The field horsetail or common horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is another sign of spring. The plant is known as sugina (杉菜) in Japanese, literally “cryptomeria vegetable”, possibly from the appearance of the green stems.
The horsetail grows in damp areas and once it becomes established it is very hard to remove. It is thought to be toxic to horses – ironic, considering the common and scientific names.
It would probably be overlooked as just another weed if it weren’t for the spore-producing stems that appear in early spring.
Horsetails reproduce by spores rather than seeds. The spore-producing stems and the sterile stems for photosynthesis are separate – it is quite difficult to believe they are the same plant.
The fertile stems appear first in early spring. They are most commonly known as tsukushi (土筆), although tsukushinbo, and hoshiko are also used in certain regions. The ideograms literally mean “soil brush”, based on their shape.
Tsukushi are often viewed with nostalgia, a certain fondness as a herald of spring, and as a wild vegetable. The spore-bearing stems can be eaten, but need to be boiled to remove some of the alkalines. (Caveat: I know someone who claims to have eaten them raw in her childhood)
As with many wild vegetables, it is advised against eating too much – some of the alkaloids can be carcinogenic in large quantities.
I managed to clock up over one and a half decades of “Japan time” before seeing these plants in the wild – just a few days ago, in fact.
I had seen images on TV, which misled me into thinking the spore-bearing stems would be quite large – certainly they large in the minds of the artists. I was quite surprised to see how small they actually were – and more surprised when I realised that I pass a patch of them every day on the way home from work!