Horse Tale


Once upon a long-ago time horsetails grew bigger and stronger and taller, some reaching 30 metres — nearly 100 feet. Imagine walking through such a forest.

Today scientists often call them “living fossils.” They are the only remnants of a group of plants that spread across the earth for a hundred million years.

Although the monster tree-sized horsetails disappeared, several smaller species still linger. Field horsetails grow in my yard underneath spruce and pine, and along the dirt road beyond. They have also invaded my garden where each summer they strive to overcome peas and carrots and potatoes.

To my mind this is an odd species, growing as it does in two parts.

Early each spring shortly after the snow is gone it sends up the first part, small brownish stalks, each one topped with a “cone”. This is the fertile phase.


These fertile stalks, growing alongside the road where there’s more sun, are ready to produce spores. They’re about 7 cm (3 in).


As the cones mature the segments open up to release tiny spores.


This closeup shows the spore “pads” with tube-like extensions that release the spores.

DSC07060 - Version 2

The fertile stalks last only a short time. As they die they’re immediately replaced by bushy green sterile stalks — that with some imagination look somewhat like a horse’s tail. They’ll last until late summer or the first frost.

A "forest" of horsetails

I took this photo last summer, after a rain. Down at eye level I could almost imagine what a forest of them might have looked like.

Field horsetails after a rain

Last year’s horsetails are still evident, forming dried mats on the ground.

Last year's horsetails form a thick mat on the ground.

Field horsetails grow across North America, Europe, Asia and even into the Arctic. They are known by many names — horse willow, bottle brush, pewter wort, scouring rush and paddock eyes (my fave).

According to one of my sources, it says that horsetails are a main food for grizzlies in June and July. Hmmm. I wonder if they do gardens?

Field horsetail   Equisetum arvense

10 thoughts on “Horse Tale

  1. Wonderful images and information, Sally! I have the same species growing near my local river. When I first saw the fertile stalks some years ago now, I wondered what the heck they was! But you live and learn, and it is amazing to think that dinosaurs once browsed the tops of their ancestors in another time before people even existed.


    1. Thanks, Pete. Like you I was flummoxed when I first saw the fertile stems. Finally figured it out. So many amazing things to discover when we take the time to look.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t I know it, Brian. As someone quipped: Right plant, wrong place. I’ve since discovered that their roots can go down 2 metres. Yikes. No wonder my weeding efforts have come to naught.


  2. Excellent! There are loads of them around here, several species, and I was only vaguely aware of the different stages so I think you for making it all so clear. Lovely raindrops on the grass, too!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yup, they are rather strange looking for sure … and even more so when I blew up that one image. It’s great fun being able to see these formerly “invisible” things.


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