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For Powerful Traditional Remedies, Know and Grow Medicinal Herbs (H) Horsetail

Ila Bonczek
Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
Published: June 12, 2024
Horsetail is a fascinating plant that could be considered a living fossil. (Image: Luc Viatour via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5)

Horsetail is a prehistoric plant traditionally used to treat a variety of ailments. It is especially valued for strengthening hair, bones, nails and teeth, due to its high silica content. Modern studies suggest that this ancient medicinal herb has significant healing properties, and in most cases is safe to consume in moderation. 

Whether you choose to use horsetail medicinally or not, it can be a striking, low-maintenance addition to your garden — but don’t let it get away! Considering the fact that they have been hanging on for some 300 million years, one might call horsetails tenacious, and many consider them invasive. This is a plant that should be confined to a container. 

Horsetail plant

Horsetail is an unusual evergreen perennial that includes 15 species of Equisetum, the only remaining genus in the family Equisetaceae. The majority are native to non-tropical areas of North America and thrive in a variety of conditions, with some species especially suited to wet environments. 

Reproductive cones of horsetail (Image: via duckduckgo)

Like ferns, horsetail is a non-flowering plant that reproduces via spores. Spore heads, called “cones” are borne on non-vegetative, non-photosynthetic stems that typically emerge in the early spring, before the vegetative stems. 

Horsetail’s rigid, tubular, vegetative stems are responsible for photosynthesizing. They can be branched, as seen in Equisetum arvense — a small plant commonly found along roadsides and fields; or unbranched, as seen in Equisetum hymale — a large wetland plant. The inconspicuous foliage consists of reduced leaves, which form a tight sheath at the joints along the green stems and their branches.

Equisitum hymale is a large, non-branching horsetail that somewhat resembles bamboo. (Image: TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋) via flickr  CC BY-2.0)

Although the method for uptake is not well understood, horsetail is unique in its ability to accumulate large amounts of silica, an important mineral for human health. 

Traditional uses

Horsetail has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to “regulate water” and influence the lung and liver meridians. It is often applied in the treatment of fever, dysentery, and a number of other conditions. In combination with other botanicals, it is used to control bleeding and treat eye problems. 

Ancient Greeks used the herb to treat wounds, and ancient Romans found it useful for bladder and kidney problems. Native Americans consumed it (cooked) as a dietary supplement, and used it medicinally in a number of ways. 

Horsetail tea was taken as a diuretic to support the urinary tract and to treat various illnesses. The plant was also applied topically to alleviate inflammation and heal wounds. It was widely used to enhance bone, skin and hair health. 

In Ayurveda medicine, horsetail has long been used to calm the nerves and strengthen bodily tissues.

Medicinal properties

The high concentration of silica in horsetail is indisputable, and many studies support the claims that it can improve the health of bones and connective tissues. It has been shown to promote bone healing by stimulating osteoblasts (which build bone tissue), and inhibiting osteoclasts (which break down bone tissue).

Silica is thought to improve the absorption of calcium and enhance collagen synthesis, facilitating the healing of wounds. Limited studies have demonstrated that topically applied horsetail ointments can promote healing and reduce discomfort. 

Pain relieving effects of horsetail may be due to quercetin, a plant pigment with natural anti-inflammatory properties. 

Flavone glycosides and saponin present in horsetail may account for the herb’s diuretic properties. Some studies suggest that using horsetail as a diuretic is at least as, or more effective than using pharmaceuticals, with fewer side effects. It is potentially beneficial for kidney conditions and urinary disorders.

Horsetail is also rich in other minerals and active organic compounds that enhance its medicinal profile with anti-bacterial, anticonvulsant, anti-diabetic, anti-fungal, and anti-tumor properties.

Growing horsetail

Equisetum arvense foliage, Newcastle, Northumberland, UK (Image: MPF via Wikimedia Commons  CC BY-SA 3.0)

While horsetail is a great choice for its visual interest and medicinal value, it spreads readily through deep-running rhizomes and should only be introduced as a containerized plant. In particular, it should not be planted in pastures, as large amounts can be toxic to livestock.

