Horsetails – Equisetum SPP.: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Scourer of Wild Plants

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In Chippewa, gijib’inuskon meaning “it is round”, refers to scouring rush. Common horsetail is used to scrub and clean too, but it also has edible uses. And scouring rush is the equisetum plant preferred for medicinal uses.

Related to ferns, common horsetail (sometimes called horsetail fern) is the only living genus of the subclass equisetidae. Its ancestors dominated the understory of late-Paleozoic forests, some reaching nearly 100 ft. tall. Horsetail is one of the living fossils of the plant world.

Common horsetail (equisetum arvense) is indeed a common sight along trails and dirt roads near water. Water horsetail (equisetum fluviatile) and woodland (equisetum sylvaticum) are also common around Haliburton. And less common is variegated (equisetum variegatum).

Horsetails - Equisetum SPP.
Horsetails – Equisetum SPP.

Also in the horsetail family here are rough (equisetum hyemale) and dwarf scouring rush (equisetum scirpoides), which are mostly utilitarian and somewhat medicinal, but not edible. Fortunately, these are all native.

Edible Uses of Horsetails

The young brown, asparagus-looking shoots of common horsetail (equisetum arvense) can be eaten, but it’s best the tough outer layer is peeled first. This inner flesh can be eaten raw or prepared like asparagus. I have not bumped into many fans of it!

Once they start to turn green (see first picture above) consumption is not recommended. As the plant ages the silica content gets higher and higher, and silica crystals are abrasive and irritating.

It’s also not recommended to eat them if you have high blood pressure or related issues.

Horsetails absorb heavy metals, so while it’s also a general rule of thumb, make extra sure you’re not harvesting within a contaminated area.

Horsetails - Equisetum SPP.
Horsetails – Equisetum SPP.

Medicinal Uses of Scouring Rush

Dually noting that while common horsetail is what we look to for subpar asparagus, scouring rush is the primary medicinal in the mix.

Scouring rush is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Integumentary
  • Urinary
  • Skeletal

Medicinal tags include Astringent, Diuretic, and Styptic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes a tea for passing small kidney and gallbladder stones and for certain other kidney and bladder issues as long as inflammation isn’t present (there’s a whole lot of see and work with your medical professional involved there!) It’s used to check internal and external bleeding and wounds. And it’s used in some tonics.

Being an irritant it shouldn’t be taken for long periods. Use in moderation (no more than once a week is the usual recommendation) from uncontaminated, properly sourced plants. Strain any tinctures and teas twice through a fine filter (a coffee filter will do).

Horsetails - Equisetum SPP.
Horsetails – Equisetum SPP.

Alternative Uses of Bottlebrush

Green stemmy horsetails contain significant levels of silica. Silica can be used for scouring pots, and as the folk name pewterwort suggests, polishing brass. These abrasive crystals may also polish rocks and wood.

Tea from horsetail is used as a hair rinse for lice, and as a conditioner for hair, but my hunch is the abrasiveness may not be so great to use externally on hair. Some swallow silica in capsules for their hair, nails, etc. instead. Silica. Collagen. These supplements are popular right now.

Growing Equisetum SPP.

Common horsetail can be an aggressive spreader with its deep rhizomes, and as a fern relation it reproduces by spores. Pulling them will multiply them. It likes to grow in plowed up, disturbed, light sandy spots. It’s certainly one you need to be absolutely certain you want before you plant it on purpose – but that mini pine forest look is charming.


Consume in moderation.

It may be best not to consume this if pregnant or breastfeeding.

Don’t consume if you have high blood pressure or related issues.

Some horsetails contain alkaloids like nicotine.

Some types of horsetail are dangerous to livestock.

The plant contains thiaminase which metabolizes thiamine, potentially causing a nutritional deficiency associated with liver damage – if taken chronically. Heat, alcohol and other methods of preparation can destroy the thiaminase.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Herbal Antibiotics, 2nd Edition: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-resistant Bacteria

How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Native American)

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The Herb Bible

The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine

Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses

The Green Pharmacy: The Ultimate Compendium Of Natural Remedies From The World’s Foremost Authority On Healing Herbs

Native Plants, Native Healing: Traditional Muskagee Way

The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants (Out of Print)

Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

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