Monday, June 22, 2009

Here be Giants

This dense forest of great horsetails Equisetum telmateia thrives on the low cliffs and dunes that flank Warkworth beach in Northumberland, but if you could time-travel back to the Carboniferous 300 million years ago, when the coal measures were laid down, you’d see plants that looked very similar. The first amphibians that emerged on land would have slithered between their stems. Today’s horsetails are living fossils – the last few survivors of a group of plants that were once a diverse and dominant component of Earth’s vegetation, thriving in steamy swamps thanks to air channels in their stems that conducted oxygen to their roots and allowed them to survive in stagnant mud. Fossil horsetails from the Carboniferous are common in coal deposits and are virtually indistinguishable from their present-day counterparts – except that those ancient horsetails were true giants of tree proportions, sometimes up to thirty metres tall. Our great horsetail can’t match that – a couple of metres is about the limit of its growth. Horsetails have very distinctive whorls of long , thin leaves at nodes along their grooved, circular stems. They contain large amounts of silica, which gives the dried plant abrasive properties and accounts for its other common name – scouring rush.


  1. Fantastic photos & reference, Phil.

  2. That first picture is somewhat mesmerising.
    I can imagine them swirling around in a breeze, first one way, then the other.
    Fascinating information too.

  3. Thanks Dean and Keith, I've always been fascinated by these ancient plants, that die back down to ground level in winter then rapidly put on all this beautifully geometrical growth in spring... but I'm not quite so enamoured with the closely related field horsetail, that infests my garden.