We are into the first week of May here in the PNW and the comfort of Taurus season fills every sense in our bodies with the wonder of nature returned. A lush landscape of luminous green and sweetly scented blossoms has now met us with its comfort and beauty. Our native deciduous trees, the Garry Oaks, Big Leaf Maples, Red Alders, and Western Balsam Poplars have fully leafed out and their delicate new and tender green leaves are slowly taking on the mature sheen that will protect them through the summer.
All around us the birds sing their multi-faceted songs, build nests, and hatch their chicks. As orange-bodied Barn Swallows fly against the blue sky, Hummingbirds visit the Oak flowers, and the House Sparrows move between the suet feeder and their nest in my porch roof; the activity is almost dizzying. So much life, everywhere all at once. When I wake very early I can listen to the point where the night time song of the Pacific Chorus frog meets with the song of the birds calling in the dawn, the two overlapping like a multi-layered symphony.
With all this activity it is sometime hard to recall how long, and solid, the winter was and how closely we’ve left it behind. The landscape of only a few short weeks ago was one of bare branches, and the enduring quiet and slow of late winter/early spring. For how much I missed the plants, and I am glad for their return, there is still at part of me that seems to always long for the spaciousness and slowness of winter. There is one plant still in the forest that, for me, embodies that energetic slowness: Horsetail.
Horsetail (Equisetum sp) is a remnant of a time before humans, a time before flowers and birds. A time when everything was much slower, more primal; the vibration of the earth resonating deep and low. Horsetails, along with their cousins the ferns, were some of the first plants to evolve on land after the mosses and liverworts. In the time of the dinosaurs, before the trees, horsetail forests were dominant on earth and species towered to over a hundred feet high.
I often have the sense of time moving too fast in our modern world, and often that speed seems a product of the human mind rather something belonging to nature. Everything happens so fast these days, information is so easily exchanged as most of us are so plugged in to our phones and computers, available to this constant stream of input coming at us 24/7.
But we are nature, and nature has sped up too. Over billions of years of evolution we moved from the slowness of algae, mosses, ferns, and horsetails to the dynamic symbiosis of the conifers and the flowering plants communicating through scent, colour, and nectar; and the vast underground mycelial networks connecting, digesting, and recycling it all.
Horsetail has brought a lot of healing to my physical body, which I will discuss below, but this is also a kindred ally for my heart and spirit. When I spend time with this ancient plant I have a sense of time slowing down, a sense a spaciousness opens up before me. Horsetail plants resonate with a slower vibration, and bring a sense of solidity to my life, teaching me about adaptability and endurance through time. A medicine for the spirit in these rapidly changing times.
Horsetail is one of those super well-adapted plants that is considered a weed by so many AND like so many so-called ‘weeds’ has valuable edible and medicinal uses. Horsetails are represented in modern times but one singular genus Equisetum, and here in the PNW we have several species of Horsetail which may be used interchangeably for food and medicine.
In this post I will be discussing the virtues of our native Giant Horsetail (Equisetum telmateia) in particular, as this species has become my favourite. It can be distinguished from other Horsetail species by its thick juicy stalks. This plant has been such an ally in my life and has come in and offered profound help, sometimes when I wasn’t even asking for it or expecting it.
In the past Horsetail helped me to heal from arthritis that had accumulated in my hip. The arthritis stemmed from a lifetime of eating certain allergen foods which I had managed to identify through a series of elimination diets. Once I eliminated the foods my body healed rapidly but only up to a point. I had reached a healing plateau and my body needed a bit of herbal support to heal completely. After taking Horsetail daily for a week the difference was very noticeable, and after a couple months I was completely pain-free for the first time in decades.
Young Horsetail shoots contain the mineral silica in a form that is readily absorbable by our bodies. Silica is needed by the body to build collagen, which strengthens connective tissues such as fascia, cartilage and bones; as well as teeth, skin, and hair. Other herbs such as Cleavers, Nettle, and Alfalfa are also high in silica, but Horsetail is one of the highest silica-containing plants on earth with over 35% of the plant made up of the mineral.
Silica keeps our joints healthy and flexible and helps repair collagen-containing tissues after injury or chronic inflammation. Horsetail is very useful in the treatment of arthritis, join pain due to over work, and healing from sprains; but that isn’t where its healing power stops. Many of our internal organs also benefit as well. Silica helps to heal the lining of the gut, and keep the heart and arteries supple and strong as well. Horsetail extracts have also been shown to have an affinity for the lungs, helping to heal those delicate tissues and improve their function and capacity.
In the spring when my body is sore from farming I love to take Horsetail to keep my body strong and flexible and help it recover from all the hard labour on the farm. Last spring I received a surprise healing from Horsetail. Several months previously I had visited the dentist to get a tiny filling done on a tiny cavity. The experience was horrible, and left me with chronic tooth pain that was multitudes worse than anything I had felt from the original cavity.
