Tales of Horsetail
Contributed by Charlotte Tenney, MIH
My mother’s shade garden included a hardy bamboo-like, segmented grass that was a favorite toy when I was a kid. It was employed as a sword for duels in the backyard. It was fun to pull the lengths apart and listen to them “pop.” It became an effective, impromptu nail file taking advantage of the rough ridged surface of its round stalks. I did not understand why it was called Horsetail, since it seemed to bear little resemblance, as far as I could see. I have heard that it was also called “scouring rush” and that appellation made more sense, since it was easy to imagine early settlers using a handful of the reeds to clean pots and pans camped out by the Conestoga wagons on their way across the plains.
When I began to learn about useful herbs, I was amazed to find this one prominently featured in most herbal “material medica” books. The one that was identified as “official” (meaning that it was documented by the monastery records as useful in the healers “office” as they called the apothecary) was a variety called “Equisetum arvense” and it was found growing in streams and bogs in northern climates. It was that variety that earned it the Horsetail name, since that one sprouts small bursts of little branches at the end of its stalk, giving it the appearance of a bushy tail. The variety that grows most commonly here is San Diego is “Equisetum hyemale,” with its single stalk structure. Both are used the same way in folklore, tradition, and as a health supplement.
Scientific study of the botanical constituents shows that the plant is high in bio-available silica. Since silica comprises a major, and structurally important, part of our bones, muscles and skin, being able to supplement this mineral can help promote healing of deep tissue damage, fractures, and lesions. It is taken both internally and applied directly to speed cell proliferation and add strength to the new cellular walls. One of the classic ways to prepare and use this plant is to simmer several handfuls in a sugar solution, then strain out the resulting syrup to keep in your first aid kit. The sugar helps to extract the silica, as well as preserving the mixture and acting as an anti-inflammatory and anti-biotic. If you don’t have time to make the syrup, you can simply crush the green stalks into a mash and apply it to the skin.
There are many claims for the healthful properties of Horsetail. Since it is high in silica and selenium, both good scalp stimulants, it has been touted as a treatment for baldness, dandruff, and thin hair. If you want to try this, the method is to create a vinegar solution of the stalks. Once it has steeped for a few weeks, it can be strained and added to rinse water for the hair. The vinegar does a good job of extracting the minerals from the plant, and it also is known to correct the skin pH on the head, remove soap residue, and leave the hair shiny. The minerals are said to be absorbed by the hair shaft, giving it strength. In old traditions, an herb’s appearance could give you clues to it effects, so it may be the “hairy” appearance of the plant was employed as a way to remember this a something to use on your own mane.
Another mnemonic clue from the plant is that is grows in water and grows in a tubular structure. This relates to its use as a urinary tract treatment. Taking a Horsetail tincture or tea will increase the urinary output and change its pH to combat formation of kidney stones. The silica will improve the integrity of the bladder and urinary tubes to make them flexible, strong, and less prone to infections.
Horsetail has been a common component of brews for tendonitis and bursitis. Again, silica is the “active ingredient” that helps to heal the damaged tendons or cartilage and make them more resilient and able to withstand the rigors of repetitive use.
A wise herbalist teacher once voiced the opinion that the plants that grow in abundance in our specific area are likely to be the ones that we need to address our local ills. If you plant Horsetail in your garden, it will eagerly spread to any area that is wet enough, stopping only when you starve it for water. I guess it is trying to get our attention so that we can take advantage of all that it has to offer.