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