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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A Horse of a Different Color

Horsetail or Scouring Rush

Few plant species that grow naturally today have been around for over 100 million years, but one of the best known are plants in the genus Equisetum, which is the only living genus of the entire family of Equisetopsida, most commonly known as horsetails.  They are recognized as close relatives of ferns, typically growing in wetter areas with whorls of needle-like branches radiating at regular intervals from each single vertical stem.

The common name of horsetail is used for the entire group of plants, since the branched species resemble a horse’s tail.  In fact, the genus Equisetum comes from the Latin equus or ‘horse’ and seta or ‘bristle.’  Another common name is scouring rush, referring to the upright rush-like appearance of the plants, and the fact that the longitudinal ridges of the stems are coated with abrasive silicates, making them useful for scouring or cleaning metal items.  It is still used today as a traditional polishing material in Japan.

The primary species of horsetail that occurs natively in wet or moist areas of Texas, most commonly on the Edwards Plateau and in Blackland Prairie, as well as most of the non-tropical northern hemisphere, is Equisetum hyemale.  A spreading, reed-like perennial growing to 3 feet tall, each stem is evergreen, cylindrical, jointed, hollow, and about 1/4 of an inch in diameter.  In this species, the needle-like branches appear non-existent, but are actually small and fused around the stem at each joint or node, forming a blackish-green band or sheath.  Interestingly, the pattern of spacing of the nodes in these plants, which grow increasingly close together toward the apex, is precisely what inspired Scottish mathematician John Napier to discover logarithms in the late 16th century.

Dragonflies, like this Neon Skimmer, love to perch on the cones of
the horsetail’s upright stems.

Horsetail prefers open or wooded areas along streams, moist flats, and wet ledges. Like ferns and other related species, horsetails reproduce by spores rather than through seed-producing flowers. These spores are borne in cone-like structures at the tips of some stems, and are mostly homosporus, meaning of the same size and type.  The tiny spores have four elaters or structures that alter shape in response to changes in moisture, effectively acting as moisture-sensitive springs that assist spore dispersal through crawling and hopping motions once released from the cone.

Horsetails reproduce by spores borne in the cone-
like structures at the tips of some stems.

The upright, evergreen, segmented foliage of horsetail is an appropriate plant for a rain garden, pond edge, water feature, or area with moist soil, and is an excellent perching plant for dragonflies. While it can spread quickly by underground or underwater runners, it is easily kept in check by periodic pulling or by planting it in a container.  Few plants add as much interest or vertical structure to a wildscape as this living fossil, which is clearly a  ‘horse of a different color’!