The International Herb Association has chosen an “Herb of the Year” every year since 1995, meant to highlight herbs and draw attention to National Herb Week (celebrated the week before Mother’s Day). This year it’s one of my favorites: Horseradish Armoracia rusticana. I’m not a fan of most spicy food but like the also-pungent Ginger, I add quite a bit of Horseradish to my meals.
Honestly, I didn’t know this was an herb until I was in my 30’s. I always thought it was just a condiment! Growing up, grated Horseradish could be requested at virtually every restaurant at the same time as a jar of mustard or bottle of steak sauce. (I still get peeved when I ask for Horseradish & get some creamy stuff that has no bite to it whatsoever – what’s the point?) I had never seen a fresh root and since it didn’t appear on the shelves in the baking aisle but in jars located in the refrigerated section of the grocery, it never occurred to me that it could be an herb or spice. It’s always good to learn something new.
The use of Horseradish as medicine (not only the root but the leaves, as well) is known as far back as the Middle Ages … and experts are fairly certain it is the same plant called Amoracia by Pliny (23-79 CE). The Latin binomial has even been changed from Cochlearia armoracia to reflect this thinking. It’s one of the five bitter herbs eaten by Jews during Passover. Documentation of its use as a condiment in Denmark & Germany goes back to the late 16th century and it is mentioned for its medicinal uses in the London Pharmacoepias of the 18th century.
Today we only use the root. In its whole form, it doesn’t have much of a smell but scrape or cut it and you’ll release the pungency we normally associate with it. (The stereotypical odor is created when two chemical compounds stored in separate cells are released and mixed together when the flesh is bruised.) Boil or dry it, and you lose the pungency again.
Because of its pungency, it makes a great addition to any food (or on its own) when you have sinusitis. It’s also an expectorant, so helps well with bronchitis. Using it as a condiment (usually on fish or red meat) will stimulate the appetite and help the digestive organs do their job. Although some may find it irritating, infusing oil with freshly grated Horseradish makes a good liniment for arthritis, neuralgia, sciatica and chilblains.
Maud Grieve recommends infusing Horseradish in milk as a cosmetic for lackluster skin or mixed with white vinegar to bleach freckles.
There are some contraindications: the high sulfur content can cause gastric upset in people predisposed to such; or in high doses, not only the upset but vomiting, diarrhea, and irritation of the urinary tract. So, if you have any problems with your gastrointestinal system, I think I’d avoid Horseradish. Also because it’s so strong, avoid taking it if pregnant or nursing; and don’t give it to kids under the age of four.
Like its cousin, Mustard (the plant, not the condiment), Horseradish makes a great protective herb. Must be all that sulfur. Grate it up, dry it and sprinkle it around the house … especially if you’re looking to deflect harmful spells sent against you. (I tried ‘sprinkling’ freshly grated once. It didn’t sprinkle but clumped and left blotches of juice all over the carpeting.)
If you’ve never tried Horseradish, I heartily suggest you do. You can find it in jars in the refrigerated section of the grocery or some stores will have whole roots in with the more exotic vegetables in the fresh produce aisle. Just keep a tissue handy if you grate your own. It’s much worse than chopping onions.