I was terrified of the idea of going back to the dentist, so I decided to wait it out hoping it would heal itelf over time, and in the meantime I numbed the pain with Spilanthes tincture, aka ‘Toothache Plant’. Though the Spilanthes was extremely effective at treating the pain, without it I would still have flair-ups of sharp shooting pain in my tooth.
Spring rolled around and I began taking Horsetail infused honey in my tea every morning; my ritual to help keep my joints healthy. And to my surprise my tooth pain completely healed up. And stayed healed now for an entire year. Silica is a building block of teeth as well and because the teeth are connected to both blood and lymph, my body was able to heal with the support of the horsetail extract taken internally.
Another wonderful story of the power of Horsetail to heal the tissues of the body comes from the creation of our Heavenly Hair Rinse. Our Heavenly Hair Rinse was created several years ago out of a request from a customer at one of the farmer’s markets we were attending. The customer had been experiencing hair loss and inquired to see if we could make her something to apply to her hair to help it grow.
I put together a combination of infused vinegars for her which included Horsetail as one of the main ingredients. The customer began using the hair rinse several times a week for the coming months. We saw her about three months later and to our delight (and surprise!) her hair had indeed grown back very thick and full; the results quite exceed any expectations we had!
The appearance of the customers hair was so remarkable that people in the community noticed and began contacting us to see if they could also purchase the hair rinse. As such our Heavenly Hair Rinse was born. I also use it regularly and love the way it leaves my hair so soft and shiny. Our latest batch has the addition of Roman Chamomile hydrosol, distilled with our own farm-grown flowers, the fragrance of which is medicine in an of itself.
Recently I discovered that the hair rinse can also double as a skin lotion. Applying the Horsetail infused vinegar, or a strong Horsetail tea, directly to the skin can nourish it with silica, help prevent wrinkles, and other signs of aging. It makes the skin so smooth, supple, and radiant! Horsetail tea, let cooled to room temp, is also wonderful for healing sunburn.
Like our friend Nettle, mentioned in our previous post, Horsetail also contains quercetin, a natural anti-inflammatory that can ease inflammation during allergic reactions. Horsetail is also wonderful for improving bladder health; it can reduce the frequency of bladder infections, and helps to flush uric acid from the body. Horsetail may improve bladder incontinence and is a traditional European folk remedy for bed wetting in children. It also acts as an alterative to promote general detoxification of the body.
The new spring shoots of both the fertile and vegetative shoots of Giant Horsetail can be eaten as a spring vegetable, though the fertile shoots are preferred by many as they are more tender. To prepare the stems of either for eating, the fibrous leaf sheath must be peeled way from each node or joint. (Also note the ‘doctrine of signatures’ correspondence here: a strong jointed plant that is good for strengthening our joints). When eating the fertile shoots, make sure to discard the enlarged top portion, or strobile, as this will taste very astringent and unpleasant.
Horsetail can be snacked on raw, added to salads, or sautéed lightly and eaten as a side dish. The new shoots can be fermented or pickled as well. Aside from silica, Horsetail is also high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and zinc; as well as folate, vitamin A, C, and several B vitamins.
Horsetail Harvesting & Medicine Making
To find Horsetail growing in the wild, look for low lying wet areas, along creeks and stream sides, and moist ditches. It is commonly found growing alongside Western Skunk Cabbage, Lady Fern, and Red Alder. Here on Vancouver Island the new shoots of Giant Horsetail may be ready to harvest as early as mid-March when they start to send up a tall fleshy stalk. The harvest season usually lasts until late April. This year we had a very late spring and now into the second week of May, have at least a couple weeks of the season left.
Horsetail is best harvested in early spring. During the early stages of growth the Horsetail plants have soluble silica flowing in the stems. The stalks can be harvested anytime before the leaves reach a 45 degree angle off the stalk, after this time the silica in the plant becomes less bio-available. It is best to not use older plants for internal use as they can contain mineral crystals that can be irritating to the kidneys.
The fresh plant is generally considered a more potent medicine compared to the dried plant. Giant Horsetail does not dry well in our damp climate due to the high volume of moisture in the stems, so a dehydrator is recommended. The dried plant keeps for about three months before loosing its colour, but should maintain its mineral content and be useable for that purpose for up to a year, but will rapidly loose its anti-inflammatory compounds after drying.
The fresh juice of the plants, as well as the tea, infused apple cider vinegar, and infused honey preparations each contain large amounts of the healing silica mineral and are each wonderful for repairing tissues. The tincture contains more of the anti-inflammatory compounds is wonderful for allergies, as a bladder tonic, and alterative.
Fresh Horsetail Tea Recipe
1) Collect the fresh Horsetail shoots and chop finely.
2) Place chopped herb in a vessel and pour boiling water over top to just cover the herb.
3) Let steep 4 hours to overnight to fully extract the wonderful healing minerals and constituents.
4) Stain. Drink cold, or re-heat and enjoy warm.
Take 1-3 cups of this strong infusion daily for a minimum of 1-2 weeks to get the most out of the healing benefits.