Rushes [ Equisetum hyemale ]

Equisetum hyemale, horse tail rush, snake grass, or scouring rushes have long been used as an abrasive for both cleaning cooking pots and smoothing wood.

History:

  • Contains so much silica that bunches of the stem have been sold for polishing metal and used to be imported into England from Holland for the purpose, hence the popular name of Dutch Rushes. It was also called by old writers Shave-grass, and was formerly much used by whitesmiths and cabinet-makers.
  • Was employed in England for scouring pewter and wooden kitchen utensils, and hence called Pewterwort. Fletchers and combmakers rubbed and polished their work with it, and the dairy-maids of the northern counties used it for scouring their milk-pails.
  • Native Americans and Mexicans used the dried stems to scour cooking pots while early American carpenters and other craftsman used the dried stems to smooth and polish woods, ivory, and metals.
  • Used in the past to give wood, ivory, silver, pewter and brass a fine finish. The high silicon content in the stems acts as a gentle but effective polish. Bunches of the rush were used to scour milking pails or scrubbing pots in the kitchen. Even now, it could be very useful to campers.
  • According to Linnaeus an excellent food for horses in some parts of Sweden, but that cows are apt to lose their teeth by feeding on it and to be afflicted with diarrhoea. Cattle probably avoid these plants instinctively and would probably only eat them in the absence of better fodder.
  • Medicinally, Native Americans used it as a diuretic when there was difficulty expelling urine.”

I first became aware rushes about 25 years ago while visiting the shop of a violin restorer who was using it to polish violin varnish. Here in Wisconsin there are many patches of it growing along the roadside. Occasionally I will stop and harvest some just to have it around. Yesterday I found a very large patch, at least 2 or 3 acres, along a creek. The abrasiveness seems to vary depending on where it is growing, this batch seem very fine. The one advantage it seems to have over modern abrasive paper is it doesn’t seem to clog up when used dry.

As harvested, it will turn to a tan color when dried.

Once dried it can be just folded up and used like a very fine abrasive pad. Or you can process it and use right away.

To process, cut it apart at the nodes and slit the hollow stems, then boil for a short time. Once boiled you can scrap out the meat with a scraper, like an artichoke.

What you are left with is the translucent outer abrasive skin, it will dry and be ready to use in about an hour.

I’m not recommending this as a substitution for sand paper. It is just an exercise in nostalgia and history, but it is interesting to have some first hand experience in what our predecessors used and did.

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