HORSERADISH (Cochlearia armoracia [also known as Armoracia rusticana] – Cruciferae)

The horseradish plant is a hardy, long-lasting perennial plant belonging to the cabbage family, grown for its edible roots. It is thought to be native to Eastern Europe, and is commonly cultivated in northern countries, but it has spread and now grows wild in many parts of Europe and North America. It is found in some parts of Brittany, especially in damp coastal areas, and grows successfully on the roughest ground; Richard Mabey in Food for Free says that’ British Rail could probably payoff their deficit if they cropped the plants growing along their cuttings.
The plant can reach a height of nearly 1 m (3 1/4 ft), and has a rigid stem with large, rough, dark-green leaves rather like dock; in summer a spike of small, white, cross-shaped flowers is produced. It has a thick, long, tapering tap root: if the plant is grown as a perennial, these root systems expand and can become invasive; many gardeners grow them as an annual, digging them up and storing through the winter in sand.

The horseradish plant has been known since the time of the Ancients. Young horseradish leaves were one of the five bitter herbs Jews were enjoined to eat at the Passover. Theophrastus mentioned the roots as being a diuretic, and named many varieties. Dioscorides praised it for intestinal disorders, as a digestion stimulant, and advised it to be eaten with fatty meat dishes by stout people! Galen found it a good diuretic and emmenagogue, recommending it for women suffering from menstrual problems such as amenorrhoea and fluid retention. In 1567, one Jean Wien of Basle wrote a book on therapeutic plants – Medicarum – and classified the plant as antiscorbutic (preventing scurvy).

All the above properties have been recognized in this century, and doctors Cazin, Leclerc and Mme Maury classified it as a stimulant of the gastric functions, endorsing it also for all lymphatic and chronic rheumatic conditions.


Description: Horseradish oil is steam-distilled from the oil-rich roots. It is a pale yellow, and not too fluid. The smell is reminiscent of hot mustard seed oil. The pungency of horseradish is found in the outer part of the roots, is quickly dispelled when the root is grated, and is not formed at all if the root is cooked.

The principal constituents: The main ingredient is sinigrin, a gly¬coside which, combined with water, yields the so-calledmustard oils or isothiocyanates. Other constituents are the isothiocyanates, allyl and butyl.

Dangers: The essential oil is difficult to obtain, but when I have found a source I have only used it externally. Taken internally it can be quite toxic, caustic even, and can cause inflammations.


In illness
Once the grated root was used as a rub on the torso in cases of pulmonary problems and complications (like the old-fashioned mustard plaster).

Marguerite Maury would advise patients suffering from slow digestion to eat the root grated on crudités and on fatty meat. For other digestive problems she would recommend this wine. Boil 1 litre (1 3/4 pints) good quality white wine with 400 g (14 oz) fructose for a few minutes, then add 30 – 50 g (1 – 2 oz) peeled horseradish cut into small pieces. Put the mixture into a bottle and store in the dark for 2 – 3 weeks, shaking the bottle occasionally. In winter, to avoid coughs and colds, drink 30 ml (2 tbsp) a few times a day. For pre-menstrual retention of fluid, take 15 ml (1 tbsp) wine mixed with mineral water before meals. In cases of bad digestion or flatulence, drink 5 ml (1 tsp) diluted in a glass of hot water.

For rheumatic conditions and aches and pains, boil 15 – 30 g (1/2 – 1 oz) peeled chopped horseradish in 1 litre (13/4 pints) mineral water for 7 – 10 minutes. Leave this, covered, to macerate in a dark and cool place for 24 hours, then drink two to three cups per day between meals, with a little honey if desired.

For gum diseases such as inflammations and receding gums, eat the fleshy root slowly. Rub thin pieces around the gums to firm them. Do this as often as you can. Together with peeled dogwood shoots, this was particularly popular as a gum massager in North America.

In beauty
For hair problems, the horseradish oil is one of the most important oils for the scalp, being a wonderful stimulant. If used when hair begins to be lost, it is an excellent remedy. Make an oil consisting of 10 ml (2 tsp) soya oil, 40 ml (1 1/2 fl oz) grapeseed oil, 2 drops of wheat germ oil and 30 drops of horseradish oil. Apply to the scalp and massage in with the fingertips. Leave for a few hours, then wash off with a mild shampoo.

(See also alopecia.)

In cookery
The root is scrubbed then peeled – usually in the open air, as it is more pungent than the strongest onion. It is then grated and mixed with some other ingredient, usually to make a condiment sauce. Yoghurt, cream and vinegar are all bases for these sauces, most of which probably originate from Germany and Scandinavia, but which have reached their peak in the sauce served in Britain with roast beef. Horseradish sauces were once served with eggs, chicken and sausages and are particularly good with smoked fish. The young leaves can be used in a salad. The roots can be macerated in vinegar, and can be sliced and dried.

A to Z of Plants