Healthful Horseradish

Young horseradish. Image via Jill Henderson showmeoz.wordpress.comJill Henderson ~ Show Me Oz
Horseradish is one of those herbs that everyone knows about, but few actually grow. Perhaps that’s because it isn’t used much in today’s cooking, or perhaps because it’s hard to process. And like mint, horseradish has a nasty reputation for overstepping its boundaries in the garden. Yet, for its flaws, horseradish is a pretty perennial that is tough as nails and easy to grow. And not only is horseradish full on flavor, but it is totally jam-packed with health benefits that include fighting cancer, improving cardiovascular health, and even reducing plaque on teeth!

Common horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is a member of the very large and diverse Brassica family that starts the season out as a tight basal rosette of long, wavy, broadly ovate leaves that have irregularly toothed leaf margins. As flowering time nears, the plant sends up tall slender stalks that bear loose panicles of small white flowers.  After flowering, the plant bears tiny, egg-shaped seedpods that usually fail to reach maturity.  The thick, white, fleshy roots, for which horseradish is grown, are large with many side roots and root hairs.

Propagation and Growing

Now, if you’ve never grown horseradish before, you’ll want to take the advice of those who have planted it in the wrong spot, which is basically anywhere with deep rich soil in or adjacent to any other plants you love.  Seriously, horseradish may start out small and innocent-looking, but will steadily grow into a very large, 1 to 4 ft. (0.3 to 1.2 m) tall and wide plant that will spread each time you harvest roots.  But all you have to do to keep this bountiful member of the Brassica family in check is to pick the right spot to grow it in the first time around – preferably in a contained bed of its own or in large, deep pots.

Horseradish prefers full sun to light shade and will grow best in deep, well-drained soil. In the fall, set 4″ (10 cm) root cuttings at an angle with the thickest ends up, 3″ to 4″ (8 to 10 cm) deep and 10 to 15 in. (25 to 38 cm) apart. Some gardeners use their hands and carefully dig down and around the forming roots in late spring to rub off any side roots and small suckers in the hopes that the final root will be perfectly shaped. This practice is not necessary and may break the delicate young roots. Replenish your stand every couple of years by digging out all the big, stringy, tough roots and leaving only the smaller ones.

Harvesting Horseradish

For the best flavor, horseradish should be harvested in late fall, as the weather turns cool. Remove the majority of the foliage before beginning to dig. A potato fork or large spade works well to lift the root. Begin some distance from the plant, taking care to avoid slicing into the largest roots. Once lifted, remove any thin, wiry roots or root hairs and any remaining stems and foliage (and watch out where you get rid of them as each one has the potential to start a new plant!).

Cleaned and skinned horseradish roots. Image copyright Jill Henderson

Wash harvested roots gently in clean water, removing as much dirt as possible. If you’re planning to process the roots right away, go a head and scrub off as much of the outer skin as possible. Finish skinning the roots with a vegetable peeler or paring knife and process immediately.  Horseradish can be preserved in vinegar, or chopped finely, dried, and ground into powder.

Culinary Uses

Horseradish was once widely used to season food, but today it is generally nothing more than a condiment spread on sandwiches. And while it is very good this way, it minimizes its potential. Try horseradish vinegar or oil as a baste or marinade for grilled or roasted beef, pork, poultry, fish, and seafood. Add finely chopped horseradish to potato, egg, tuna, and chicken salads for a punch of flavor.

Small amounts of horseradish can liven up everything from soups, stews, casseroles, steamed rice and roasted vegetables to pickles, sauces, dips, and dressings.  Cooking horseradish can dull the flavor, so consider adding an extra touch of grated raw root to finished dishes.  Experimenting with this versatile herb will not only liven up your food but it will help make you and your whole family healthier.

