Equisetum sp. – Horsetail

HorsetailEquisetum sp.

Equisetum = L. Horse-hair (a name in Pliny for a horsetail);

Identification: Horsetails are perennial plants with jointed, branched, creeping root stocks. The aerial stems are jointed with scale-like leaves at the nodes, which are encased in a toothed sheath. The internodes are hollow. The branches are whorled from the nodes, when present. The plant reproduces from spore-bearing, terminal cones. There are eight species within the area, four with annual stems and four with perennial stems.

Distribution & Habitat: Horsetails are common in a wide distribution, from lowlands to the high alpine. They are found in moist and shallow aquatic habitats.

Preparation & Uses: The tough outer tissue of Equisetum can be peeled away and the sweet inner pulp eaten raw. The young heads of this common plant can be boiled like asparagus, but it is advisable to boil them for about 20 minutes with a change of water (if large amounts are being eaten), due to their toxic effect. Boiling will take away many of the nutrients and health giving properties of the plant. Kirk states that no human poisoning has been reported. After Equisetum is boiled, it can be mixed with flour or dipped in an egg and crumb mixture, then fried. Horsetail roots are somewhat tuberous and can be eaten raw in the early spring or boiled later in the season.

Some Indians and early settlers used the stems of horsetail as a stimulating tea but its most prominent property is as a diuretic and for treatment for dropsical disorders. Both Brown and Johnston list Equisetum as a horse medicine used by the Indians. The Blackfoot Indians called E. hyemale (hyemale = L. “of winter”) Sa-po-tan-a-kio-toi-yis and they used it mainly as a diuretic. It was also used to help heal wounds, applied in the form of a poultice. Horsetail has also been used by Indian women as a tea to expel afterbirth and for gonorrhea. Quileule Salish Indians boiled the stocks with willow leaves to treat irregular menstruation in young women. E. arvense roots were infused to soothe the gums of children who were teething, often mixed with an infusion of the tips of witch hazel. Horsetail is used today by many herbalists for eye and skin treatments, because of its high silica content. Tablets of Equisetum silica are used for catarrhal conditions, such as pus-like discharges from the ear, nose, and throat. It is also used for glandular discharges, skin disorders, and offensive perspiration, especially of the feet.

Horsetail strengthens the heart and lungs and is a good tonic when the whole system is run down. There are few better plants for soothing the discomfort caused by difficulty in urination. It also is good for internal bleeding of all kinds and is known to strengthen connective tissue.

As a tea, use 1 teaspoon per cup of water, boil for 45 minutes in a covered container, cool and take in mouthfuls, four times a day. The Nevada Indians dried E. arvense (arvense = L. “of the field, of ploughed fields”), burned it, and used the ashes for sores in the mouth. The silica acid content is said to stabilize scar tissue in the lungs.

The juice of this plant, especially the sterile stems, is good for anemia which may have resulted from internal bleeding from such illnesses as stomach ulcers. It acts by promoting coagulation of the blood. Tea made from this herb is also good for excessive menstrual flow and for leucorrhea, when it is used as a douche.

Externally, the tea makes a good wash for wounds, sores, skin problems and mouth and gum inflammations. The Blackfoot applied pieces of the root to rashes under the arm and in the groin. Fertile powdered stems were given to horses in their water, to perk them up. The same powder was also put in moccasins to avoid foot cramps when traveling long distances. As an infusion, steep 2 tsp. dried plant in ½ cup water and take one cup per day.

As a decoction take 1 heaping teaspoon to ½ cup water and boil one minute. Steep for one minute, strain and take 1 to 1 ½ cups a day, in mouthfuls. For external use, boil and steep longer.

Most of the silica is deposited in the epidermis. E. hyemal has so much silica that it has been sold as a polish for metal and for cleaning pots and pans.

Caution: “Excessive“ dosages (over ½ a pound) lead to symptoms of poisoning. Some authors define “excessive“ as high as 20% of body weight. There are several chemicals in this plant that have slightly toxic effects — typically the destruction of thiamine (a B vitamin). Consumption of B vitamins will speedily reverse major side effects.