Growing horseradish, Armoracia rusticana, is a timehonored tradition for vegetable and medicinal gardeners. Native to southeast Europe, the Egyptians were known to use it in their cooking as early as 1500 B.C. In Europe it was used medicinally as a rub for sore joints as well as being rubbed on foreheads as a headache and sinus-pain treatment.
During the Renaissance, horseradish root became a staple of German diets as a meat relish, spreading from there to Scandinavia and Britain where it was eaten with beef and oysters.
In the North American colonies it was called a radish. Perennial horseradish plants were grown as a useful root vegetable that was stored in the root cellar with the roots of parsley, parsnips, turnip, carrots, beets and skirret which is another perennial root crop.
The strong flavor of horseradish is due to the same oil found in all the other mustards and brassicas. In 1700, one American author wrote about preparing shaved horseradish root, mixed with sugar and vinegar to use as a sauce served with meat.
Elixir of horseradish, or horseradish mixed with vinegar, was marketed in the 1870s as a diuretic, tonic, and stimulant. It was also used to treat intestinal worms, used in plasters to treat sciatica and gout, and taken to treat scurvy and malaria.
Scientists have found that the health claims have some merit since the chemicals in horseradish kill a wide range of bacteria, including the ones that cause dental plaque.
In St. Louis during the mid-1800s horseradish became a cash crop grown in the Mississippi River bottomland where the soil was rich in potash. Today more than half the commercially available horseradish is grown in the St. Louis and Chicago areas.
Horseradish roots are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. The plants are hardy at least in zones 5 to 9 and are grown as an annual plant in hotter areas.
Viable root crowns are 6 to 8 inch cuttings about the thickness of a pencil. Plant the roots in a sunny spot where it can live for decades. Dig a hole dug deep enough to allow the root to stand up. Hold the root in place while you back fill the hole until everything but the crown is buried.
Deep soil that drains well is best for growing root crops. Top dress the planting area with compost every year; fertilizer is not necessary.
The roots can be harvested after the first year. When the roots are dug in the spring or fall, the largest root is peeled and grated for kitchen use and the smaller ones are returned to the garden, making a perennial crop.
Horseradish can spread aggressively after several years but it can be controlled by growing it in large containers.
Another plant with similar flavor and use is Wasabi, Wasabia japonica, which is Japanese horseradish. It also is known for growing along the side of streams and rivers. In Japanese cooking it is grated and used within 4-hours of cutting to ensure its best flavor.
To make prepared horseradish, grate a cup of the root and add one-half cup vinegar and one-fourth teaspoon of salt. Refrigerate until used. Creamy herbed horseradish dressing for seafood or meat is made by combining 2-tablespoons of the prepared horseradish, one-half cup crème fraiche, one-third cup chopped fresh herbs, salt and pepper.
To make crème fraiche combine one-cup whipping cream and 2-tablespoons buttermilk. Let it stand covered for 8 to 24 hours until thickened and then refrigerate until needed.
Freshly prepared horseradish has a different flavor than commercial products.