The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson
June has jumped out at us and we are flying in every direction. Here in the Cove we have our big Perennial Sale coming up, followed by a Rhubarb Social, a few weddings, a potluck—and this on top of our regular lives. Everything is urgently swelling, spreading out, expanding into summer.
While we humans rush about mowing our lawns and digging out summer clothes, nature trundles along at its stately measured pace, and on the shoulder of every Island road an ancient miracle is unfolding just as it has for 400 million years. Horsetail grasses, or Equisetum arvense, are pushing their way through sand and gravel to announce the beginning of another growing season.
As the only surviving members of the class Equisetopsida, horsetail plants are considered living fossils. If you visit the cliffs of the old coal-mining town of Joggins on the Bay of Fundy, you will see calcified remains of the horsetail’s ancestors, the Calamites, that thrived in the swamps of that area during the Carboniferous Period. Calamite forests decomposed and eventually turned into the coal that was burned in Maritimer’s stoves and furnaces. Little did Grandpa and Grandma know that they were burning horsetails to heat their homes.
Like mosses and ferns and other ancient plants that were around before nature invented seeds and flowers, horsetails reproduce by spores (tiny one-celled reproductive units that turn into new individuals without the fun of sex). The horsetails on the side of the road are shoots sent up for air and sunlight from a busy underground colony of interconnected stalks called rhizomes. (“Modern” plants that propagate through rhizomes include irises, asparagus, Lily of the Valley, bamboo, hops, ginger and turmeric.)
Horsetails are toxic to livestock, but clever ancient people found uses for them. Horsetail stems were harvested in spring for medicinal use in herbal teas, baths and compresses. Various preparations are still used to stop bleeding, treat rheumatism and gout, and alleviate various disorders of the skin, kidneys and urinary tract.
Because horsetails are able to extract silica from sand, their stems have high silica content which has given it a reputation for strengthening bones, hair and fingernails. If horsetails are burned carefully—they’re hollow and weigh almost nothing—skeletons of silica ash remain which can apparently be used to polish pewterware. I don’t suggest you make your own medicinal concoctions but you could try burning horsetail and see what’s left over if you want to polish your pewter.
Humans have taken horsetail plants to Australia where they don’t belong, and now they have become an invasive species.
Something so ancient and common out in our driveway and we don’t even notice it… Oh well, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I have other fish to fry. I need to look up my recipe for rhubarb custard pie and I see that it’s time to mow the lawn again. Happy summer!