Wondernose: What plant was once used as a scouring pad?

by Rebecca Martin | Jan 1, 2024 | 0 comments

So you think this must be a cactus, Wondernose. Cacti are prickly, all right, but I really don’t know how effective they’d be at cleaning a scorched saucepan. Has your mother ever asked you to turn off a burner after a certain number of minutes, because the potatoes will be done? And have you ever forgotten to do it—until the odor of burnt potatoes reached your nose? If so, then maybe after dinner you needed a scouring pad to get that saucepan clean. Before the days of convenient, curly stainless steel pads, some people used parts of this plant to clean their cast iron cooking pots.

Another use for this mystery plant was to polish metal. You see, the stems of these plants contain a mineral called silica, which is very abrasive. Some varieties of this plant have stems as rough as sandpaper. As a matter of fact, some people call this plant the “scouring rush.” Besides silica, the stems contain small amounts of other minerals.

The name “scouring rush” probably doesn’t help you identify our mystery plant, Wondernose. Maybe you think this is an exotic plant growing somewhere in Africa or Asia. But it’s not. It’s a very common plant, growing in all the world’s temperate countries except Australia. You could probably go out and find such a plant right now, not far away. Some varieties are actually evergreen, meaning they can even be found in the snow. Most varieties are perennial, meaning they don’t have to be planted yearly. They grow up from underground root stalks, somewhat like quack grass.

Maybe if I give you some more description, Wondernose, you’ll be able to name this plant. Notice that the name I did give you included the word “rush.” These plants do resemble rushes, or reeds. The stems are tall, round, and jointed. The leaves are tiny and grow from branches, or shoots, that circle the stems. Often this makes the plant resemble a horse’s tail.

I knew I would be giving away the secret once I mentioned that fact. Yes, our mystery plant is the very common horsetail. Maybe you just hadn’t known that those hollow stems contain silica and other minerals.

Most of the horsetail varieties we see aren’t very big—perhaps 2-3 feet (1 m) tall. Common varieties are the wood horsetail, found in woods; the variegated horsetail, which has black markings and is evergreen; and the Dutch rushes, found along riverbanks.

However, we do have a species here in North America that’s called giant horsetail. These evergreen plants may grow to over 11 feet (3.5 m) in height! The stems may have as many as forty-eight joints.

The tallest of all the horsetails is found in South America. This species will tower up to 32 feet (10 m) in height, and the stems may be nearly an inch (2.5 cm) in diameter. They’re not particularly sturdy, though. Unless supported by surrounding vegetation, these gangly plants will lie flat.

Cattle and other livestock avoid eating horsetail. It’s actually poisonous for them. Strangely, however, some people consider horsetail a valuable medicinal plant, able to help cure many different conditions and diseases. So, apparently, horsetail has more uses than just to scour scorched saucepans.

giant horsetail
Giant horsetail. Photo @ Oleg Kovtun|Dreamstime.com.

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