The Woods Tell a Tail

When taking a walk in the woods today we came across many, many groups of this plant on the side of the path and under trees. My husband couldn’t remember the name of it, and we have some in our grass at the back of the property where the trees have been naturalized, and it came into the vegetable garden through some manure from a local farmer. Once in your garden it’s almost impossible to eradicate.

I couldn’t find a picture of it in my weed books and no wonder, it looks totally different in the fruiting stage than it looks regularly. It doesn’t have flowers, just this odd fruiting stage in April when it looks almost like fungus and has furry stems and odd cones that produce spores. When it turns into a vegetative plant it looks very brushy and green, like a different plant.

It is called Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) and spreads by rhizomes as well as spores. The plant has been around since the Carboniferous era, about 300 to 400 million years ago. No wonder the darn thing is so hardy. Sometimes it is called Common Horsetail, Horse’s Pipes, Toadpipe, Pipe Weed, Mare’s Tail, and Bottlebrush among other names. It was often called Scouring Rush because people used to scrub their pots with it after burning the plant to get the ashes for scrubbing. The plant contains silica and silicic acid which facilitated this scrubbing, and also has medicinal purposes, mainly as a diuretic, but also to mend and strengthen bones, make collagen in the body, and help in the treatment and prevention of osteoporosis.

This plant is extremely hardy and grows in areas that other horsetails can’t manage, including very dry railway embankments, swamps, wet woods, and the arctic islands. Even Lewis and Clark saw it growing in 1804 on the banks of the Missouri River, and collected some specimens of this plus the Wood Horsetail (Equisetum sylvaticum) and (Equisetum telmateia), the Giant Horsetail.

Who knew? I’ve seen the brushy stage lots of times, but never knew that they looked different in April and had such interesting properties.

Now we all know. Catch the excitement!


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