Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 21, 2009

What’s the Rush

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 3:32 pm

The segmented tubular stems of the Winter Scouring Rush are one of the few plant highlights of the very early spring season. They don’t offer much in the way of “come hither” beauty but they do offer a good dose of “ain’t I nifty” appeal.  First of all, they’ve got green – a commodity not in great supply in the non-pine plant world at this time of year. As evergreens they are standouts throughout the winter months. Truth be told, however, stands of these plants remain basically unchanged throughout the year and over the eons. Rushes are not in a rush to change.

Perhaps one of the reasons these plants are unconcerned about change is because Scouring Rushes are not really rushes at all. True rushes are flowering plants with a relatively recent origin. Scouring rushes belong to a non-flowering group known as the Horsetails, or Equisetums, which have no living relatives other than ferns. Their lineage dates back over 300 million years to the dawn forests that once blanketed the continent. Long before the dinosaurs began their reign, and long long before there were horses, horsetails shared the murky soil with the likes of lycopods and cycads. Towering forests of these plants were the dominant form of life on earth for a very long time. Today, they are reduced to the small bamboo-like survivors we are now familiar with (see below). They are, in other words, a plant that has “been there and done that” many times over.

Structurally these are among the simplest of land plants with absolutely no flairs or extra details. Like representations of the “Arts and Crafts” design phase of plant design,  thier time-tested function trumps their form.  The hollow stems (see here) are segmented and sculpted with parallel ridges. Each segment fits into the other – “likened to a line of drain pipes” fitting together according to a 1905 reference. The leaves, if you want to call them that,  are reduced to a ring of pointy scales at each node. A cone structure on the shorter stalks (like that on the left stem above) expands later in the season to let loose a load of spores to the wind.

Not all horsetails are evergreens, but all are in the genus Equisetum(which means “horse bristles”). Some types sprout each year and produce a bottlebrush fringe of stout “leaves” which gives them a horsetail appearance.  The straw stemmed evergreens, like the winter rush, are more commonly called scouring rushes. As you might suspect, this refers to their traditional use as scouring implements in the old days. The term “old days” is a relative one when talking about a dawntime plant, but in the last few thousand years the plant has seen use for cleaning cooking vessels.

Silica crystals embedded in the stem give the plant a toothy ability to clean grime. There is so much silica in the structure that when the stems rot away, a ghostly crystalline structure remains in place. Over time – that last few thousandth part of time – scouring rushes, which are found throughout the world, have also been used by a variety of cultures to also clean metal and polish wood. This leaves us with a simple plant with a lot of additional names such as gunbright, pewterwort, and shave grass.

This also leaves me with the thought that the Scouring Rush will probably be around long after the human names, or the need for them,  have vanished into the ether of time.

1 Comment »

  1. Humility might be more prevalent if more stopped and pondered the story and history as you told of the rush. Thank you for some fine writing to understand more of my fellow world dwellers.

    Comment by Connie — March 23, 2009 @ 9:40 am

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