Heavenly Horsetail: One of the First Signs of Spring

I enjoy every season, but as a student of nature and a herbalist I have to admit I love spring the most – observing the gradual return of birds that flew south for the winter, and watching all of my plant friends awaken from their winter slumber or germinating from seeds of last year’s bounty. My anticipation begins with the return of red-winged blackbirds, the first birds to arrive from their southern migration (March 10 this year). Then the snow melts and herbs that retained some green leaves through the winter become visible. In April many seeds sprout and perennial plants that completely died back in the fall send up new shoots. Finally, in May, trees and shrubs put forth new leaves and everything is green again!

For 20 years I’ve been taking groups of students out into the fields and forests and teaching them how to identify and use the herbs that grow wild in Ontario. I begin each year in early April and am often asked by students what could possibly be out there to look at so early in the spring? But once they are shown what to look for, they’re amazed at how much there is to see.

Many herbs sprout from the earth in early April and I am always on the watch to greet them as they appear. One of my favourites is common or field horsetail (Equisetum arvense) which has a double significance for me. Not only is it one of the first plants to sprout in early spring, the horsetails were also one of the first groups of plants to evolve on land. Contemplating their ancient beauty makes me think of the spring of life on this planet.

The first thing we see when looking for horsetail is a little black bud that pops out of the ground shortly after the snow melts and soil thaws. It grows into a fleshy colored stalk that terminates in an unusual looking organ called a strobilus. This is the reproductive organ of common horsetail. Horsetails are very primitive plants that don’t produce flowers or even seeds. Instead they reproduce by producing spores, similar to other ancient plants that evolved before the development of seeds such as mosses and ferns.

Once the fertile stalk of common horsetail has reproduced, it dies back. Around that time, usually mid to late April, slightly smaller black buds appear around the dying fertile stalks. These sprout up into the green vegetative stalks that are present throughout the rest of spring and summer. When young, they look a bit like the spring shoots of a spruce tree. It is the vegetative stalks of common horsetail that we use as a medicine. They are harvested in spring before they are fully grown. Usually the best time is from late April to mid May. The stalks should be relatively narrow with short needle-like leaves that are pointing slightly upward. Generally, at this time they are about 12-15 cm tall.

With many herbs we only harvest a small amount of the terminal part of the plant. This minimizes stress on the plant and allows it to easily replace what has been harvested, and reproduce during that season. With field horsetail we harvest the entire leafy portion of the stalk, about 80-90% of it at this time of year. This is because the plant will not regenerate the part that we harvest. Horsetail is a rhizomatous plant. What may appear like many different plants from above the ground is actually a colony of vegetative stalks connected by underground stems called rhizomes. They are all part of a few large plants spreading below the ground and sending up many stalks to absorb sunlight and produce energy.

Since common horsetail can’t regenerate these stalks when they’re harvested, the best way to minimize stress on the plant is to harvest all of the usable part of a smaller number of stalks and leave most of them untouched.

CREATING A TINCTURE

Once harvested, the vegetative stalks of horsetail can be dried and used to make a tea, but it is preferable to make a tincture from the fresh herb as it loses much of its potency when dried. Within one to two hours of harvesting, chop the herb very fine and fill some bottles to the top. Then fill them up with a mixture of 30-40% alcohol with water. This will make approximately a 1:5 fresh horsetail tincture. The bottles should be stored in the dark and shaken once or twice per day for about a month. Then they can be left to sit for at least another two months. This three month period is the minimum amount of time to produce a good quality tincture. However, as long as the bottles are well sealed and stored in the dark they will keep almost indefinitely.

When you are ready to use it, shake the bottles a few times a day for a couple of days then press and filter their contents and you have a fresh horsetail tincture. Once the tincture is pressed it begins to degrade and should be used within six months to a year. You can extend the shelf life by storing it in several smaller bottles filled to the top and only using one bottle at a time until finished.

The dosage is three to five millilitres, three to four times per day for chronic conditions, six to eight times per day for acute conditions. Always take it on an empty stomach. The best time is 10-15 min. before meals and 30-60 min. before bed.

MEDICINAL PROPERTIES OF HORSETAIL

Horsetail is an incredibly diverse herb. Applied externally as a poultice or compress it helps to stop bleeding or oozing, reduce inflammation and promote healing of wounds, rashes, bites and stings, and other inflammatory conditions of the skin. It has a similar effect on the mucous membranes of our body. Taken internally it helps heal inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract such as ulcers, gastritis, colitis and diverticulitis.

