On a recent walk in Boscastle I spotted some Horsetail (Equisetum arvensis) for the first time since moving to Devon nearly seven years ago.
An architecturally beautiful specimen, the related Mare’s Tail, a smaller, commoner species, is a gardener’s or allotment holder’s nightmare. We had an allotment when we lived in Southampton and the battle with this at one end of the plot – yes the damp end where I thought I might try to grow celeriac – was never-ending. Needless to say the plans to grow celeriac never really came to fruition. I did, however, get plenty of digging experience.
This is another species that was popularised by the Victorians and these larger specimens are quite stunning. They are however considerably smaller than those which grew in prehistoric times which are believed to have been the size of a modern palm tree.
For more botanical information have a look here.
My interest in this much maligned plant is particularly piqued by reports that it may be a useful food item and even of medicinal value.
So, a brief trundle around the books it is.
First stop – Culpeper’s Complete Herbal:- According to Culpeper this plant is ruled, astrologically, by Saturn. Taken internally or applied externally the juice of the plant or a decoction thereof helps to stop bleeding, heals internal ulcers, provokes urine, helps stones pass and benefits genitourinary health. Or as Culpeper puts it
“The juice or distilled water, used as a warm formentation is of service in inflammations, pustules or red wheals, and other breakings-out in the skin, and eases the swelling heat and inflammation of the fundament, or privy parts, in men or women.”
This article on Home Remedies Web is a bit clearer
“It is known for its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antimicrobial, antioxidant, coagulant, demulcent, diuretic and astringent activity. Reportedly, it has been used in the treatment of a number of health conditions which include brittle bone, hair, teeth and nails, white spots on nails, gingivitis, tonsillitis, inflammation of the mucous membranes of the mouth, rheumatic disorders, edema, osteoarthritis, diabetes, acne, wounds, itchiness, rashes, burns, frostbite, chilblains, athlete’s foot, cracked and tired feet, drawing out pus from boils and carbuncles, ulcers, fistulas, herpes simplex, dyspepsia (impaired digestion), gastrointestinal conditions, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory tract infections, bronchitis, fever, malaria, bladder problems, urinary tract infection, bed wetting in children, kidney stones (nephrolithiasis), prostate problems, hemorrhoids, muscle cramps, tumors, broken bones, fractures, sprains, nose bleed and other heavy bleeding. Horsetail is also known to strengthen the body’s immune system.”
But what of the reputed high silica content I mused. An alternative source tells me that the stems and shoots of horsetail are rich in naturally occurring calcium, magnesium, potassium and other nutrients including silica crystals.
Is an essential trace mineral, from silicon dioxide, that is important for the health and repair of all types of body tissue. Hence the references above to brittle bones, hair, teeth and nails among others. Silicon in tissues gives strength and stability, being important for bone formation and found in active areas of calcification. It is found readily in plant fibres and may be an important part of the structure of these fibres. Animal studies have only given us part of the picture of the benefits of silicon in the diet. These studies, using silicon-deficient diets, have revealed retarded growth and poor bone development in rats, more atherosclerotic plaques in rabbits, various bone abnormalities in chicks. As well as being required for the formation of collagen in connective tissue it may also be required for the formation of the amino acid proline.
Silicon is widely available in food, notably as part of plant fibres other than cellulose and can be found in significant amounts in the hulls of wheat, oats, rice and in sugar beet and sugarcane pulp, in alfalfa, horsetail, comfrey and our good friend nettles. It is also present in lettuce, cucumbers, avocados, strawberries, onions, dandelions and other dark greens. Hard drinking water, beer and coffee can all contribute to the daily intake.
Being easily lost in processing it is estimated that only 2% of the original amount is retained in milled flour.
Generally there is no evidence of toxicity with food-related intake, although over a number of years, taking silicon-containing antacids, for example, may contribute to kidney stone formation.
Given the above if the purpose of consuming horsetail is to increase silica in the diet there are easier ways – eating a wide variety of fresh vegetable and plant matter, including whole grains where tolerated, would suffice for the majority of us. These are more readily available. Supplements are available and it would appear that the general recommendation is for these to be used for short periods rather than indefinitely.
Nettles are also readily available and the tops can be easily picked and prepared. Regular picking in a clean, unsprayed patch will give a supply of young tops for a large part of the year.
Herbal uses of the plant in, for example, compresses and infusions are covered here so I won’t go into detail in this post. However there are other herbs and plant derived materials that can be used for all of these reasons without stripping the environment of this plant unless you have it in great abundance.
As this small patch pictured above is all I have found I won’t be picking any of it for any purpose.
Haas E M (2006) Staying Healthy with Nutrition.