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Horseradish

Horseradish

My Swedish grandfather said he could never get horseradish to grow.  His troubles made me think horseradish must be a difficult crop. Not so. His failure was just one of those garden mysteries. Some people seem to have a chemical antipathy towards a particular plant, failing with that one while having success everywhere else in the garden.

Our first spring in Heath I sent out my seed order and included an order for three horseradish roots.  Then, with so many other things to do that year, I forgot all about the order.  The roots arrived, but I had given no thought to where I should plant them. Not having a plan for a perennial plant like horseradish will cause trouble for years. I speak from experience.

I had dug up a bed right in front of the house where I imagined bright zinnias. However, the horseradish was the plant in front of me and needed to be planted right away. In spite of the fact that horseradish needs a deep rich well cultivated soil, it has thrived in a bed prepared by a very new gardener. It has even been regularly trampled because that is where the water spigot is located. Over the years I have harvested horseradish for our own use and given away roots to friends and plant swaps from that  bed. My grandfather must have had one of those chemical antipathies towards horseradish.

Visitors to our house have often remarked on the big green planting in front of the house. Horseradish foliage is coarse and tall, nearly three feet some years. It blooms in May. As eye catching as it is, I don’t recommend planting horseradish right in front of a house’s foundation wall.

Horseradish has been used in kitchens and sick rooms since the Delphic Oracle told Apollo, the Greek god of medicine and healing (among other things) that horseradish was worth its weight in gold. Medieval herbals included the horseradish to cure a number of ills from relieving chilblains, stimulating the nervous system and for worming children. Nowadays we know that horseradish is a source of potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and vitamin C.. In addition the component that makes our eyes and nose water, volatile mustard oil, has antibacterial properties. We know it helps cure urinary tract infections and acts as a diuretic

It is more used in our kitchens than in our modern sickroom, but maybe there is something to be said for adding a little horseradish sauce to our meals from time to time. Horseradish is a traditional accompaniment for roast beef. Many mustard lovers add a little heat with grated horseradish. I have thought of my grandfather when I’ve grated cool cooked beets with horseradish for a flavorful salad.

A couple of years ago I studied up on horseradish cultivation in preparation for  moving and replanting my horseradish roots. I found lots of conflicting information. Some sources said the soil should be heavy wet clay. Others said it needed deep rich well cultivated soil.  Everyone seemed to agree that lots of rotted manure and compost were beneficial.

Everyone also agrees that once you have horseradish growing it will be hard to remove. This suggests to me that it is hard for most of us to fail with horseradish no matter what we do, my grandfather aside. When choosing and preparing a horseradish bed, do choose a spot where it, and you, will be happy for many years.

It pays to take care when planting any perennial.  If you buy horseradish roots from a nursery in the spring, planting them in deeply cultivated soil will encourage the development of long straight roots. Drought will cause bitter roots so make sure a hose is available..

You can harvest anytime, but the best time to harvest for full pungency is in the fall after there has been a frost. The roots can be kept in a cool root cellar in sand, or they can be grated and mixed with white vinegar and kept in the refrigerator. That famous pungency will diminish over time.

In the spring you can transplant the new shoots created by lateral roots. This is how horseradish propagates itself, not by seeds. After three years the old roots will be too woody to use in the kitchen. They can be dug and discarded.  While horseradish is a perennial, like asparagus and rhubarb, the individual plants need to be renewed on a regular basis.

I moved several roots into my long Herb Bed that runs in front of the piazza, the Welcoming Platform and the paved entry walk. This new location makes them easier to dig and harvest in the fall, and easier to manage properly.

You will see in my photo that the roots growing near the house where the compacted soil a foot down is rocky caused the root to grow in a contorted shape. However, the lateral root growing nearby – possibly from this old woody root, is just right for transplanting.

I just learned that the International Herb Association has named horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) Herb of the Year. I think it is about time that such a humble kitchen garden plant be honored.  And whether you like your horseradish with roast beef, in mustard or in beet salad, it can have a spot in your garden.

For more information about horseradish check out the International Herb Association and The Herb Companion.

Between the Rows    May 38, 20101

3 comments to Horseradish

  • Lisa at Greenbow

    I like horseradish sauce on most anything. I have never grown it but have seen it in other gardens around here.

  • I’ve always had a hankering to plant horseradish, but since I’m really, really bad at the whole renewal thing–and since I’m not gardening at all this year–I’m probably better off just admiring those who do grow it. Thanks for writing about it; it definitely deserves its title this year.

  • Pat

    Lisa – Horseradish sauce does add a little extra snap to a dish!
    tinky – Cooks just need to use it, not grow it.

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