • High Cholesterol – Horsetail powder has been consumed or sold by herbalists to aid in the lowering of high cholesterol.
  • Kidneys – Powder from this wild plant may induce a diuretic action, and help flush out particles and toxins in the kidneys.
  • Wound Healing – Horsetail powder has been used to help slow down or stop bleeding and also as a coating placed on wounds to both help prevent infection and to enhance the healing process.
  • Cartilage – This wild plant has also been used to aid in the strengthening of cartilage along with supporting proper joint function.
  • Hair and Nails – The silica present in horsetail may help stimulate the growth of strong fingernails and healthy new hair growth.
  • Skin – The powdered form of the horsetail plan may provoke the production of collagen and even help your skin look younger.

To lesser degrees horsetail has also been utilized by Native Americans and herbalists to address gout, tuberculosis, weight loss, jaundice, heavy bleeding during menstruation or after child birth, and hepatitis.

Horsetail Medicinal Attributes

Horsetail plants may help teeth fit more firmly in their sockets and perhaps even spark enamel growth. Regrowing tooth enamel is an action that has largely been deemed impossible.

This same type of bodily response to the compounds in this wild plant could carry over to the skin, cartilage, tendons, and bones and also prompt them to strengthen, as well.

All of this possible healthy and strong growth and repair is credited to the high levels of silica in the plant, by herbalists.

While the benefits of silica to the teeth, gums, tissue, bones, and joints could be great, how lasting its effect is can be a hotly debated topic. The bonding of the silica to the various parts of the body and the strengthening induced by it could only be temporary.

After the body eliminates the silica, some folks feel that the bonding effect is weakened.

Horsetail Usage Tips

Powder

Horsetail powder can be used externally to apply to a wound to help stop bleeding and to help enhance the healing process.

You mix the powdered horsetail with just enough water to create a thick paste. The paste is then spread over the wound to help deter infection, curtail bleeding, or foster healing.

Fresh Horsetail Stems

If the horsetail plant is being used for internal woes, the most common way to apply it is to simply chew on fresh stems. After cutting up freshly harvested horsetail and washing it, just chew on a piece of it, much like would be done with a piece of celery.

The chewing process will help extract the juices inside of the stem. You can choose to spit out the pulp generated during the chewing process, but it is typically swallowed.

The younger the horsetail plant stem, the more silica it will contain. Younger plant stems tend to be far more tender and easier to chew.

If you have already badly damaged or weak teeth, chewing on the thick horsetail stem could cause more harm than good.

Dicing up the stem into smaller bits or consuming the powder might be the easiest and least destructive manner to expose your teeth and gums to the silica the plant contains.

Adults can also dump one teaspoon of the horsetail powder into a glass of water and swish it around in your mouth before spitting it out, or swallowing. If giving silica powder to children, it is recommended to only give them half a teaspoon.

The human body is not used to being exposed to such a high level of silica or a silica that is so easily absorbed. When first taking horsetail as a powder or in the form of a fresh stem, it would likely be wise to do so in small amounts at first to allow the body time to adapt.

Herbalists typically take horsetail for five to 10 days and then allow their body to have at least several days without consumption before restarting their routine.

While silica is a naturally-occurring, it is never wise to start any type of a natural remedy routine without first consulting your doctor.

Just because something is natural does not mean it cannot spark an allergic reaction or interact poorly with other prescriptions or over the counter supplements and medications you are already taking.

Horsetail Tea

Herbal teas made using horsetail are often lauded for the possible anti-inflammatory properties that may help prevent lung inflammation during allergic reactions and asthma attacks.

Horsetail tea often also includes dried mullein leaf to further aid in strengthening tissues in the lung and aiding in the prevention of inflammation.

The addition of mullein to a horsetail could help get rid of chest congestion and ease the pressure on air sacs in the lungs.

Horsetail Precautions

  • Chewing on horsetail can be harmful to weakened teeth.
  • The thiaminase in horsetail may deplete levels of B vitamins and thiamine in the body when consumed in excess over a long time period. If taking horsetail regularly or in large amounts, eating more foods that contain B vitamins or taking B vitamins supplements may be wise. The thiaminase in horsetail is neutralized if the horsetail plant has been dried or heated before eating.
  • Consuming high levels of silica can cause stomach aches or similar digestive system issues. Again, if you and your doctor believe it is safe to take horsetail, do so in small amounts initially to better determine how your body will react to all of its compounds – silica in particular.
  • The University of Maryland Medical Center cautions against consuming the horsetail plant if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have kidney disease, are diabetic, or are experiencing gout.
  • The side effects of horses or other animals from eating too much horsetail plant could include: tremors, general weakness, staggering, weight loss, or even death.
  • Consumption of the Equisetum arvense horsetail plant could possibly cause skin dermatitis in folks who are also allergic to cigarette smoke.

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