Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden
The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States






Water Horsetail
Equisetum fluviatile L.
Horsetail (Equisetaceae)
Woodland - Bog
Late Spring to Early Summer
Other names and notes

(River Horsetail). 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 10 to 30 fine ridges and with 12 to 20 dark brown tooth-like points, or scales, on a membrane, or sheath, at each joint. Stems reach 2 to 3 feet in height. These membranes or sheaths, are square - as long as they are wide. From the base of the sheath emerge the thin branches, forming a whorl, and on the branches are the plants version of leaves. These thin branches have 1 to 8 nodes with a whorl of 5 scales (the true leaves) per node. Some stems may branch near the top. 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 shallow water, 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 12 sheath teeth, and the sheath itself is longer than wide.

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. Right and far below: Extensive growth of the plant in the bog area of the Garden.
Below: The dark points project from a membrane that is the plants version of a leaf. On the young stem (at left) you see the beginning growth of the ascending branches, which will have small scale leaves at the nodes. Below right: The hollow stem.
new leaves leaf stem tube
Below: A fertile stem with the Strobilus on top and whorls of branches emerging from the scales on the membrane leaf. Below: 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

Notes: Martha Crone does not list this plant on her 1951 Garden Census, but 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.

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: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applies. Distribution principally from Wi, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.  
©2014 Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "" 012415