The Herb Garden
The Joy of Growing and Using Herbs
Horsetail and House Leeks
by Rachel McLeod
Horsetail (Equisetum arvense and spp) is one of the plants that has lived
on the planet Earth far longer than humankind. There were giant and small
horsetails growing in enormous quantities in the Carboniferous period and large
amounts of the plant formed the coal seams we have depended on for fuel.
Equisetum has no close relatives in the plant kingdom; in fact, it is more
like the ferns than the flowering plants.
ferns, horsetail has two generations; in the early spring pale pink, fleshy
stems appear in damp meadows, each terminating in a small egg-shaped cone that
bears the spores. Later, after dropping their spores, these completely disappear
and in their place, by about June, the green vegetative stems appear, looking
like miniature Christmas trees. It is this part of the plant which is used as a
herb and should be collected early in the season and dried.
Although horsetail has been used as a herb for a very long time, a warning
should be given that the plant is listed by the Department of Agriculture as a
poisonous weed. There have been reports that it has a toxic effect on horses;
although they will avoid grazing on it in the meadow, the danger is if it gets
dried in the hay. Although it is not toxic to humans, it should be taken in
frequent small doses and not over a prolonged period of time. It is an excellent
source of silicon and many other minerals and, in fact, has been described as
one of the most powerful remineralizing agents available.
It is valuable to herbalists as a diuretic and to deal with other problems
connected with the kidneys and the urinary system, as well as a vulnerary for
internal and external healing. It is useful to have the dried herb on hand at
home. A solution is made from horsetail plant mashed up and mixed with warm
vinegar (approximately a cup of the horsetail to a cup of vinegar) simmered for
about 20 minutes, then cooled and strained. The mixture can be stored in the
refrigerator. When it is to be applied to a wound it should be mixed with milk –
one part horsetail solution to two parts milk.
I first read about this remedy in an article about a farmer who had had great
success with injuries on the farm – to a calf, a filly, and herself! I can add
our own experience to that, as horsetail helped the successful and fast healing
of a widespread skin rash on my German shepherd. As well as its medicinal uses,
horsetail and its relative the scouring rush (Equisetum hyemale) were
used in the past to give wood, ivory, silver, pewter, and brass a fine finish.
The high silicon content in the stems acts as a gentle but effective polish.
Bunches of the rush were used to scour milking pails or scrubbing pots in the
kitchen. Even now, it could be very useful to campers.
Finally, it has been proven useful as a spray against mildew on plants,
possibly even strengthening their tissues. The mixture recommended is a cup of
horsetail plants to a gallon of water. Boil for 20 minutes, strain and use when
it has cooled.
Horsetail is best collected from the wild. It is not a plant to introduce
into the garden as it spreads uncontrollably in suitable conditions. The
scouring rush is less invasive and might make a nice clump beside a pond.
A very different plant that thrives on dry conditions is the house leek (Sempervivum
tectorum), more usually known here as hens and chickens because of the way it
reproduces vegetatively...the mother “hen” is surrounded by small replicas of
itself attached by thin stems. In time, it will make a big mound and the babies
can be separated to plant elsewhere at any time. It is very useful to fill in
ugly spots in a garden.
Surprisingly, it has been used as a herb for hundreds of years. The fat,
succulent leaves can be crushed and applied as a cold poultice to relieve
headaches and migraines. They can be cut and used to give relief from itchy
bites and stings and also used as an application to remove corns and warts.
In the past, the plant was known for its protective powers against evil,
particularly fire and lightening. The Emperor Charlemagne ordered it to be
planted on the roofs of all his subject’s houses to give them protection. It
would grow well on thatched roofs and between the interstices of slate and other
roofs which gave it the name house leek in Britain and parts of Europe. It may
still be seen growing on the roofs of old cottages in parts of England and
Wales. Often, the owners of the homes resent any removal of the plant, believing
it protects them and ensures their prosperity.
Rachel McLeod founded Kiln Farm Herb Garden in Puslinch, Ontario in 1974.
This article was published in Natural Life Magazine