Monday, October 18, 2010

Dandelion Fork Useless against Day-of-Dinosaurs Plant!

Yeah, it looks all dewy and innocent now,
but just wait til it shoulders aside all
your other plants.
It is politically and native-plantishly incorrect to admit that I loathe and detest the horsetails that grow in my garden. But I do.

These horsetails are hogs. They don't share with other plants, even if they're natives, too. They poke up between anything else that grows on long, lanky stems; then their bottle-brush tops bristle in all directions, completely obscuring anything shorter than two feet in height.

This wouldn't be so awful if they stayed lime-green and frothy. At that stage in their lives, they form a cloudbank of greenery, functioning like baby's-breath in a bouquet. But no...instead, they fade into pale olive, brittle toothpicks, then sigh and crumble, eventually resembling worn-out tumbleweed litter strewn about the bases of other plants.

When I first tackled this garden after moving into our house more than a decade ago, I naively thought I could conquer the horsetails, or at least incorporate them into a new garden design after ripping out the low-growing junipers covering the slope out front. That's before I realized what a vigorous underground stream burbled beneath our house and front yard, and how well suited this little habitat was for horsetails.

And certainly before I knew that these plants, the only remaining members of their family, had been kicking around for more than 325 million years. They saw the rise and demise of the dinosaurs and were surely snacked on by them. They grew to dinosaurian sizes themselves at one time, long before the first flowering plant ever opened a blossom to the sky. (One South American species still grows to a height of about 30 feet; I should consider myself lucky that mine are only about 30 inches tall.)

Spindly top of horsetail struggling to outdo
similarly sized neighbors.
The Sunset Western Garden Book sums up this persistent pest from the past by describing it as "extremely invasive and difficult to get rid of." Read: well-nigh impossible. The editors helpfully suggest that one "root-prune or dig out unwanted shoots rigorously and constantly." Read: Sisyphean task.

Short of poisoning the entire front yard (not an option, as I don't use herbicides, and anyway, apparently this ploy ends up killing all the plants except the horsetails) or swathing it in barrier material, clearly the only way to cope was to give up the notion of a slope sweetly bathed in low-growing alpine plants and to plant things taller than horsetails.

So far, this plan's worked rather well. The horsetails push and shove their way through the crowd of other plants, but can't kill them. Their stalky remains are largely hidden as they decompose in winter.

The horsetail, as you might guess, somewhat resembles a horse's tail (that is, an ungroomed, scraggly horse's tail). Other people in its worldwide range think so, too: The Dutch call it "paardestaart"--horsetail--and it's coda di cavallo and queue de cheval in Italian and French, respectively. (These names make me think of Pigpen in A Charlie Brown Christmas saying, after hearing about the ancient history of the dirt boiling around him, "Sort of makes you want to treat me with more respect!")

It also puts people in mind of a frightened cat with an upright, bushy tail: another Dutch name for it is Kattenstaart, "cat tail," and some Germans refer to it as Katzenwedel--"cat frond."

But many of its names suggest how it was used by people from Native Americans to rural Europeans: "bottlebrush," ,"scouring rush," Zinnkraut (tin-herb). The high silica content of its stems made it gritty enough to work like sandpaper, and it was used to scrub cooking utensils and to smooth wood. Apparently it's still used as sandpaper by some woodworkers (and as a makeshift potscrubber by backpackers).

We decided to put our handy crop of horsetails to the test on a pot badly in need of scrubbing--one that got ignored while it was boiling noodles for us and now bears ghostly images of noodles on its burned bottom.

Burned pot, before.

We snatched a big handful of horsetails, added hot water to the pot, and started scrubbing. And scrubbing.

And you know what? It worked. Sort of. There were definitely some silvery spots showing up in the blackened surface.

It would definitely take a lot more elbow grease to get the job done. And a lot more horsetails. But we've got plenty of those. Though I doubt horsetails will replace the Brillo pad. And I know for sure my daughter will not only not be scrubbing the pot mightily anytime soon, but if she does, it won't be with a fistful of horsetail.

Burned pot, after. Still desperate,
but there's a little patch of silver
that wasn't there before.
"Don't mean to insult you, Mom, but you look pretty silly standing at the sink with a bunch of plants scrubbing pots," she said, just before fleeing to go harvest the wheat crop on her iPod.

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