Horsetail, Equisetum spp., is truly a wonder from another age. The Equisetum family are known as a ‘living fossils’ as they are the only living examples of the Equisetopsida class which formed the major part of the understory of the great Paleozoic forests. These covered the land for over 100 million years, roughly 542 to 541 million years ago, a time which saw the first large reptiles and an explosion in marine life. Now Equisetum arvense usually grows between 20-40 cm high, but at that time, its relatives grew up to 30 metres tall, giant green skeletons which stroked the heavens with their feathery branches. This era ended with the Permian- Triassic extinction event, or the Great Dying as it has become known, the largest mass extinction in the history of the Earth. It took the Earth 30 million years to recover. Horsetail however endured and, as a result, holds in its dreaming more than we humans, as relatively new species on Earth, can possibly imagine. Fossil records show that Horsetails made up a large part of the coal forest swamps and are therefore powering much of our current lifestyle.
There are a variety of species including Marsh, Water, Great and Wood Horsetails, several of which have been used for medicine, though the most commonly used is Field Horsetail, Equisetum arvense, as the others are thought to be more toxic. Even Field Horsetail can cause problems to livestock if they eat a large amount as it contains an enzyme which depletes thiamin (Vitamin B1) levels. This enzyme is deactivated by heat though so teas or decoctions will be safe long term for humans and animals alike. It’s best avoided in pregnancy however as it contains high levels of selenium. Horsetail is a gymnosperm, or non-flowering plant, which spreads through spores released by fertile stems. These grow up in spring to be replaced later in the season by the distinctive, segmented sterile stalks which are used in medicine. Horsetail thrives in damp soils so its no wonder that it’s made such a happy home here in the UK!
Uses: Horsetail is a wonderful example of the doctrine of signatures as its skeletal structure and jointed segments indicate one of its primary uses in strengthening and healing joints, bones and connective tissue. Matthew Wood writes, “If you pick the young plant and break the seal between the joints, there is still an elastic material within the joint that holds it together. As you roll the joint between your fingers, you will notice that it flexes much like one would want the knee or any joint to flex when bending. The idea of cartilage is immediately presented to the mind.” Famed for its high silica content it not only helps the musculoskeletal system but strengthens weak nails and hair when used either externally or internally as well as arteries and veins. This is also reflected in the strong stems which could be seen to relate to the various channels of the body.
It is also commonly used in conditions of the bladder including chronic cystitis, benign prostate enlargement, incontinence and enuresis (bedwetting) as it strengthens the connective tissue of the bladder and has astringent properties. As a kidney tonic, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial it is greatly beneficial for the whole urinary system and can be a helpful diuretic, reducing oedema and swelling.
The astringent and healing properties also make it a great wound herb when used externally as a compress or poultice.
Interestingly, Wood also uses Horsetail for any of the indications for which homeopathic Silica is recommended which can include nervousness with fidgeting, hair pulling, nail biting and sensitivity to cold with a lack of vital heat and poor peripheral circulation.
Methods of Preparation:
Tea – A tea from horsetail can be made by infusion (steeping in hot water) or decoction (simmering gently in a pan of water for about 15 mins). The decoction is preferred for its healing properties but an infusion is helpful as a gentle long term remedy for strengthening hair and nails. The silica in horsetail is water soluble so these are ideal preparations to be taken internally or used externally by adding to the bath, using as a compress or a strengthening hair rinse or nail soak. A tea made with Oatstraw is nice for supporting bone health, taken with St John’s Wort it may help in cases of bedwetting and with Yarrow, Couch Grass and Marshmallow it can help sooth cystitis.
Vinegar – This can be made by steeping Horsetail herb in apple cider vinegar for a month to six weeks, straining, then enjoying added to salads, diluted in water for compresses or added to the bath water – about 1/2 a cup. Vinegar is a particularly useful method for extracting minerals from a wide variety of herbs.
Tincture – Particularly helpful for urinary tract problems as well as general healing, I make mine in Vodka as the higher water content enables more of the minerals to be extracted.
Poultice – Maria Treben recommends lightly steaming the stems before wrapping in linen and lying on the affected part of the body, keeping warm with a hot water bottle and repeating as necessary.
Essence – An essence of horsetail is thought to be beneficial for communication, helping us connect with different levels of our being and with each other.
I find Horsetail a fascinating and enchanting plant. It whispers of another age when it was as mighty as the great dinosaurs with which it shared the land and reminds us of the immense history of our home, the inevitability of change and the responsibility we now have as its caretakers.
Now I don’t know about you, but one thing I remain unconvinced of it’s similarity to a horse’s tail. I think it bears a much closer resemblance to a cat’s tail, especially a raggedy, yet beautiful, old tortoiseshell’s tail like this one. What do you think?
Fossil Photos courtesy of Louisville Fossils and Fossil Mall, all other photos Lucinda Warner 2010
Hedgerow Medicine – Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal
The Book of Herbal Wisdom – Matthew Wood
Flora Britannica – Richard Mabey
Health through God’s Pharmacy – Maria Treben
The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine – Brigitte Mars