Mabh Savage February, 2015
Notes from the Apothecary: Horsetail
Last month we discussed the comforting and familiar sage; soft, sweet and strong in the right hands. This month I want to look at a herb that may be less familiar to some of you, and all too familiar to others! From despised weed to treasured medicine, the horsetail (Equisetum) is never overlooked by those who know it- even if that means they are constantly dragging it out of their beloved herb gardens.
This plant is fairly unusual in that it is literally a living fossil; a throwback some 100 million years to the Palaeozoic era, when species as high as 30 metres would have filled the forest with their spores. Because this plant, unlike most others, does not seed; like a fungus, it spores. You can see this for yourself by gently tapping the strobilus (pointy bit that’s almost like a flower) and watching what looks like a fine smoke drift away from it. That’s a cloud of spores hurrying to make a nuisance of themselves somewhere.
And when I say ‘make a nuisance’, I’m not just paying this stubborn and delightful plant lip service. The only continent where this plant won’t grow is Antarctica. You don’t really get more universal than that. People might ask me how to cultivate horsetail. The short answer is: don’t! It will overtake pretty much anything in your garden and digging it out is a nightmare as the stems break at the slightest pressure, leaving behind a massive network of roots that will just pop up another spike of sporey goodness where you least expect it.
So why, why, why do we value it as a herb?
The Kitchen Garden
Really, there is little going on here. The herb can be taken by mouth but it has neither a desirable texture nor delectable taste. Medicinal benefits aside (see below) the main purpose of horsetail in food is as a thickening agent, where it can be used dried without impairing the flavour of the dish too much. Ediblewildfood.com assures us the plant may be cooked in a stir fry but I’ll pause before I replace the spring onions, thank you very much.
As a Medicine…
Ah, here we get down to the nitty gritty. Horsetail is a fantastic medicine. Chock full of silica, it is perfect for healing wounds and can be applied directly to grazes, cuts and burns. Silica helps the body use calcium to repair bones, skin and collagen so this is a very strong ‘flesh healer’ applied either externally or internally. Internally, a tea is normally made with the dried herb. Please do contact your own physician before taking any medicine, of course!
The Chinese believed it could cool fevers and had many other anti-inflammatory benefits such as helping with eye infections, flu, dysentery- just to name a few. The Romans noted that it helped with kidney and bladder trouble, which is held up by modern day research that shows horsetail is an effective diuretic. A diuretic will help you pass water, so if you drink lots of water while taking horsetail, you are effectively flushing your kidneys and bladder out which is often what is needed when they are inflamed. Horsetail is even indicated for osteoporosis (brittle bone disorder) although this is anecdotal and in no way should any herb replace a healthy, balanced diet.
Science tells us…
…that the spores of horsetails are so clever, they can actually jump. Each spore has four ‘legs’, like the horse the plant is named for. These legs are like tiny, waving tentacles. When the spores get wet, the wavy legs become damp and tangle and the poor little spore drops to the earth. But when the spore dries out again, the legs suddenly snap straight, propelling the spore back up into the air with the energy of an uncoiled spring. The microscopic bundle of DNA may leap 1cm, the equivalent of you or I jumping over 300 metres straight up in the air. If that doesn’t make you think differently about the plant world, I don’t know what will (source: The Guardian, Ken Thompson, 2th May 2014, quoting Proceedings of the Royal Society).
And in the Witch’s Kitchen…
Well first of all, never underestimate a good medicine. If you are one of those (like me) cursed (blessed) with the darn stud running riot all over the garden, keep picking it, drying it and packing it away for those times when you need something for cuts or grazes, or a twitchy bladder. Always consult a professional herbalist for dosage.
For those looking for purely occult value, the folklore surrounding the horsetail is limited but varied. One association that comes up time and again is with Snake Charming, but I have struggled to find the source of this assertion, which is backed up even by my beloved Cunningham. If anyone knows the background to this, please get in touch! I would love to know where the connection is here.
Despite being extraordinarily phallic, this plant is classed as feminine by Cunningham, but I would probably consider it a balance plant. There is as much below as there is above, and it shows us that the smallest thing can survive the longest time. This plant is living history; something we can all relate to when we look at how our own history, our ancestors have inspired us.
It promotes fertility, and in times gone by some would be placed in the bedroom on those special nights to ensure the success of the endeavour within! Have you had any magical experience with horsetail? As a modern witch or pagan, what can you add to the above list?
For you to try at home
The fertility of ideas: Find some fresh horsetail if you can, or use dried if this is not possible. Sit in a calm, quiet place and roll the horsetail between your palms. You will either feel the juice of the fresh or the dust of the dried. You’ll be making a bit of a mess; this is fine. It’s just you and the plant. A plant that has survived over a hundred million years, to join you in this place now. Doesn’t that make you feel special? Doesn’t that make you realise how important this plant is, and how important you are?
Let this realisation fill you with a sense of joy, peace or contentment. As your mind moves towards this positive place, think of the goal you want to achieve. Think of how it doesn’t matter how long it takes, you are as immoveable as the horsetail and twice as stubborn. You will do what needs to be done. Rest and meditate on any thoughts and images that may have arisen. When you come back around, drink some water and eat something wholesome. Cast the horsetail to the wind, taking your hopes and desires with you, while also leaving them rooted within your heart.
And finally, one thing you didn’t know about horsetail…
The above-ground stems of the horsetail ae completely hollow and with some difficulty can be fashioned into a musical instrument. Perhaps this is where the snake charming connection comes from?
See you next month!