Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) belongs to the Brassica/Crucifer family so its family members include radishes, rocket, mustards and cabbages, all of whom are known for varying degrees of heat on the taste buds. Not only does it make a tasty addition to dishes if the grated root is made into a creamy sauce but it has some serious medicinal benefits too – it is a fiery stimulant similar to cayenne /chilli pepper in its actions. Firstly, how to find and identify it.
It does grow wild in damp places and is not uncommon in the UK but if you have never come across any then buy a couple of plants online or at the garden centre and plant in a dampish corner of the garden where it can take hold and prosper. It can be invasive given the right conditions but too much horseradish wouldn’t bother me.
The leaves look superficially similar to dock leaves (which would have a tall rusty flower stem) and foxglove leaves (which are covered in soft down) but if you pull a leaf from the base and smell it, the horseradish pungency is unmistakable. The white flowers (not always present on all plants) bloom in summer on a branching, leafy flower spike, are identifiable by their 4 petal cross configuration and are typical of the family. The leaves can be eaten raw or lightly steamed and are considerably milder than the root.
The optimum time to harvest the root is fast approaching ,though you can harvest pretty much any time. When the leaves begin to wither, all the goodness, pungency and vitality of the plant is drawn down and everything this plant possesses is concentrated into the tap roots. This is the time to dig up the root if you want maximum heat from it. Give it a good wash and either chop into small pieces to dry, grate it fresh and make into a sauce or crush and pack into bottles full of either vodka, wine or cider vinegar to preserve it for future use. It can also be made into a syrup or the fresh root preserved for some time in a bucket or pile of sand, left in a cool place, preferably outside.
Young horseradish leaves in Spring
Herbalists have been known to prescribe a session of horseradish root grating for people with sinusitis and thick catarrh in the head or chest, if you think chopping onions is intense then try horseradish to experience another league of weeping. The root produces a fiery volatile oil in response to being crushed or grated. Beware though, it is capable of producing blisters and even ulceration of nasal tissues if inhaled too deeply or too frequently. You can also hold a quarter teaspoon of fresh grated root in the mouth until the flavour has subsided for sinus or head congestion
The fresh root, when used on the skin as a poultice, reddens the skin and greatly increases blood flow to the area. It can be used for painful joints in arthritis, rheumatism, lumbago, sciatica etc. Put some oil on the skin first (to avoid skin blistering), wrap the fresh root in a thin cloth and place on the skin until it starts to feel too hot. Remove the poultice then rinse the skin thoroughly. It can also be used this way in cases of bronchitis and respiratory/chest infections to clear deep-seated congestion, much like a mustard compress.
When taken internally the root is a powerful antibiotic and extremely useful as a preventative and treatment for colds, flu and all kinds of infections and fevers. Urinary tract infections often respond well to horseradish root as does the digestive process (hence its use as a digestive promoting condiment with beef etc). Dose is a half teaspoon of dried root as a tea up to 3 times daily.
- Horseradish is a powerful stimulant and whilst being incredibly useful and beneficial should be used with caution – avoid with internal ulcers, kidney inflammation, during pregnancy (has been used to induce abortion) and breast-feeding, in the very weak or debilitated or in children under 5. As with all self medication, use common sense, take it slow and listen to your body. Too much can also make you vomit!
** Here is a link to some great stories about using horseradish as medicine.