Horsetail can be propagated easily through division from wild colonies, or you can purchase cuttings which should root as long as they are given water at the right end. To prevent unwanted propagation, remove any reproductive stems before the spores mature.   

Horsetail is easy-to-please, and tolerates full sun, partial shade, and most types of soil. 

Container-grown terrestrial horsetail can be sunken to make it an integral part of the landscape. This also helps keep the roots cool and moist. Choose a container with good drainage, and line it with a fine mesh to deter escapees.

In the desired location, dig a hole the size of your container, and place it, level, in the hole. Fill the container with sandy soil and gravel to within two inches of the rim, then position the roots in this mixture. Top with garden soil and water well. 

Aquatic horsetail should be similarly contained in a pot, which is then submerged in the body of water. A heavy coating of gravel or small rocks should be used to hold the plant in the pot (and the pot in place). 

To prevent crowding, plan to divide your plants every few years. Remove the colony from the container and cut with a sharp knife or saw. Divisions can be planted into separate containers, or carefully discarded. Avoid placing them in compost or other areas where they may spread or be eaten by animals. 

The silica from extra plants can actually benefit your garden. Steep the stems in boiling water and spray the cooled infusion on other plants to improve resistance to disease. 

Home remedies with horsetail

Most horsetail remedies are prepared with the dried herb, which you can purchase or prepare for yourself. Thorough drying or cooking is necessary to deactivate the enzyme thiaminase found in horsetail. Otherwise, continued consumption of can lead to a vitamin B1 deficiency. 

Large, natural stands of horsetail are good for foraging. (Image: Howard F. Schwartz, Colorado State University via CC BY 3.0)

It is best to harvest horsetail in the spring, when the silica is more soluble. Look for a clean source — free of environmental pollutants — if you plan to forage. If you decide to grow it yourself, allow it to establish a good colony before harvesting. Cut the stems and leave the roots so the plant can regenerate.

Gently wash the stems and lay them out on a towel to dry in a warm place, out of direct sunlight; or make loose bundles and hang them in an area with good circulation.. When the herb is dry enough to break with a snap (after around a week) it is ready to use. 

Dried horsetail can be used to make infusions, tinctures, and compresses. 

  • Infusions are made by steeping dried horsetail in boiled water for at least 10 to 15 minutes. Horsetail combines easily with other herbs to enhance the effect, and can be prepared in different strengths depending on the intended usage.
  • Tinctures are made by filling a jar with dried stems and covering it with strong alcohol, such as vodka. Allow it to infuse for about three weeks, shaking periodically, and then strain off the liquid into amber bottles.
  • Compresses are basically a cloth or towel soaked in an infusion and applied directly to the skin.

Application of horsetail remedies

Infusions are most frequently consumed as a tea, to heal and strengthen the body in countless ways:

  • Speed recovery from injury
  • Clear and strengthen urinary system
  • Improve respiratory conditions
  • Soothe sore throat
  • Purify the blood and strengthen blood vessels
  • Reduce menstrual discomfort
  • Aids digestion
  • Calm the nerves and reduce irritability
  • Increase bone density
  • Control internal bleeding
  • Weight loss
  • Bedwetting and urgency

Tinctures, taken in drops under the tongue or mixed with liquid, can have a similar effect in treating the above conditions. 

Infusions can also be applied topically:

  • Gargle for oral infections
  • Hair rinse to strengthen and stimulate growth
  • Treat eye irritations and infections
  • Heal and reduce swelling from wounds and burns
  • Reduce scaring from wounds

Compresses may be used to treat various skin problems:

  • Ulcers
  • Eczema 
  • Inflammation
  • Redness

Precautionary notes

Like any medicine, horsetail should not be taken casually. 

  • It is not recommended for women who are pregnant or nursing. 
  • It can interfere with antiretroviral drugs prescribed for HIV treatment. 
  • It may cause a dangerous increase in potassium for those with kidney disease. 
  • Because of the potential to reduce thiamine levels, it is not recommended to take horsetail continuously for long periods, especially for those who suffer from alcoholism.