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Horsetail landscaping has been in existence for many years. Horsetail (Equisetum) is a renewable, highly dense plant that grows throughout the United States in woodland and wet areas. It can grow to heights of 30 to 100 feet, but most often it is 10 to 20 feet tall. The flowers are rounded and in clusters, and the stems are coiled around each other. In autumn, horsetail leaves are curled, forming a tapering cone.
Horsetail is a soft, somewhat coarse, flexible grass that has a distinct and slightly unpleasant odor. The root systems develop underground in a creeping fashion and feed off of moisture that is abundant in the soil, making the plant a very drought-resistant plant. Horsetail was used to establish many Native American settlements and towns.
At the time of European discovery, Native Americans used horsetail as food, medicine, and decoration. They burned the leaves to smoke meat, and the mature shoots were smoked like bacon. This was a prominent source of income for the Native Americans.
Horsetail was an important and primary plant in many herbal traditions. Many of the horsetail plants used in the American herbal tradition are not actually Equisetum at all but a family of plants called Equisetum. Historically, the Chinese used the whole plant and many varieties of rhizomes. The Japanese used the roots and leaves.
The advent of the pharmaceutical industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s greatly affected horsetail. Many of the uses for the plant were eventually marketed as pharmaceutical preparations. Some of the drugs developed from horsetail include Valonia, Equobio, Alkantrene, and Pelsorol.
Weeds are plants that grow in ways that do not contribute to their survival. Some of the weeds, such as horsetail, have been so well-recognized that in some places we have a specified legal way to deal with them. Horsetail is a prolific spreading weed that does not contribute to survival of the species. Some people say that horsetail is not a weed, but rather a plant that spreads itself. The authors feel that the term "weed" may be more appropriate than "spreading."
The struggle to control horsetail is just as old as the presence of this plant itself. In the early days of the United States, the early settlers were greatly influenced by the Native Americans. They learned about using the horsetail plant as medicine and cooked and smoked it for food. At some point the early European settlers noticed the beautiful flowers and saw the possibilities. As the pharmaceutical companies have dominated the drug market, the demand for horsetail has decreased. Unfortunately, since people have ignored the plant, it has become invasive and out of control.
The original sources and the language of the early settlers of North America were, at best, obscure. The literature was an accumulation of oral traditions that had been preserved by hand and memory. The first writings of the Anglo-Americans that described horsetail did not appear until the early 1800s. Horsetail was so well known by the time the settlers arrived in the United States that it was described in two texts by the British botanist William Bartram in the first edition of his Travels through the States of North America in 1789 and 1791 (published in Philadelphia). In 1781, Dr. John Mease, the collector of Pennsylvania medicines, had published what has become the most important book in the history of horsetail. Mease described many of the uses of horsetail and classified the many varieties of it as noted in the chart below. (He also named some varieties for the first time, so there are some misnomers in this document.)
Even with the books that were written to explain the uses of horsetail, it was so well-known that many people just went about their lives ignoring it. For example, in the 1810 Census, there was a listing of 35 shorn horsetails. This information was reported in the Census Book of Richmond, Virginia.
As the United States was being settled, the use of native plants grew in importance, and horsetail was one of the plants that was used in that capacity. In the first book written about the American herbal tradition, titled Herbals from the American College Herbarium (edited by H. F. De La Paz and N. W.Crinnion), the writer said that "in pre-settler days, it was used by Native Americans to stupefy and torment the spirit of a sleeper." "As a purgative and also for local applications, they used it to ease the stomach." The writer even went on to mention horsetail as "chief of the herbs" used for purgative and he said that it "stimulates the liver, gall bladder, and helps digestion, promotes the flow of blood, alleviates the digestive fire, is an excellent tonic, and a wonderful remedy in many diseases."
The American Herbal Tradition
In the early years of the American herbal tradition, there were a number of books that explained how to use horsetail in the process of medical herbalism. Since these books were not printed as they were being written, it is difficult to say what the science of herbalism at that time was. The first complete herbal description of the use of horsetail was published by Ebenezer Emory in the Annals of Botany in 1829. In this book, there is a small paragraph about the medicinal properties of horsetail and it