by Joshua Siskin
Long ago, it was eaten by dinosaurs. Today, it is an ingredient in medications that lower cholesterol. Throughout human history, it has been used for scrubbing kitchen utensils.
Known commonly as the horsetail or scouring rush, this plant has emerged as one of the species that is increasingly recommended by garden designers in search of high concept or minimalist designs. These are designs that utilize plants for their shapes, architectural lines, foliage color, and durability, rather than their flowering characteristics.
Horsetail consists of many reed-like, segmented green tubes that grow straight up to a height of four feet. Attractive black and gray bands are found at both ends of each segment. It is often planted in long, narrow planters and makes a strong design statement. It does best in half day sun to light shade. In full sun it turns yellow-green which means that it will appear yellow-green as opposed to the emerald green color which it shows when sun protected.
Horsetail thrives where water is plentiful but it will grow well enough with a single weekly watering. It is the ideal plant for naturalizing -- which is a polite word for "taking over" -- an area. It spreads by underground fleshy stems called rhizomes; rhizomes are found on many plants, from irises to agapanthus, from ferns to Bermuda grass. If you have a moderately shady area with heavy, poorly drained soil where nothing will grow, you should consider planting horsetail. It is impervious to cold and grows wild as far north as Canada. Just don't plant it with ferns, azaleas or, for that matter, any other plants since the horsetail will surely, within a few years, engulf them all.
It is thought that giant horsetail trees, reaching a height of more than ten feet, lived at the time of the dinosaurs and were grazed by vegetarian dinosaur species. The garden variety of horsetail -- Equisetum hyemale -- has accompanied human beings in all their wanderings on account of its abrasive and medicinal properties. No plant is more concentrated in silica than horsetail. It was used by the pioneers for scouring their pots and polishing their pewter. Even today, campers looking for a way to clean their cooking utensils grab fistfuls of horsetail, which is often found growing next to streams, to do the job. The silica in horsetail is highly soluble in the fluids of wounds and has been using to stop bleeding and heal broken bones. Horsetail extract is also found in herbal products that are recommended for people suffering from incontinence or high cholesterol.
One of the most popular landscape designs for water thirsty climates incorporates fountain shaped plants with low water requirements. The idea is to suggest a vista of spouting fountains as a counterpoint to dry surroundings. Such fountainesque plants include: fortnight lily (Dietes vegeta), flowering on an off throughout the year in full sun; New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), with spear shaped leaves in green, bronze, or purple, for full to partial sun; Juncus patens (California gray bush), a rush like arching plant with brown-banded leaves, for partial sun or shade; and ornamental grasses for full or partial sun such as purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceaum 'Cupreum'), which has purple leaves with wheat-like inflorescences, and sheep fescue (Festuca ovina 'Glauca', a small mounding plant with silvery-blue foliage. A landscape with such plants often includes a winding swath of smooth, gray stones, suggesting a dry stream bed or, in the symbolic Japanese mode, the movement of water.
In dry climates, necessity has become the mother of invention in garden design. With the continuing uncertainty about the availability and the price of water, many people are opting for drought tolerant landscapes which use only ten to twenty per cent of the water required by lawns. In the process, people are making a design statement by utilizing plants whose strong architectural lines and shapes -- as opposed to flowering capacity -- take center stage.