Healthy Horseradish

Speaking of healthy, horseradish has been approved by the German Commission E as an effective medicinal.  Compounds in the root have been used to reduce blood pressure, increase blood circulation, and to tone the circulatory system (reducing heart disease).  And the antitumor properties found in horseradish have been studied for over thirty years and are believed to help fight cancers of the mouth, pharynx, lung, stomach, colon, and rectum.

On an everyday level, horseradish is a long-standing remedy used to treat colds, flu, fever, cough, chest and sinus congestion, sore throat, tonsillitis, flatulence, and poor digestion.  It is occasionally used in concentration for bladder infections and the tea of horseradish is a weak diuretic. Externally, a poultice of the root is employed in easing symptoms of rheumatism, gout, and muscle soreness.

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Horseradish is a very versatile herb that can help fight the buildup of plaque on teeth, prevent infection and speed healing of minor wounds. Like many herbs, horseradish was likely first used as a food preservative because it has the natural ability to inhibit food-borne pathogens. Besides that, horseradish contains a higher percentage of vitamin C than oranges, which is a big help if you’re stuck on an ocean-going vessel for months at a time looking for the New World.

Last but not least, a weak infusion of horseradish added to any shampoo helps increase blood circulation to the scalp, which can stimulate hair growth and make the rest of your hair full and shiny.

As always, a word of caution: If you suffer from hypothyroidism or are taking anticholinergics (atropine), please consult your health practitioners before taking horseradish in large or medicinal doses. And be aware that direct contact with skin, eyes, or mucous membranes may cause burning or blistering in sensitive individuals.  In addition, ingesting excessive quantities of horseradish may possibly irritate the digestive system or cause vomiting or excessive sweating.  Leaves are not edible and are possibly fatal to livestock, so keep horseradish clear from browsers.

Not Just Horsin’ Around

As you can see, horseradish isn’t just a condiment – it’s a smorgasbord of flavor and health all rolled into one!  There isn’t a lot of variety to choose from in horseradish plants and most local nurseries don’t carry root stock.  Your best bet is to order online from a retailer who knows what they have.  Maliner Kren is a German horseradish known for its vigor and large size, while New Bohemian is smaller and less aggressive (and some say, less flavorful), but has the added bonus of being disease resistant.  Of course, plain old common horseradish is a pretty plant to look at most of the season, but if you’d like to grow this spicy condiment as a focal point, you might consider growing variegated horseradish (Armoracia rusticana ‘Variegata’), which is not only gorgeous, but will also tolerate partial shade and is a lot less aggressive than its common cousins.

© 2016 Jill Henderson  Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.

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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.

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4 responses to “Healthful Horseradish

  1. Horseradish is so awesome. We planted some 30 years ago and still reap the pungent benefit of this great herb. When we scrape off the fine hairs and small roots, we just toss them back into the horseradish bed ( next to our barn). We never had to replant. The first time I ground the root I had used a small meat grinder…my poor eyes were swollen for two days. Do be careful as it is “pungent”. Now I peel, chop into SMALL pieces, put into my blender with enough white (5%) vinegar to cover, a pinch of salt and process until smooth. If there is too much vinegar I just drain some off and use that with the next pieces of root. Put it into jars and refrigerate. A neighbor has some almost 3 years old we had given her and it is still good. Great in deviled eggs and all the other things that Show Me Oz suggests.

  2. Thanks for those great tips, Mari! Fantastic! You are so right – horseradish root can be REALLY intense when chopping or grating, so your suggestions should be heeded by anyone new to working with it. Congrats on 30 years of perpetual horseradish! 🙂 Yay!

  3. Great post! I had no idea horseradish was good for so many things. I’ve never tried it fresh before (I just buy prepared Bubbies) but I’ve always wanted to. Sounds like it’s a good idea to go slow!

    • It’s a pretty amazing plant with lots of healthful benefits. There are a several varieties to choose from and all are good. But like you said, take your time and pick the right spot the first time. Once you dig a few roots, the plant starts to spread. Enjoy!

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