The name horsetail arose because it was thought that the stalk resembled a horse's tail; the name Equisetum is from the Latin equus, "horse", and seta, "bristle". Other names, rarely used, include candock (applied to branching species only), and scouring-rush (applied to the unbranched or sparsely branched species). The name scouring-rush refers to its rush-like appearance and because the stems are coated with abrasive silica that led them to be used for scouring cooking pots in the past.
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 Equisetum hyemale). 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, being represented only by whorls of small, translucent scales. 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 in a cone-like structures (strobilus, pl. strobili) at the tip of some of the stems. In many species they 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
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, ejecting the spores through a weak spot of the sporangia.
Many plants in this genus prefer 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 is poisonous to grazing animals if eaten in large quantities.
The horsetails were a much larger and more diverse group in the distant past before seed plants became dominant across the Earth. Some species were large trees reaching to 30 m tall. The genus Calamites (Family Calamitaceae) is abundant in coal deposits from the Carboniferous period.
The superficially similar flowering plant, Mare's tail (Hippuris vulgaris), unrelated to the genus Equisetum, is occasionally misidentified and misnamed as a horsetail.
Pryer, Kathleen M., Eric Schuettpelz, Paul G. Wolf, Harald Schneider, Alan R. Smith and Raymond Cranfill. 2004. Phylogeny and evolution of ferns (monilophytes) with a focus on the early leptosporangiate divergences. American Journal of Botany 91:1582-1598 (online abstract here).
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