Being both a healing herb and an excellent source of the mineral silicon (in the form of silica which is silicon dioxide), horsetail helps to strengthen all of the tissues of our body in which silicon has an important structural role. This includes  skin, hair, nails, bones, cartilage, ligaments and tendons, lungs, blood and lymphatic vessels, and connective tissues. This is one application for which the tincture is not the most effective way to take the herb. For strengthening the silicon-rich tissues of the body it is more efficient to use the aqueous horsetail extract, available in capsules and tablets from several companies in health food stores, marketed as organic silica. Make sure you don’t buy capsules of ground up horsetail as these are practically useless. When using horsetail for this purpose its effectiveness can be enhanced by also supplementing a good quality vitamin C, preferably one combined with flavonoids (bioflavonoids, quercetin, rutin, etc.) and anthocyanins (extracts of grape seed, pine bark, bilberry or other berries).

Horsetail is an amazing herb for treating conditions of the cardiovascular system. It helps to improve circulation throughout the body and tone, heal, and reduce inflammation of our blood vessels. It can be used topically or internally to treat varicose veins and hemorrhoids. It can even be used to help treat more serious conditions of the blood vessels such as arteriosclerosis. This herb is also helpful for hemorrhaging, however, for any serious bleeding it should only be used as a temporary measure on the way to seek appropriate medical attention.

Horsetail is also one of our best herbs for treating conditions of the lymphatic system, such as lymphatic congestion, swollen lymph nodes and edema. Its strong lymphatic action and mild immune stimulating properties make it an excellent herb to combine with broad-spectrum immune stimulants such as purple coneflower root (Echinacea spp.), elecampane root (Inula helenium), plantain herb (Plantago spp.), boneset herb (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and elder flowers (Sambucus nigra) to boost our immune response and help treat infections.

Another area where horsetail really shines is in treatment of inflammatory conditions of the urinary tract and prostate, such as cystitis, nephritis, urethritis and prostatitis. It is also of some benefit for treatment of urinary stones. This herb, however, is not a strong antimicrobial. When these conditions are due to infection it is best to combine horsetail with other herbs that will specifically address the infection. Excellent examples include plantain herb, goldenseal rhizome (Hydrastis canadensis), pot marigold flowers (Calendula officinalis) and thyme herb (Thymus vulgaris). If you use goldenseal, make sure that the source is organically grown and not wild harvested, as this plant has been practically wiped out in the wild due to over harvesting.

Horsetail is a very detoxifying herb. It aids elimination of waste products and toxins from our tissues through its action on blood and lymph circulation, and aids their elimination from our body primarily through the kidneys and to a lesser extent through its influence on the skin and liver. It is an excellent herb for treatment of all manner of chronic inflammatory conditions such as gout, arthritis and other rheumatic conditions, fibromyalgia, acne, eczema and psoriasis.

The influence of horsetail on our nervous system is not often indicated in the herbal literature. It is mildly tranquilizing and can help to reduce minor stress and anxiety. It is also of some benefit for depression. However, the most significant influence of horsetail is on blood flow to the brain. As a result, it can help to improve memory and concentration and is beneficial for treatment of various kinds of dementia. In this context it’s synergistic with maidenhair tree leaf (Ginkgo biloba) and rosemary leaf (Rosmarinus officinalis).

When used correctly, common horsetail is a very safe herb. There is some evidence from animal research that one of its constituents can destroy thiamin (vitamin B1). This constituent seems to increase as horsetail matures, which is one of the reasons that we harvest the herb when it is relatively young. Although this effect has never been demonstrated when the herb is ingested by humans, it is prudent to observe some cautions when using horsetail just in case. In addition, consumption of large amounts of this herb can be a bit irritating to the kidneys. As a result, I don’t recommend use of horsetail by pregnant or nursing women, or for infants. It can be used on its own at full dose for a few weeks at a time, but for long-term use it is best that it not exceed 25% of a formulation.

Common horsetail is one of the few herbs harvested in the early to mid spring. As an herbalist, it allows me to ease into my herb harvesting routine which peaks from mid June to late July. The appearance of this herb also means that spring is in full gear. I’m looking forward to the warm misty evenings when I can lay back among the horsetails and ferns along the edge of a woodland pond and listen to the wood frogs, chorus frogs and spring peepers singing as their ancestors did among similar plants hundreds of millions of years ago. If I’m in the right head space, I can enter that feeling of timelessness and transport myself back to those ancient spring days. Spring does have its perks. Have a great April!

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