Horseradish (red cole), Armoracia rusticana
Horseradish is a hardy perennial herb. Spreading with determination every year if left to its own devices, this herb reaches a height of one metre. The roots can grow to a meter in length. The leaves are large and long, almost paddle-shaped, growing 30-50cm. In the spring, heads of pretty, small white flowers with a sweet honey scent develop. Seed pods however rarely ripen in our climate. In cold parts of the country, flowers often fail to develop.
Horseradish is in the same family as cabbage and mustard, Cruciferae and contains the distinctive mustard oils that are common to this family.
Both the leaves and roots were used extensively as medicine in Europe during the Middle Ages. Some countries, such as Denmark and Germany ate it as a condiment.
The English herbalist Gerard (1597) wrote:
"the Horse Radish stamped with a little vinegar put thereto, is commonly used among the Germans for sauce to eate fish with and such like meates as we do mustard"
Horseradish was obviously not eaten as an accompaniment to food in this country at that time.
The common name 'horseradish' stems from the Old English term 'horse', meaning rough or coarse, and refers to the fact that the root is less edible than the common radish.
Native to Eastern Europe, horseradish was introduced into Western Europe in the 13th century it was used as medicine and flavouring for food - possibly for meats becoming slightly 'off'. The natural anti-bacterial properties would no doubt have been appreciated. The first record of it being used in England is from the 16th century. The roots and leaves produce a very pungent smell and flavour, which is very popular with roast beef. The intense flavour will dissipate if cooked.
Horseradish has now become naturalised and can be seen in clumps growing along the roadside and a weed in gardens and allotments.
Advantages of this herb
All of the plant, especially the roots, contain strong-smelling volatile mustard oils and is popular in sauces and is said to aid digestion; this helps especially if eaten with rich foods, such as roast beef and oily fish which are difficult to digest.
Horseradish has also been used as a cough remedy and aids in the removal of bronchial catarrh. An ointment made from grated roots and made into a poultice, helps sooth painful joints, aching muscles and chilblains.
The root and leaves are said to contain oils with antibiotic qualities.
The pungency of the volatile oil has been known to clear sinuses in one breath!
The root also contains useful minerals including calcium, sodium, magnesium and vitamin C.
Grated roots can be added to coleslaw, cream cheese, avocado and other dips. Be sparing though as the flavour is very strong, and when grating, the mustard oils can make your eyes smart and water more than onions!
Growing this herb
Horseradish prefers deep, fertile soil with good moisture retention. However it is tolerant of most soils. Grow in full sun or semi-shade.
Not only can this plant spread, its roots grow to at least 60cm. A mature plant may have to be divided or removed with an axe or saw; so care and consideration is needed when adding this herb to the garden. It may be advisable to plant in an old dustbin, with holes in the bottom, to retain the spread of the roots. Sink the bin into the ground and apply well-rotted manure or compost around the plant in the spring. Every three years or so, divide or replace with root cuttings as the flavour becomes weaker as the plant gets older.
Prepare the ground in the spring before planting this herb and add well-rotted manure and garden compost.
Crown cuttings - can be taken in the spring. Carefully
lift a healthy section of the plant and gently tease out a portion of the
root, with a section of the crown and at least one fresh crown bud. Place
in a prepared site and water well.
Root cuttings can be taken in the spring or autumn/early winter. Cut pieces of older roots 13-21 cm (5-8 in) long, the thickness of a pencil. The roots may be saved when preparing the larger roots for grating, or they may be purchased from a specialist nursery. Always make a slanted cut on the root furthest away from the crown, with a flat edge on the piece of root taken closest to the crown - so that you know which way up to plant it.
Plant the cutting in a trench 10-13cm (4-5 in) deep, with 30cm (12in) between each piece. Place the root cuttings at an angle with the flat cut section near the surface of the ground. Plants from these cuttings usually make good roots the first year. If thin root sections remain from culinary cuttings, they can be stored over winter in sand and replanted the following spring.
Division is the main form of propagation and can be undertaken in the autumn and early winter or spring. Choose a healthy young section of the outside of the clump and use a spade to dig up the clump. Use a pair of garden forks, placed back to back to divide the roots. You may need a saw or axe if the plant is rather old and well established. Plant the divided roots in a trench 60-90cm (2-3 ft) deep. Alternatively place in an old bin as previously mentioned.
If you have a hot heap, chop-up and compost the old middle section. Otherwise, place in a black plastic bin liner and allow to naturally rot down before adding to the compost heap.
Seed Horseradish rarely sets seed in this country, but can be purchased from several nurseries. Sow in early spring and thin seedlings to 30cm (12in) apart.
Roots: cold weather improves the flavour of the roots. Dig up roots approx 20-35cm (8-14") long, between October and December. Large roots should be used for flavouring and sauces whereas the thinner roots can be used for propagation. Roots harvested in the spring produce a milder flavour.
Leaves pick when young in the spring and early summer and add to salads. Leaves can also be dried and stored in an airtight container.
- Full cup of thick cream (or Greek yoghurt)
- 2 tablespoons of freshly grated horseradish (try one spoon first - it is strong!)
- 1 teaspoon of freshly chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
- Pinch of salt
Place the cream and horseradish in a bowl and gently mix. Add parsley and other ingredients and mix well. Keep at room temperature or store in an air-tight tub. Serve with various meats or fish.
If using herbs medicinally, always check with a herbalist or reliable herb book. It is always advisable to check a reliable herb book in case of known allergies.