Herb to Know: Horseradish

| April/May 2006

Genus: Armoracia rusticana

Kick it up a notch with this pungent perennial plant.

If horseradish were growing in a garden, you probably wouldn’t give it a second look. It’s weedy and mundane, with slightly puckered oblong to ovate green leaves up to 2 feet long. It looks like comfrey’s less-attractive cousin, minus the fuzz and with pronounced horizontal veining and prominent vertical ribs. But while its looks alone aren’t likely to cause a stampede to the garden center, the herb’s bold flavor makes it a kitchen standout.

Horseradish wasn’t always appreciated as the spicy condiment so popular today. The Germans may have been the first to record its culinary use in 1542. But the large, powerfully flavorful root didn’t garner a strong following until it spread to England, where it was popularized in the late 1600s as a standard accompaniment for beef and oysters, enjoyed by commoners and aristocrats alike.

You also can credit the English for the name “horseradish,” which first appeared in Gerard’s Herbal of 1597. Before that, it was commonly called “red cole” or known by a handful of other spicy-sounding names, such as mountain radish, German mustard or stingnose.

Even before horseradish was used much in the kitchen, this spicy root was valued for its medicinal qualities. Historically, both leaves and root were used to treat everything from colds, congestion and coughs to inflammation, indigestion and even low back pain and sluggish libido. The root contains a mustard-type oil, called isothiocyanates, which exhibits mild antibacterial and antifungal properties. The chemicals in horseradish, however, may irritate the gastrointestinal tract in some people and it is best avoided by those with gastritis, kidney disease or ulcers.

Today, horseradish’s culinary virtues are better known. This eastern European and western Asian native has eagerly naturalized in many parts of the world, including North America, which indicates how easy it is to grow.

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