This primitive plant is the modern day relative of ancient tree-like organisms found across tropical Carboniferous-era Illinois that led to our contemporary coal deposits. Having evolved before vascular plants had leaves or could produce flowers, Scouring Rush is most closely related to ferns. This plant can be found in wet to mesic areas with soil that contains clay, gravel, or sand, and is found more often in disturbed areas than higher-quality native areas.
The plant itself consists of a single evergreen stem with no leaves that grows up to five feet in height. Large clonal colonies can form in disturbed sites where rhizomes spread without hinderance. Because this plant has ancestors that appeared on earth before the first flowering plants, reproduction occurs through spores rather than seeds. The spores are released from the fascinating cones atop the evergreen stems in late spring or early summer.
The common name ‘Scouring Rush’ comes from the high silica content of the stems, which is the result of evolving structure in the absence of woody support. This tough, scratchy stem allowed early Midwest settlers to scrub pots, pans, and other items in the days before Brillo pads were common on grocery store shelves.