Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Flowerless Plants by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Flowerless Plants by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Field Horsetail

Teacher's Story

These queer, pale plants grow in sandy or gravelly soil, and since they appear so early in the spring they are objects of curiosity to children. The stalk is pale and uncanny looking; the pinkish stem, all the same size from bottom to top, is ornamented at intervals with upward-pointing, slender, black, sharp-pointed scales, which unite at the bottom and encircle the stalk in a slightly bulging ring, a ring which shows a ridge for every scale, extending down the stem. These black scales are really leaves springing from a joint in the stem, but they forgot long ago how to do a leaf's work of getting food from the air. The "blossom" which is not a real blossom in the eye of the botanist, is made up of rows of tiny discs which are set like miniature toadstools around the central stalk. Before it is ripe, there extends back from the edge of each disc a row of little sacs stuffed so full of green spores that they look united like a row of tiny green ridges. The discs at the top of the fertile spike discharge their spores first, as can be seen by shaking the plant over white paper, the falling spores looking like pale green powder. The burst and empty sacs are whitish, and hang around the discs in torn scallops, after the spores are shed. The spores, when seen under the microscope, are wonderful objects, each a little green ball with four spiral bands wound about it. These spirals uncoil and throw the spore, giving it a movement as of something alive. The motor power in these living springs is the absorbing of moisture.


1, Fertile plant of the field horsetail;
2, spore;
3, disk discharging spores;
4, disk with spore-sacs.

The beginning of the sterile shoot can be seen like a green bit of the blossom spike of the plantain; but later, after the fertile stalks have died down, these cover the ground with their strange fringes.

The person who first called these sterile plants "horsetails" had an overworked imagination, or none at all; for the only quality the two have in common is brushiness. A horse which had the hair of its tail set in whorls with the same precision as this plant has its branches would be one of the world's wonders. The Equicetum  is one of the plants which give evidence of nature's resourcefulness; its remote ancestors probably had a whorl of leaves at each joint or node of the main stem and branches; but the plant now having so many green branches, does not really need the leaves, and thus they have been reduced to mere points, and look like nothing but "trimming," they are so purely ornamental. Each little cup or socket, of the joint or node, in branch or stem, has a row of points around its margin, and these points are terminals of the angles in the branch. If a branch is triangular in cross section, it will have three points at its socket, if quadrangular it will have four points, and the main stem may have six or a dozen, or even more points. The main stem and branches are made up entirely of these segments, each set at its lower end in the socket of the segment behind or below it. These green branches, rich in chlorophyl, manufacture for the plant all the food that it needs. Late in the season this food is stored in the rootstocks, so that early next spring the fertile plants, nourished by this stored material, are able to push forth before most other plants, and thus develop their spores early in the season. There is a prothallium stage as in the ferns.


The sterile plant of the field horsetail, one-half natural size.

Above where the whorl of stems comes from the main branch, may be seen a row of upward-standing points which are the remnants of leaves; each branch as it leaves the stem is set in a little dark cup with a toothed rim. There is a nice gradation from the stout lower part of the stem to the tip, which is as delicate as one of the side branches.

The rootstock dies out behind the plant and pushes on ahead like the rootstock of ferns. The true roots may be seen attached on the under side. The food made in the summer is stored in little tubers, which may be seen in the rootstocks.


The Field Horsetail

The Fertile Plant

Leading thought—The horsetail is a plant that develops spores instead of seeds, and has green stems instead of leaves.

Method—In April and May, when the children are looking for flowers, they will find some of these weird looking plants. These should be brought to the schoolroom and the observation lesson given there.


1. Where are these plants found? On what kind of soil?

2. In what respect does this plant differ from other plants in appearance? Can you find any green part to it?

3. What color is the stem? Is it the same size its whole length? Is it smooth or rough?

4. Do you see any leaves on the stems? Do you see the black-pointed scales? In which direction do these scales point? Are they united at the bottom? What sort of a ring do they make around the stem? Split a stem lengthwise and see if there are joints, or nodes, where the ring joins the stalk.

5. How does the "blossom" look? What color are the little discs that make up the blossom? How are the discs set?

6. Take one of the plants which has the discs surrounded by green ridges. Shake it over a white paper. What comes from it? Where does it come from? Which discs on the stalk shed the green spores first?

The Sterile Plants

Leading thought—The horsetail or Equicetum  is nourished by very different looking stems than those which bore the spores. It lacks leaves, but its branches are green and do the work of making food for the plant.

Method—The sterile plants of the horsetail do not appear for several weeks after the fertile ones; they are much more numerous, and do not resemble the fertile plants in form or color. These sterile plants may be used for a lesson in September or October. Some of these plants with their roots may be brought into the schoolroom for study.


1. Has this plant any leaves? How does it make and digest its food without leaves? What part of it is green? Wherever there is green in a plant, there is the chlorophyl-factory for making food. In the horsetail, then, what part of the plant does the work of leaves?

2. Take off one little branch and study with the lens. How does it look? Pull it apart. Where does it break easily? How many joints, or nodes, are there in the branch?

3. Study the socket from which one of the segments was pulled off. What do you see around its edge? How many of these points? Look at the branch in cross section. How many angles has it? What relation do the points bear to the angles? Do you think these points are all there are left of true leaves?

4. How do the little green branches come off the main stem? How many in a place? How many whorls of branches on the main stem?

5. Study the bases of the branches. What do you see? Look directly above where the whorl of branches comes off the main stem. What do you see? Cut the main stem in cross-section just below this place, and see if there are as many little points as there are angles, or ridges, in the stem. Do you suppose these little points are the remnants of leaves on the main stem?

6. What kind of root has the horsetail? Do you think this long running root is the true root or an underground stem? Where are the true roots? Do you think the rootstock dies off at the oldest end each year, like the fern? Can you find the little tubers in the rootstock, which contain nourishment for next year's spore-bearing stalks?

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Fruiting of the Fern  |  Next: The Hair-cap Moss, or Pigeon Wheat
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2020   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.