The roadside ditches are tan and brown this time of the year. The grass has become dormant and the blooming flowers of last summer have dried and look like spindly weeds.
However, in some wet areas masses of unusual looking “grass” can be seen in the ditches or in wet lands. The common name for this plant is “Snakegrass”, botanists call it
Equisetum hyemale. Hyemale is a Latin word meaning winter; it was given this name because of the plant’s evergreen characteristic.
It is also called snakeweed, skeletonweed, and scouring-rush. The plant is found in all of North America in damp habitats. Worldwide there are about fifteen species in the Equisetum group of plants; four species are found in Iowa.
Snakegrass is not a true grass; it is in the same group as ferns, moss, and horsetails. All of these plants reproduce by spores, not seeds. Some scientists call it a living fossil, a relic of an era of Earth’s plants that produced Iowa’s coal beds. Some fossil species have been found in coal that are ninety feet tall and more than a foot in diameter.
The plants green hollow erect stems are usually two to three feet tall and often have a small cone at the tip. The cone produces the reproductive spores. The plant is rough to the touch because of the ridges that run the length of the stiff stem. These hollow jointed stems of snakegrass is the plant structure which people are most familiar with- especially the “popping” sound that is made when they are pulled apart.
The leaves are small scales that form a sheath in a ring around the joints of the stem. The small leaves do insignificant amounts of photosynthesis, the stems carry out the majority of that process.
Underground, the roots are horizontal rhizomes and can reach a depth of four feet. They are formed in joints like the above ground stems. The roots send up new shoots each year and the plant can spread out more than a foot per year.
The early pioneers used this plant for scouring pots. Silica, a type of sand, is found in the plant’s cells providing a gritty material for cleaning and polishing. The Western Indians used the plants to put a sharp edge on their flint arrowheads. Native Americans also used the plant for medicinal purposes. They brewed a tea from the stems to treat kidney troubles and dropsy. The spore forming cones were eaten to control diarrhea. Snakegrass is known to be poisonous to livestock when it is mixed with hay. The plant contains and a chemical that effects the nervous system causing the animal to weaken and stagger when walking.
Because snakegrass does very well in wet areas it is used in water gardens, backyard ponds, and rain gardens. It can be purchased from garden supply stores. In some places it can become a weed that is very difficult to eradicate. This should be expected from a plant that has flourished and survived since before the age of dinosaurs.