Herb Garden: The Horseradish Plant

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Horseradish deters potato bugs when planted in the garden.

Mother’s Herb Garden

The flavor of horseradish ( Armoracia rusticana ,
A.lapathifo lia , Cochlearia
armoracia, C. rusticana, Rorippa armoracia, or Radicula
, depending on which botanical authority you
follow) is enough to bring tears to the eyes …and so, in
some cases, are its growth habits. The plant–which
attains two feet or so in height and has large, elongated,
serrated, and wavy-edged leaves-is uncommonly prolific. Any
little piece of root left in the ground is capable of
developing rootlets and shoots-which means that gardeners
who harvest the crop in autumn (leaving perhaps some tiny
root tips in the soil) and subsequently till the ground are
likely to find horseradish plants growing everywhere in
their gardens the following spring.

Of course, having a lot of horseradish isn’t altogether a
bad thing, because-although it’s most famous as a
condiment-the big perennial has many uses …culinary,
medicinal, and even cosmetic. The first spring leaves,
chopped fine and mixed with other salad greens, or boiled
with an assortment of other leafy vegetables, have an
interesting spicy flavor …too strong by itself but
stimulating when combined with milder greens. The root,
which should always be used raw and freshly grated, has
even been served as an appetizer, dipped in salt! But it’s
as a condiment that horse radish is best known, function
ing as the chief ingredient in tangy sauces for fish, meat,
fowl, or vegetables. When served with beets, beef, boiled
chicken, boiled and smoked meats, and shellfish, its zest
is unexcelled. It also improves cocktail sauces, mustard
sauce, and hollandaise.

High in vitamin C, the root was used in the past as a cure
for scurvy. When mixed with vinegar, diluted with water,
and sweetened with glycerin, it is said to relieve whooping
cough in children. When used as a syrup or in a vinegar
solution, it promotes perspiration and stimulates the
nervous system, improving digestion and acting as both a
diuretic and a laxative. (Caution should be exercised,
however: Excessive doses can lead to diarrhea or night
sweating.) The root gratings, spread on a cloth and applied
directly to the skin, have also served as a plaster for
sciatica, gout, and various joint aches; in a vinegar
solution, the herb can function as a good liniment. An
infusion of the root in milk is considered by some to be
good for the skin and to restore color to the cheeks, while
the juice, mixed with white vinegar and applied to the
skin, is reputed to remove unwanted freckles.

The characteristic pungent odor of horseradish is created
only when the root is broken. The oil is strong and highly
diffusible: One drop can odorize a whole room! When exposed
to air, however, the root changes color and loses strength;
and if boiled, it becomes vapid and inert.

Horseradish, which is best planted early for a good fall
crop, needs to be replanted every few years as its quality
deteriorates. Root cuttings, called “thongs,” can be 6″-7″
long and may or may not include a bud. Plant them 12″-15″
deep and 12″-18″ apart. Harvest the roots in the autumn of
their third year, store them in damp sand or the
refrigerator (where they’ll keep very well), andunless
you’ve planted them well away from the rest of your
garden-hope you’ve gotten all the pieces out of the ground.

Horseradish roots can be purchased at supermarkets or
obtained through most major seed companies.