My earliest memory of interacting with majestic and ancient horsetail was in Elkwater, Alberta when I was a young girl. I was on a hiking trip with my Girl Guide group, heading to natural spring fondly referred to as Iron Springs, due to its iron taste and dark yellow colour as it emerged from the pipe in the hill. The highlight for me on this hiking trip was discovering a large beaver lodge in a middle of a swamp land.
Now, Elkwater, located within the Cypress Hills, is a unique ecosystem within the prairie landscape. During the last ice-age the Cypress Hills were not covered with ice because they were high enough to rise above the surrounding flatlands. As a result, it has rare soils found on the upper plateau area which is the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador. The Elkwater townsite is elevated at 1234m, the same altitude as Banff, resulting in much similar flora and fauna. Thick pine and spruce forests cover the hills. All within the backdrop of tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes just off in the horizon.
That day in the swamp, as we picnicked near the beavers hard at work, I saw the first of many fronds of horsetails rising so gracefully from the waters to greet us. Their stripped stems reminded me more of a cat’s tail than a horsetail. I was intrigued. Our Guide leader explained that Horsetail was an ancient plant, existing way back to the time of the dinosaur when it was as large as the pine and spruce trees that surrounded us. She went on to say that the mature plants were used as a scouring pad of sorts for shining metal to its high mineral content. A bond with horsetail was formed. I often wonder how many of my fellow girl guides went on to be friends with this plant.
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. In our time 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 a powerful memory of that time within its structure. Fossil records show that Horsetails made up a large part of the coal forest swamps and are therefore powering much of our current lifestyle.
Horsetail is a thin, and sterile perennial plant with a rhizomatous stem that looks like the tail of a cat or a horse. It is reproduced by its spores instead of the seeds. Other common names include Shavegrass, Candock, Paddock pipes, Bottle brush, Horsetail Fern, Field Horsetail, Common Horsetail or Giant Horsetail. Ancient Greeks, Roman and Chinese herbalists have been using Horsetail for its health benefits for centuries. Horsetail has been used for dyeing, yielding a soft green colour. The stalks used to make whistles to call spirits. In Japan horsetail is still used as a fine sand paper to sand the wood before varnishing.
Horsetail contains a number of great minerals and other nutrients, such as manganese, calcium, iron, flavonoids, caffeic acid esters, saponins, tannins, alkaloids, fatty acids, phytosterols, glycosides, phenolic acids, aconitic acid, and of course, silica. Similar to Alfalfa plant, Horsetail is capable of absorbing unique minerals from the earth like Silica which are not found in many other plants.
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. 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.
Matthew Wood explains, “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.”
*Doctrine of Signatures:
Paracelsus (1491–1541) developed the concept of the Doctrine of Signatures writing that “Nature marks each growth … according to its curative benefit”.
This concept states that herbs that resemble various parts of the body can be used by herbalists to treat ailments of those parts of the body.
In addition to its skeletal and muscular system support, Horsetail is 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 edema and swelling.
The astringent and healing properties also make it a great wound herb when used externally as a compress or poultice.
The key to implementing Horsetail medicine effectively and safely is ethical gathering of this plant. Because of its ability to pull minerals and such from the soil and water it grows in it is essential to gather from areas that are pristine and without environmental impact and toxicity. Always look up stream and outside the current eco-system to see what impacts are in the area.
Another consideration is timing. Early spring harvest of the strobile is optimum. Once the head of the horsetail plant has nodded and drooped the plant contains irritants that have potential to aggravate the urinary system.
Caution: When working with and garbling dried horsetail it is essential to wear a dust mask or handkerchief over your mouth. When dried horsetail is crushed, the silica becomes airborne and when breathed in can irritate and damage lung and respiratory tissue.
TRY THIS RECIPE: HORSETAIL ACETUM
What is an acetum?
An acetum is a liquid preparation made by extracting various herbs with various vinegars. This simple to prepare medicine is valuable to our health for many reasons. The vinegar, which acts as the menstruum, is capable of extracting many minerals and vitamins that an alcohol extraction is incapable of. In this case, we prepare a nettle acetum using apple cider vinegar. Remember when making medicine to use the highest quality, organic, ingredients available to you.
SUPPLIES NEEDED: Mason jar of your size, Horsetail to loosely fill the jar, Apple Cider Vinegar
METHOD: Loosely fill your mason jar with the Horsetail and then pour your ACV over to fill. Cap, label with the date and contents. Allow to macerate, capped, for at least 2 weeks, optimally 6 weeks. Shake everyday and watch as this medicine evolves.
When ready, strain through layers of cheesecloth and bottle into an amber bottle. Average adult dosage of this vinegar is 1- 3 teaspoons in a small glass of water.
Once this Acetum is finished you may wish to take the end result and create an Oxymel.
To create an Oxymel:
Take one-part Acetum to one-part honey, lightly heat to combine. Bottle and label.
Shelf life both medicines is roughly 6 months – 1 year.
Both medicines provide a high mineral content formula useful for all the health benefits listed in the article above. Avoid if pregnant and consult with a qualified health practitioner if you have urinary system concerns or high blood pressure.
You may also wish to create a freshly picked, young horsetail strobile syrup.
To do so gather enough horsetail strobile using an ethical approach. Once home combine one-part chopped and prepared horsetail strobiles to one-part honey and slowly cook over low heat for 4 – 6 hours to extract the mineral qualities into the honey, yielding a horsetail honey/syrup. Excellent medicine for children who are experiencing growing pains.