Marsh horsetail (Equisetum palustre L.) is one of the most poisonous plants of wet grasslands in the northern hemisphere, which poses a major health threat to livestock. Available data on the levels of its main alkaloids are currently contradictory due to the inadequate analytical methods and the wide variation in toxicity levels reported. Here, we tested the hypothesis that the ontogenetic stage of plant development may explain a significant part of the variations in the main Equisetum-type alkaloids. Two populations of marsh horsetail were sampled over two growing seasons. The plant material was classified according to their developmental stages and subsequently the main alkaloids were determined by hydrophilic interaction liquid chromatography and high-performance liquid chromatography electrospray tandem mass spectrometry (HILIC HPLC-ESI-MS/MS) analysis. ANOVA revealed significant effects of the ontogenetic stage but not the site on the main Equisetum-type alkaloids (sum of palustrine and palustridiene) ranging from 213 to 994 mg/kg dry matter (DM). The highest alkaloid content was found in the stages of early development. Not the season itself, but the growth temperature co-influenced the alkaloid content. Our results help to resolve the seemingly contradictory information provided by previous studies on the toxicity of E. palustre and are of practical relevance for the prevention of contamination risks in wet grassland use.
Keywords: forage toxicity; livestock poisoning; marsh horsetail; palustridiene; palustrine; wet grassland management.