AskDefine | Define horsetail

Dictionary Definition

horsetail n : perennial rushlike flowerless herbs with jointed hollow stems and narrow toothlike leaves that spread by creeping rhizomes; tend to become weedy; common in northern hemisphere; some in Africa and South America

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Alternative spellings


  • /ˈhɔː(r)s.teɪl/


  1. Any of various simple vascular plants, of the family Equisetaceae, that have hollow stems and produce spores.

Extensive Definition

Equisetum is a genus of vascular plants that reproduce by spores rather than seeds. The genus includes 15 species commonly known as horsetails and scouring rushes. It is the only living genus in class Equisetopsida, formerly of the division Equisetophyta (Arthrophyta in older works), though recent molecular analyses place the genus within the ferns (Pteridophyta). Other classes and orders of Equisetopsida are known from the fossil record, where they were important members of the world flora during the Carboniferous period.


The name horsetail, often used for the entire group, arose because the branched species somewhat resemble a horse's tail, the name Equisetum being from the Latin equus, "horse", and seta, "bristle". Other names include candock (applied to branching species only), and scouring-rush (applied to the unbranched or sparsely branched species). The latter name refers to the plants' rush-like appearance; the stems were used for scouring cooking pots in the past (due to them being coated with abrasive silica).


The genus is near-cosmopolitan, being absent only from Australasia and Antarctica. They are perennial plants, either herbaceous, dying back in winter (most temperate species) or evergreen (some tropical species, and the temperate species Equisetum hyemale, E. scirpoides, E. variegatum and E. ramosissimum). They mostly grow 0.2-1.5 m tall, though E. telmateia can exceptionally reach 2.5 m, and the tropical American species E. giganteum 5 m, and E. myriochaetum 8 m.


In these plants the leaves are greatly reduced and usually non-photosynthetic. They contain a single, non-branching vascular trace, which is the defining feature of microphylls. However, it has recently been recognised that these microphylls probably evolved by the reduction of a megaphyll; therefore they are commonly referred to as megaphylls to reflect this homology.
They grow in whorls fused into nodal sheaths. The stems are green and photosynthetic, also distinctive in being hollow, jointed, and ridged (with (3-) 6-40 ridges). There may or may not be whorls of branches at the nodes; when present, these branches are identical to the main stem except smaller.


The spores are borne under sporangiophores in cone-like structures (strobilus, pl. strobili) at the tips of some of the stems. In many species the cone-bearing stems are unbranched, and in some (e.g. E. arvense) they are non-photosynthetic, produced early in spring separately from photosynthetic sterile stems. In some other species (e.g. E. palustre) they are very similar to sterile stems, photosynthetic and with whorls of branches.
Horsetails are mostly homosporous, though in E. arvense, smaller spores give rise to male prothalli. The spores have four elaters that act as moisture-sensitive springs, assisting spore dispersal after the sporangia have split open longitudinally.


Many plants in this genus prefer wet sandy soils, though some are aquatic and others adapted to wet clay soils. One horsetail, E. arvense, can be a nuisance weed because it readily regrows after being pulled out. The stalks arise from rhizomes that are deep underground and almost impossible to dig out. It is also unaffected by many herbicides designed to kill seed plants. The foliage of some species is poisonous to grazing animals if eaten in large quantities. Equisetum is cooked and eaten in Japan.

Geological history

The horsetails are the sole surviving genus of the Equisetopsida, a diverse and widespread group during the Carboniferous period. Some species were large trees reaching to 30 m tall. The genus Calamites (family Calamitaceae) is abundant in coal deposits from the Carboniferous period.



horsetail in Arabic: أذناب الخيليات
horsetail in Bulgarian: Хвощ
horsetail in Catalan: Equiset
horsetail in Czech: Přeslička
horsetail in Danish: Padderok
horsetail in German: Schachtelhalme
horsetail in Spanish: Equisetopsida
horsetail in Esperanto: Ekvizeto
horsetail in Persian: دم‌اسبی (گیاه)
horsetail in French: Equisetum
horsetail in Korean: 속새류
horsetail in Upper Sorbian: Křipica
horsetail in Indonesian: Paku ekor kuda
horsetail in Italian: Equiseto
horsetail in Hebrew: שבטבט
horsetail in Latvian: Kosas
horsetail in Lithuanian: Asiūklis
horsetail in Hungarian: Zsurlók
horsetail in Dutch: Paardenstaart (plant)
horsetail in Japanese: トクサ植物門
horsetail in Norwegian: Sneller
horsetail in Polish: Skrzyp
horsetail in Portuguese: Cavalinha (planta)
horsetail in Quechua: Akurma
horsetail in Russian: Хвощ
horsetail in Slovenian: Preslica
horsetail in Finnish: Kortteet
horsetail in Swedish: Fräken
horsetail in Turkish: Atkuyruğu
horsetail in Ukrainian: Хвощ
horsetail in Chinese: 木贼属
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