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Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States


Common Name
Water Horsetail (River Horsetail)


Scientific Name
Equisetum fluviatile L.


Plant Family
Horsetail (Equisetaceae)

Garden Location
Woodland - Marsh


Prime Season
Late Spring to Early Summer Flowering



Horsetails are allies of ferns. These are ancient plants with distant relatives back in the Carboniferous period. The Water Horsetail is quite common in swamps and wet areas. They lack flowers and regular leaves.

The thick stem is dark green, 80% hollow, jointed, with a membrane, or sheath, at each joint. The stem has 10 to 30 fine ridges which continue through the node and through the sheath, ending with 12 to 20 dark brown tooth-like points, or scales, at the top of the sheath. These points are sometime fringed in white. Stems reach 2 to 3 feet in height. These membranes or sheaths, are square-ish looking in face view. From the base of the sheath along the mid-stem section, emerge the thin branches, forming a whorl, and on the branches are the plants version of leaves.

Leaves: These thin branches of the stem have 1 to 8 nodes with a whorl of 5 scales (the true leaves) per node. Some stems may branch near the top.

Spore production: Fertile stems end in a small spore producing cone known as a Strobilus. These mature in mid-summer. Non-fertile stems look the same except lack the cone. Because of the narrow stem walls, the stem is easily collapsed.


Propagation and habitat: The plant grows and usually spreads from a rhizome in moist soils to shallow waters less than 40 inches deep. It can be quite aggressive to invasive, creating dense colonies. The spores can also produce new plants.

Names: The genus name, Equisetum, is Latin for "horsetail" and the species name, fluviatile, refers to a river. The author name for the plant classification, 'L.', refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.

Comparisons: Water Horsetail has male and female stems that look alike and is similar to the Marsh Horsetail, E. palustre, but that species has only 5 to 10 stem ridges, fewer than 11 sheath teeth which are usually fringed in white, and the sheath itself is elongate in face view (see drawing comparison below). Compare also Field Horsetail, E. arvense, when the fertile stems look entirely different from the sterile stems.

See bottom of page for notes on the Garden's planting history, distribution in Minnesota and North America, lore and other references.

plant Horsetail Horsetail

Above: Stems and tips of Water Horsetail. The "leaf" is actually the dark membrane that occurs at stem joints, from which can emerge the thin circular branches. There is extensive growth of the plant in the bog area of the Garden.

Below: 1st & 2nd photos - The dark points are the termination of the stem ridges and project from a membrane that is the plants version of a leaf. On the young stem you see the beginning growth of the ascending branches, which will have small scale leaves at the nodes. 3rd photo - The hollow stem.

new leaves leaf stem tube

Below: 1st photo - A fertile stem with the Strobilus on top and whorls of branches emerging from the scales on the membrane leaf.2nd photo - The Strobilus is the spore producing organ that appear on top of fertile stems. The spores are produced inside in a sporangia, similar to a fern.

Water Horsetail Water Horsetail strobilus

Below: A comparison drawing of Water Horsetail (#s 4 & 5) and Marsh Horsetail (#3). Drawing ©Flora of North America

comparison drawing


Notes: Eloise Butler did not note Water Horsetail in her inventory of indigenous plants in 1907, but instead listed 4 other Equisetum species as present in a 1919 article she wrote for the Agassiz Association. Martha Crone does not list the Equisetaceae family on her 1951 Garden Census, but nevertheless, it is so prevalent in the bog area today that it may certainly have been established at that earlier time. She wrote about it in the October 1953 issue of The Fringed Gentian™, saying it is "the last remainder of the large trees of the carbon forests, propagating by spores and creeping rootstalks." See it on the bog path - Lady Slipper Lane. Native to most of Minnesota except the dryer parts of the SW quarter. The plant is on the endangered list in several New England States. It occurs in North America northward of a line from Oregon to Virginia.

There are 13 different species of Equisetum found in Minnesota 9 of which are found in Hennepin County.

Lore and uses: The stems of Horsetails contain much silica and have been used historically in the new and old world for scouring and sanding, although the method by which Horsetails accumulate this silica is mostly unknown. [for technical details see this abstract] There is also some reference for folk medicinal use, principally as a diuretic. Environmentally, they absorb heavy metals form the soil and are therefore quite useful in degraded sites.

References and site links

References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.