Giant Horsetail is common, edible, and medicinal. You’ve probably seen it scattered throughout parks and near roads without knowing it. City dwellers take note–this is a plant you can usually forage without taking a drive to the woods! Early to mid spring is ideal for foraging horsetail and other delicious shoot vegetables.
Why Forage for Horsetail?
If you get to them early enough, young fertile shoots are a delicious wild vegetable that can be eaten raw. The flavor is juicy and similar to celery without all the stringiness. Fertile shoots are a traditional seasonal delicacy to many indigenous groups, especially on the west coast up through British Columbia.
Shoots should be eaten while young and green. Once they begin to brown, they are no longer palatable. Once leaves appear on the stalk, horsetail is no longer edible, but is great for medicine.
Horsetail is full of minerals and trace elements, filters heavy metals and toxins from the body, helps grow and strengthen hair, and increase bone density. It’s also an excellent natural remedy to strengthen and rebuild connective tissues such as the kidneys, lungs, mucus membranes, hair, skin, cartilage, and sinuses.
Horsetail is more than 35% silica, one of the highest percentages in the plant kingdom. Silica is necessary for calcium metabolism and essential for the formation and repair of bone and cartilage. Only a small portion of silica on the Earth is bioavailable to us (able to absorb in the body), however horsetail is a rich source that we can use.
When to Forage Horsetail
Fertile shoots are where it’s at! Silica is most bioavailable in these early shoots. The trick is to pick them when they’ve grown big enough, but before the cones get brown.
Ideally, pick your shoots from mid March through mid April when they’re about 5-8 inches tall. Pluck them at the ground and peel off the coarse outer layer (bract) that surrounds the cone.
Go ahead and eat them right away while they’re fresh–just rinse off the dirt and chow down!
The picture above shows what horsetail looks like after the fertile shoot stage–notice that the large cone is gone and leaves are beginning to form upwards on the stalk.
Vegetative shoots must be picked before the bushy leaves extend horizontally if you wish to eat them. Unfortunately, horsetail is not very tasty at this phase, but it is edible. Be sure to remove the outer layer (bract) as well as the leaves before ingesting.
Eventually, the leaves become horizontal and bushy, as seen in the photo above. At this stage, horsetail is no longer edible. It is, however, quite ideal for making medicine.
The younger the plant, the richer the nutrients. Many herbalists recommend harvesting horsetail leaves no later than June.
To harvest, pluck the entire stalk from the ground and keep the leaves intact. Once dried, the leaves are easier to pull off the stalk.
Where to Forage Horsetail
Horsetail grows all over the place! They are quite resilient and need little to thrive. Though they tend to prefer marshy or moist areas, they have been known to grow in fields, woods, gravel, and in ditches next to roads.
How to Identify Giant Horsetail
There are a handful of horsetail species in the Pacific Northwest. Two are edible, and the rest are neither nutritious nor medicinal. I focus on Giant Horsetail (Equisetum telmateia), which is easy to identify and quite common.
The Giant Horsetail is the third from the left in the photo above and overall the largest species in the PNW. Notice that it has the thickest stalk, and if found in the wild can grow up to 6 feet tall.
Horsetail is an ancient plant family. There are around 20 species worldwide and it’s found on every continent in the world except Antarctica.
How to Process Horsetail for Medicinal Use
Horsetail has a long tradition of medicinal use, with herbal lore speaking to its nutritive and healing properties found all over the world for centuries.
It is best to dry horsetail leaves while still on the stalk, as they’re easier to handle. There are two ways to dry it: either tie a bundle together and hang it upside down, or lay your stalks flat on a screen until dry.
Once the leaves have dried out, strip them from the stalk. Either process the horsetail leaves into a tea or decoction right away, or place in a glass jar for later use.
Avoid breathing the silica crystals that fall off the plant as it dries, which can show up as a dust that is irritating to the lungs and throat. Be especially mindful of this when placing the dried leaves into a jar.
How to Make Horsetail Tea
Horsetail tea is the most common way to ingest horsetail for medicinal use. Luckily, it is also quite an easy process.
Some herbalists like to blend dry horsetail with other herbs, such as red clover, stinging nettle, mullein, or anything else you’d like. If you are treating a specific condition, it’s best to compliment horsetail with other herbs that are known to heal that condition.
If drank on it’s own:
1. Put a large handful in a pot (dried or fresh).
2. Pour two to three cups of water over the herb.
3. Feel free to adjust the steep time to your preferred taste (some people steep up to a couple of hours).
4. Drink 2-3 cups per day, as needed.
Other Ways to Use Horsetail
Tea isn’t the only way to consume horsetail for its medicinal benefits!
Some herbalists prefer to powder their horsetail harvest. Powder can be added to boiling water for a tonic, or placed inside gel capsules to be taken as a pill.
Horsetail capsules or powdered horsetail can also be purchased through herbal retailers, if you prefer to purchase it instead of powdering it yourself. I recommend Mountain Rose Herbs.
Horsetail is an ingredient in many hair washes for its high silica content, which contributes to strong and healthy hair. It also promotes hair growth and minimizes dandruff.
Horsetail is also present in skin products for its anti-aging properties and to promote clear skin.
This article explains how to use horsetail for various cosmetic needs.
“Bones and Old Plants–The Tenacious Horsetails: A Spring Harvest” on Main Organic Farmers and Gardener’s Association
“Wild Horsetail Plant, A nutritive Herb High in Minerals”
Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria
“How to Eat a Horsetail” on Wild Harvests
“Horsetail” on Wild Food & Medicines
“Picking Horsetail” on Henriette’s Herbal Homepage