Earlier this year, in the spring, I was able to acquire a handful of horseradish roots to plant in a garden my wife Emma and I were putting together. I’d first encountered it as a plant the year before and was happy discover the leaves were edible with a flavor reminiscent, though milder, of the root. I’d never had horseradish in anything besides cocktail sauce, possibly some other condiments here and there but not regularly.
When we planted it, I had visions of those greens zipping and zapping our salads through the summer. Six months later, I’ve eaten the leaves once. My wife had not been a great fan to begin with. This time the pungency had come through a little stronger when I revisited them. And, I used the root once this year when making my first batch of fermented pickles (cucumbers). That worked well but required very little horseradish.
As a permaculture designer, I can’t help but love a low-maintenance perennial plant that provides food and plenty of biomass. I impulsively want to have it in the garden. But, in the same breath, I know better than to cultivate foods I’m not going to eat. Something else, something more palatable or functional, could be growing in its stead. I want the plants I purposely cultivate to have notable value in the design, and I’m obsessed with finding edible plants for these purposeful roles.
So, I set out to further investigate horseradish to find a way beyond biodiversity and novelty to justify it occupying valuable garden space.
Basic Plant Specs
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana),as I said before, is a perennial crop, a member of the mustard family. It’s cold-hardy, thriving in Zone 6, where I’m now located. Older varieties have large, broad leaves that are about 25 centimeters across, and newer “bohemian” types produce leaves that are a bit narrower. (We have an older variety, and the bohemian versions are typically what’s used in commercial production, say in Europe.) The plants get to be around a meter tall, and the roots are best harvested in late autumn, following frost damage to the leaves. It has very few problems with pests or diseases.
It is planted via root cuttings and reproduces prolifically once established. Even for those who harvest the roots each year, similar to comfrey, whatever tidbits are left in the soil will sprout anew the following spring, forming clumps of horseradish plants. For this reason, it is considered aggressive and weedy, able to take over a garden. Consequently, horseradish is commonly grown in containers.
There is nothing more, really, to horseradish than the leaf and the root, and both are edible.
Technically, though they are not commonly eaten, the leaves are edible both when young and when old. They are, after all, a Brassica. The young leaves, as with many plants, are more tender and suitable for adding to salads. Supposedly, the spring sprouts have much less horseradish kick. The older leaves become bitter and work better when cooked as one would collards or mustard greens. While this is basically how I treated the leaves this year, pushing back from the table uncertain, I can’t help but feel moved to try them both again. Maybe they weren’t given their due.
The root is mostly known for its inclusion in condiments. Because I don’t eat much that calls for cocktail sauce, I wasn’t very inspired to dig much up. It can also be used to make “wasabi” and is likely what most of us outside of Japan have been eating as wasabi. I also found out that it’s a great addition to fermented stuff, such as mustard, kimchi, and pickles (gherkins). Thinking of the flavor it added to those pickles alone probably warrants its inclusion in the garden. The spiciness really came through in them.
Plus, it provides food for a really long time. It’s an early sprouting plant in the spring, with leaves that can be harvested until the late autumn. At that time, the roots are ready to be harvested for winter enjoyment. It’s probably putting out fresh food for nine months of the year. That’s hard to beat. It just makes you want to learn to like it.
With such a strong flavor (and the fact that it’s a plant), it seems almost a foregone conclusion that horseradish has medicinal qualities.
First and foremost, anyone who has at any point tasted horseradish is well aware that it can clear up sinuses right away. Those same phytochemicals that give it that signature nasal-cleansing taste and aroma are also good at stregnthing our immune system and stimulating the growth of white blood cells. Sinigrin, this main phytochemical, is also a type of antioxidant that protects us against cancer.
It has other health benefits. It lowers blood pressure because it is a rich source of potassium. It improves digestion because its phytochemicals activate gastric and intestinal juices, and that can moderate bowel movements, relieving both constipation and diarrhea. It’s diuretic, so it can be used in cleansing recipes. It’s antibacterial and antifungal via the compound allyl isothiocyanate.
A hardy, cold-tolerant herbaceous plant that survived through the serious heat of North Carolina’s summer, it’s also has some other real value (aside for providing food) as a steady presence in the garden, as well as some other interesting attributes.
Horseradish is a great companion plant. It’s huge and plentiful leaves, when not eaten, can be cut and dropped as green manure mulch or tossed into a compost bin. Horseradish also makes a great companion plants for a few other perennials, such as strawberries, asparagus, rhubarb and sweet potatoes (up to USDA Zone 8). And, it’s great beneath trees, helping to repel insects, as well as moles and field mice.
Apparently, it was also used as a natural, highly effective, inexpensive way to purify polluted water. Research at Penn State in the USA suggested that it actually did a better job than chemicals. The plant has an enzyme called peroxidase, which is stabilized in the plant’s tissue, traps the polluted water, and holds it until horseradish’s active ingredients clean it up. Horseradish was particularly powerful at scrubbing phenols, common pollutants in industrial waters. Because it’s easy and cheap to grow, it could be an interesting solution for this and similar issues.
Trying It Again
I’m happy that it’s not too late for me to get out to the garden and harvest some roots. In fact, the perfect time is within the next couple of months, just as cold and flu season starts to return. Not only is it a good idea to harvest some for storage (it preserves well with just vinegar and salt), but also harvesting annually, as has been my experience with many invasive plants, prevents it from becoming too problematic. Plants aren’t nearly as invasive when we use them for food.
Emma and I have finally bought our own piece of land to develop, and a couple of horseradish roots are going to have to make their way into our plans. It’ll be great in our mixed edible hedge, and we do plan to have an asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberry area. Even if we don’t particularly eat a ton of it, which is yet to be seen, it seems too valuable and easy a plant to include for us to ignore it.
Featured Photo: Horseradish Plant(Courtesy of annca via Pixabay).