Why do nurseries sell this plant?

I wish I were more like Holly…wandering around nurseries finding pretty and unusual annuals and perennials to get excited about.  Instead, I seem to gravitate to plants that annoy me.

Today while looking for some trellises (for those containerized Clematis vines that I’ve been torturing) I saw pots of the Equisetum hyemale (“a tall, evergreen, spreading, reed-like grass”) for sale:


As readers of this blog surely know, Equisetum spp. – or horsetails – are not grasses but primitive relatives of ferns.  That taxonomic blunder aside, the thought of deliberately planting any Equisetum species in a landscape sends shivers down my spine.

Now E. hyemale is not as weedy as E. arvense, but in nearly every seminar I give on controlling weeds with mulch someone asks about getting rid of horsetails.  Short answer – you pull.  And pull and pull.  There’s no good herbicide for them, nothing seems to eat them, and they spread aggressively.

And speaking of eating, did you know that horsetails are poisonous?  They contain an enzyme (thiaminase) that deactivates thiamin (vitamin B1) in the unfortunate consumer’s body.  The most common victims of horsetail poisoning, ironically, are horses.  Horsetails are considered noxious weeds in pastures used for grazing – and yes, they are native to the United States.

Sure, horsetails are interesting looking plants.  But do you really want something in your garden that the production nursery describes as having “indefinite spread?”  And how does keeping them in a pot, as one production nursery recommends, keep them from spreading spores?  Especially if you plant them “in or around ponds and streams?”

I just think this is such a bad idea for home landscapes.  Even if it is a native species.

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Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and a Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - www.facebook.com/TheGardenProfessors "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors Books: http://www.sustainablelandscapesandgardens.com

25 thoughts on “Why do nurseries sell this plant?”

  1. We refuse to sell it, though we are constantly asked for it, but we can honestly tell people it is more invasive than our most evil running bamboo… Luckily we can steer our customers to Chondropetalum which has a similar look, is a clumper and needs minimal water.

  2. Personallly I think the patch of horsetail we’ve been fighting for years has only one purpose, a great place to put summer workers who dont know anything about plants. “See this plant? Pull anything that looks like it? Come back at the end of the summer.”

  3. Holly, I hereby appoint you as mistress-in-charge of the “Why Do Nurseries Sell This Plant?” feature! And Hank, I’ve been having my kids pull horsetail at a local restoration site for years! (Once the installed plants are we
    ll established we don’t care, but we need to keep competition down.)

  4. Wow. I have a 12-inch square of equisetum growing in my slate paver patio area that has remained well-behaved for a few years now. I stole the idea from Chanticlear in Wayne, PA, a public garden I visit often. It hasn’t spread to any other spot on my somewhat well tended 1/2 acre.

    I do recall the finer-fronded native being a pest in my years of gardening in Southcentral Alaska, but assumed the coarser-textured variety I purchased was better behaved. It has proven to be for me, any way. Could this be a regional thing?

  5. MiSchelle, it could be that the spores can’t find a good place to germinate. It sounds like you’re not near a body of water, which would be the conduit for spores. Perhaps your soils just aren’t moist enough for the spores of this species? I would say the issue is environmental rather than regional (i.e. it will be more of a problem in wetter areas). And less of a problem in mature landscapes than in disturbed soils.

  6. I would love better clarification on things like this. I’d like more precision on use of categories like “Invasive”, “Native, but still wouldn’t plant” “Aggressive, but has its uses”, plus others, as you guys can probably better say. These are more useful categories for classification than the prevalent “native” vs “invasive” stuff in the general literature.

  7. I encountered this in a customer’s yard growing around her cement patio that was edged in concrete blocks cemented in place. the plant was coming up between the concrete and the blocks. man was that a pain to weed. I resorted to pulling and them squirting a little weed killer down it ( I know bad, bad, bad using weed killer!) but I was really frustrated and trying to please the customer.
    I have another good plant for ” why do nurseries sell this?”
    Persicaria. there is one growing in another of my customer’s garden. I think it is a variety of this, it is tri-colored, cream green and red, and it smells funny when I pull it, it’s a very unpleasant smell for me. it is rampant throughout her kinnikinnick. she planted it in a pot sunk in the ground and by the time I was hired to do her yard, it had spread out to the surrounding are.

  8. I feel the same way when I see nurseries selling chameleon plant – Houttuynia cordata.

    It’s a completely invasive and stinking monster.

  9. Kathleen, That’s what it is! thank you, I wasn’t sure exactly what it was, and was guessing it was a variety of persicaria. so now I know. and boy does it stink,

  10. I’ve read pulling horsetail increases them. I believe Ann Lovejoy suggests cutting to the ground repeatedly to weaken them.

  11. Robert, the idea that pulling horsetail increases them is a myth. From a physiological veiwpoint, anything that continuously removes photosynthetic tissue is going to weaken the plant. Therefore, pulling them will remove more material than simply cutting the stalks. Plus, pulling is a lot easier!

  12. Linda,you know far more than I do and I agree with you that removing material weakens the plant. The rub was that after pulling three or four shoots emerge where there was one before. They are smaller and weaker but left alone they all grow. I’ve experienced this myself with digging up dandelions. I found I was only creating larger clumps, I assume, from bits of broken tap root. Am I making a false analogy? My method is anecdotal and not scientific.
    I enjoy your blog very much and am interested in anything you have to say. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  13. Robert, thank you for the comment and interest! You’re correct in that a broken stem will lead to several stems taking its place. As you’ve seen, they are smaller and weaker, but left alone will help the plant recover. So the trick is to keep pulling. It works, but requires constant vigilance! And cutting the stem will have the same result as pulling (i.e. several new stems emerging from below the cut).

  14. I left Anacortes on vacation two weeks ago, having pulled most of the horsetail. It is back with a vengeance but the prized P. parviflora “goldilocks” has turned brown.

  15. I would like for nurseries to stop selling barberry and burning bushes.I haven’t seen lots of horsetail in our state forest but plenty of barberry and honeysuckle.

  16. The Michigan “horsetail” may be a neucense, and is poisonous, but the “horestail” aka Grass straw variety is actually not poisonous and is the oposite.. medicinal and very useful as an herb. apparently does not grow in US though.. from what I read.

  17. I want horsetail because I can’t seem to find any and growing a small pot of it indoors is good for clarinet players because we use it to make adjustments to our reeds. Clarinet players actually spend a lot of money on overpriced dried pieces of horsetail, but people who are lucky enough to find it actually grow it to have an unlimited supply for red adjustments. I myself am looking for this

    1. Many plants with medicinal value are poisonous – foxglove is a great example. Using a plant-based medicine that’s been developed through scientific research is different than simply eating the plant.

  18. Horsetail is an amazing plant, and according to biodynamic tradition, it improves other plants’ health in many ways. The plant is one of the best sources of silica in the plant kingdom, and can be used as a treatment for powdery mildew and other fungus. Silica helps with overall plant health and vitality. Horsetail, made into a tea, can be watered in or sprayed on as a foliar feed.

    1. Yes, Horsetail has many benefits. It grows in my garden and i have dried some to make tea. Itis beneficial for a lot of things. Healthshops are making a lot of money selling it. Why not produce your own.

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