Horsetail – Prêle
Near the village of Rustrel in the Luberon is a site called ‘Le Colorado Provençal de Rustrel’. You wonder when you first see the sign why it is called ‘Colorado’. Well, it does remind you of Colorado, but is on a much smaller scale. Ochre was mined here. There are several walks through the Ochre hills, the longest being 5.5 km. The walk we chose, took us past towering blood red, yellow, and white ochre hills, past the impressive, ‘les Cheminées des Fées’ (the Fairy Chimneys) and further on, some dunes called ‘Sahara’, which did remind me of the desert of Dubai. All along the path we saw Cistus laurifolius, a very large Cistus, up to 1.5 m tall. The leaves were dark green, maybe the soil had something to do with that. We crossed several streams and at the bottom of the valleys it was quite wet.
We came across a Horsetail that is quite common in the park, Equisetum telmateia. This particular Equisetum looks magnificent. All the members of the Horsetail family are descendants from prehistoric times, closely related to tree like plants that grew in the ‘carboniferous period’, some 270 million years ago, when decomposed plants formed the coal beds. The ancient Greeks were familiar with the medicinal uses of Equisetum arvense (Common Horsetail). They used it to treat wounds and to stop bleeding. From the Middle Ages up to the 18th century the rough stems in particular of Equisetum hyemale (Dutch rush/rough horsetail) were used to scour pots and pans. Dutch rush was even imported into the U.K. for this purpose.
Horsetails are a rhizomatous perennial. In spring, fertile stems appear topped by a cone. These cones contain spores, once the spores have been shed, the fertile shoot dies down. This is followed by the appearance of sterile shoots, 20-80 cm long. These shoots are segmented, the branch like leaves are in whorls, fused into the nodal sheaths. Once in your garden it is very hard to eradicate. They like shady, damp conditions and prefer acid soil. Here in Provence it is not so common, you can only find them near riverbeds.
Just a few weeks earlier we discovered Equisetem arvense (Common Horsetail) in the ‘Vallon de Baumes’ in Correns. Although it is a curse to have in the garden, Equisetum arvense, has been a very useful herb through the centuries. It is high in minerals, silicon (highest in spring), potassium 2.1-2.9% of dried plant material, 5-8% silicic acid and manganese. Once it was used in the treatment of TB. Its uses for TB are now obsolete, superseded by more effective medicine, but it could still be used in a complementary way as it increases the resistance of connective tissue.
Silicon plays a role in strengthening bones, it is often recommended in the treatment of Osteoporosis and for nails and hair that break easily. It can slow down the age-related changes in the elastic tissue of the Aorta.
Equisetum arvense is used for fractures, tendinitis, rheumatism and gout. You will find it in cosmetic preparations for greasy skin and in shampoos for greasy hair. In folk medicine it was used for excessive menstruation, nosebleeds and piles.
It is safe to use Equisetum arvense. It should not be used during pregnancy or for nursing mothers. Prolonged usage is not advised, it may cause levels of Vit. B1 (Thiamin) to drop. It is advisable when taking Equisetum arvense to take a daily supplement of Vit B complex.
A decoction of Equisetum arvense stems: 15 g of dried herb (30 g fresh), 1 litre water. Boil the stems for 30 mins; drink 3 cups a day.
The young fertile stems can be eaten raw or cooked. They resemble asparagus.
Bibliography: Fytotherapeutisch compendium – J. Van Hellemont; Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart; Wikipedia – Equisetum; Mediterranean Wild Flowers – Marjorie Blamey/Christopher Grey-Wilson; RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs and their uses – Deni Bown; University of Maryland Medical Center – Equisetum arvense