Growing Horsetails: The Pros and Cons

Growing Horsetails: The Pros and Cons

Part of Ep. 1704 Horsetails, Tropicals & Tree Peonies

Horsetails are an ancient plant, but they can be invasive. Learn how to control this rambunctious runner at Rotary Gardens in Janesville with Director of Horticulture Mark Dwyer.

Premiere date: Jun 24, 2009

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
This was one of my favorite childhood plants.  These are horsetails.  They've been around for a long time several million years, in fact.  We're at Rotary Gardens in Janesville.  I'm with the director of horticulture, Mark Dwyer.  Mark, you've got an incredible stand.  I don't remember it being this tall from childhood.  This is great.

Mark:
This is one of the great features of Rotary Gardens.  This thicket of equisetum, or horsetail as you alluded to, has a long history.  It was in the Triassic period, 300 million years ago.  Dinosaurs were living at the same time.

Shelley:
They were munching on this, probably.

Mark:
I'm sure they were.

Shelley:
There's a number of varieties throughout the world but not a lot.

Mark:
There's about 15 species worldwide.  They range in height from six-inch dwarf plants up to giants, up to 20 feet.

Shelley:
Ooh, I want some of those.

Mark:
Same architecture with these interesting sheaths these separated sections, there's no leaves.  What's important to note, also, is that it doesn't flower.  It reproduces by spores.

Shelley:
And we have some of those right here.  So that's it, no flowers, no leaves, nothing.

Mark:
Right.  And those are the sporing structures.  They'll drop spores.  It also spreads very vigorously by roots.

Shelley:
So we don't really need the spores.

Mark:
It's a plant that will fill space very quickly.

Shelley:
It goes underground and keeps going.  And obviously, it loves sitting in water.

Mark:
It will take even standing water but prefers really damp sandy locations.  But in garden, it can take just about any type of soil.

Shelley:
Yeah, it seems very hardy.  And it's actually because it's been around.  And I'm sure dinosaurs have stories about it, too but we have stories even from pioneer times.  I know it's been called "scouring rush plant," because it has silica in it, and it was used to scrub pots.  And to sand furniture, which is just incredible.

Mark:
It has a lot of historical uses.  In the pioneer days, kids called it Tinker Toy plant, because you could separate the sheaths.

Shelley:
The different segments.

Mark:
Yeah, and piece them back together.

Shelley:
Well, I know I played with it as a kid.  I never thought about putting it back together.  I just took it apart!

Mark:
Historically, the Romans and the Greeks would use it to treat wounds.  There's even a lot of common day herbal uses ranging from additives for cosmetics and medicinal uses.

Shelley:
Any problems as far as insects, disease?

Mark:
No insect or disease problems.  As a primitive plant, it's very vigorous.  Few problems.  But the problem is control for us.  The issue is, it doesn't respond to herbicides.

Shelley:
So not only is it not killed by insects or disease, you can't kill it.  Not with any kind of Round-Up or a spray like that.

Mark:
Absolutely.  And there's a concern with chemical use near water anyway but it will not respond to Round-Up.  Our control methods have been all manual.  We keep digging it out year after year.

Shelley:
Forever and ever.  You've struggled, in fact to take back this garden.

Mark:
That's a good point.  This is about a third of the original stand.  We've created some new garden spaces where we're still trying to control it.

Shelley:
Let's look at one of your control examples over here.  Now, Mark, I still see a lot.

Mark:
Yeah, this is three years in the making.

Shelley:
Wow.

Mark:
Eventually, this slope will be something else but we've been manually removing this.  What happens is, as we dig it out every year we see smaller and smaller stems emerge from the soil, from the roots.  And eventually, that disappears.  We've noted it's about a five-year process.

Shelley:
That leads to my next question.  I'd like to plant this somewhere, I love it.  But it sounds like I should be looking at the right spot because this could take over.

Mark:
Well, that's just it.  Finding the right spot-- Again, damp soils and minimal light is fine.  But the concern is control making sure you put it in a container with a bottom and sink that container to help control root growth.

Shelley:
So I could put it in, even a pot of water?

Mark:
It would be fine in water and also as a shallow water garden plant.

Shelley:
Because it's evergreen, it's stays great in dried arrangements.

Mark:
It is a wonderful vertical element.  You can find a couple different species at nurseries.  There is a danger in removing it from the wild which is illegal on public lands.  But understand that if you're bringing it home you may have a liability once you plant that.  Because they all run, they all will spread quickly.

Shelley:
So we're better off going to a nursery and getting one that has been tried and true and maybe is a little bit more behaved.

Mark:
That, and always have the control methods in place.

Shelley:
Okay, have edges, sides, bottoms.  Thanks, Mark, I can't wait to try it.

Mark:
You bet.

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