Armoracia Rusticana, more commonly known as horseradish, is the herb that bites back. It is that bite that kept this pungent herb from widespread use as a condiment until the last 200 to 300 years. Its medicinal use, however, dates back to at least the time of the Roman Empire, and it was one of the five bitter herbs the Jews ate during the Feast of Passover.
Horseradish, a member of the mustard family, is a perennial with numerous, long stalked leaves at the base and smaller leaves with small, four petal, white flowers on the two to three foot center stem. A long tapered root supports the foot-long leaves and the stem, which can take up to two years to achieve its height. It is this root that we make use of. The horseradish plant is generally considered sterile, but at times has produced seeds that will produce. The plant flowers in mid-summer and is native to eastern Europe and western Asia, though there is widespread cultivation in North America.
The medicinal uses of horseradish are many and have been in use for likely over a thousand years. The main active chemical is allyliso thiocyanate, which is mustard oil in effect. High in sulphur and potassium, horseradish also contains sodium, calcium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, copper, vitamins A, C, and E, and the B-complex to a lesser degree. Considered one of the best natural herbal diuretics, it is used to treat many medical conditions where fluid retention is involved, such as kidney ailments and gout. The heat factor has been used to invigorate circulation, decrease neuralgia and stiffness, and reduce arthritic pain. Horseradish was also commonly made into tonics for colds, coughs, decongestion, and hoarseness. It is not,however, recommended for people with gastritis, peptic ulcers, or thyroid problems.
The culinary use of horseradish was slow to evolve due to it’s strong effect on the palate. In the 1500’s it was known as “Red Cole” or Raphanus Rusticanus and grew wild. Typically used only by the Germans and Danes as a food in the Middle Ages of Europe, the French called it ”moutardes des allemands,” or the “mustard of the Germans.” It would be another hundred years before England would use it at their tables. The herbalist John Parkinson warned, however, it is only for “country people and strong labourmen…it is too strong for tender and gentle stomachs.” In time it became a household staple, especially in America. Having a sharp, mustard-like flavor, the grated root is usually added to vinegar or mayonnaise. It can wake up an otherwise bland meal when used with fish, smoked fish, roast beef, chicken, sausages, egg, potato, or salmon salads, and beets. An important ingredient in Russian cooking, it also is pickled and eaten as a snack in the Middle East.
Though seeds are available, the common way to propagate horseradish is through the use of cuttings. Since the the important part of the plant is the root, most times it is cultivated as an annual, in deep, well tilled soil. Grown best in well-rotted compost and manure it should have full sun and be kept well-watered. The pH of the soil should be 6.8 and it has a hardiness of zone 5. Most horseradish growers prepare the soil in January for a February planting. Harvesting will last from about the end of October until winter weather won’t permit any more.
Whether you use horseradish as a culinary herb or a medicinal herb, or both, you can’t go wrong by having it on hand. Available fresh, ground dry, or prepared in jars, it is easy to keep. A warning for the gardener though: horseradish is quite prolific and can take over your garden, so keep close control over your planting and harvesting.