Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium
University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point

Vascular Plants

Plants of Wisconsin

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  Prairie Folklore

by Wayne Pauly from Dane County Parks ACTION Adult Conservation Team Newsletter (All folklore stories)


Equisetum hymale & E. arvense

I’ve heard horsetails called many names including Equisetum, snake grass,  scouring rush, gun bright, tinker toys, and panpipe.  Most people recognize the scouring rush horsetail that grows as a hollow green stalk (long and narrow like a snake), but they don’t notice the common horse tail with its whirls of slender green branches around the central stem. The latter looks more like a horse’s tail, but either are good for scouring and sanding because silica is imbedded in the stems.

In pioneer days, a fist full of stems scoured the heavy, iron cooking pots, while a single stem shined your brass buttons or polished the rust from an old shotgun.  Children pulled stems apart at the joints like tinker toys and then challenged each other to see who could reassemble the longest stem.

Make your own musical panpipe.  Do you remember blowing into a soda bottle to make “music”; the tone depended on the size of the bottle.  Well, pull the horsetails apart and blow into a section of stem and the tone is related to the length of the stem piece.  Once you master a single stem, then try three  at once and you’ll have chords.  Finally, figure a way to hold 6 to 10 stem sections in a row arranged from longest to shortest, and you have your own panpipe (named for the Greek god Pan who had the legs and horns of a goat and wandered the pastures playing his panpipe).

Vascular Plants

Plants of Wisconsin

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