Tsukushi – noxious weed or delicious spring delicacy?

You notice the change of seasons in Japan much more acutely than in the UK and people there make a real fuss of it.

Around March to April, clumps of Tsukushi appear on river banks, which is a sure sign spring has arrived. At the same time many supermarkets start to sell prepared Tsukushi because its preparation before cooking is cumbersome, but it’s not farmed even to this day and I’ll tell you why.

Tsukushi growing in my sister’s tiny front garden in western Japan at the end of February.

Tsukushi is the fertile young shoots of horsetail! It contains spores in the bulbous head which is rich in vitamin C and E, and beta carotene, but it’s eaten as a spring vegetable rather than for its dietary or medicinal values. Once the spores have been released, the stems wither and die. Then green stems (the sterile part) appear which have important medicinal values in the western herbal tradition.

Unless pre-boiled and soaked in water for at least half a day before cooking, Tsukushi is almost too bitter to eat. It is often dressed with soy sauce and a bit of sugar or pan fried with eggs to neutralise its bitterness. 

The mature horsetail on the other hand has been a versatile medicinal herb since the days of the Romans and Greeks and has 3 major actions:

1. Haemostatic action

Used for bleeding of the genitourinary organs.

2. Diuretic action

There is a history of its use in urinary and kidney problems, but its modern use is especially for the inflammation and benign enlargement of the prostate gland, incontinence and bedwetting in children.

3. Wound healing action

Internally as well as externally as a compress for rheumatism and chilblains.

Furthermore, it helps maintain healthy connective tissue, nails, hair, teeth and bones due to its high mineral content (natural source of silicon). Naturally, one has to be mindful of its prolonged use for people with kidney problems.

Tsukushi reminds me of yet another noxious weed called Itadori. I remember my mother being overjoyed on finding the whole side of the bank at a park we visited one Sunday afternoon covered with Itadori and nobody else taking any notice of these shoots. Itadori is Japanese knotweed and a valuable Chinese herb called Hu Zhang (Polygonum cuspidatum) and is a wonderful herb that clears Fire toxin, moves the Blood, drains damp and helps to stop cough. In fact it is one of the front line anti-viral herbs in the treatment of coronavirus… I have eaten Itadori only once in my life. Once was enough as it was just so bitter!