This zesty herb was known to the ancient Greeks and was one of the first commercially processed foods of the 19th century. Of course, no one appreciated horseradish more than the 1930s cartoon character Dagwood Bumstead, the creator of the impossible multi-tiered sandwich of the same name. Today, this herb is one of the few still hand-planted and harvested to the tune of 6 million gallons of prepared sauce each year in the United States alone--enough to spread end-to-end slices of bread that span the globe a dozen times.

Straight from the Horse’s…Hoof?


Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is a member of the Brassicaceae family of plants, which is composed of more than 3,000 species, including cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and wasabi, also known as Japanese horseradish. The plant is native to central Europe, where it was once called “red cole” in England and “sea radish” in Germany. The latter reference may provide linguists with a clue as to how this herb received its current name. First, note that the word “radish,” or “rettich” in German, simply translates to “root.” But, ”meer,” the German word for “sea,” was likely pronounced by the English as “mare,” leading to “mareradish” as the result of combining the two. Somewhere along the way, the English eventually traded “mare” for “horse” and the herb’s modern moniker was born. Then again, another theory exists that horseradish is so-named because it was originally processed by “hoofing.” That is, the roots were macerated under the weight of horses stamping their feet.

Although the English peasantry considered horseradish standard fare served with beef and seafood by the mid-16th century, the gentry took little notice of it as a foodstuff. However, horseradish was acknowledged as a medical plant by this time. For instance, the English physician and naturalist, William Turner, wrote of “red cole” in his “A New Herbal” printed in 1551. More than 40 years later, John Gerard included this culinary tid-bit in his “Generall Historie of Plantes” published in1597: “…the Horse Radish stamped with a little vinegar put thereto, is commonly used among the Germans for sauce to eat fish with and such like meats as we do mustard.” The herb was so favored by the common folk, it seems, that it was commonly grown near inns and coach houses for the purpose of refreshing weary travelers with a stimulating cordial made from the root.

Coming to America

Surprisingly, horseradish didn’t appear on American dinner tables until the early 1800s. As European settlers spread their own roots into the New World, the condiment began gaining popularity among the colonists. At first, the cultivation of horseradish took place throughout the northeast. By the mid-1800s, horseradish was naturalized in many northeastern regions, most notably around Boston. Formal cultivation of the plant began in the Midwest in 1850 and by the end of the century it became a booming industry for Illinois and Wisconsin farmers. After World War II came to a close, commercial cultivation spread to California, where it remains a major crop today. However, Collinsville, Illinois, which supplies roughly 60% of the world’s horseradish production, is recognized as the "Horseradish Capital of the World," a designation celebrated each June with the International Horseradish Festival.

Horseradish, Headache & Histochemistry…Oh, My!

Traditionally, horseradish has been used for centuries to treat cough, influenza and other respiratory conditions, as well as gout, rheumatism and disorders of the liver and gallbladder. In Europe, the German Commission E has approved horseradish for the treatment of bronchitis and urinary tract infection.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, including horseradish and other spicy condiments may help you to slim down. In fact, horseradish ranked high among low-fat foods with satisfying flavor among those recommended for a healthy diet for weight management. And, there’s more than one benefit to consider when spreading horseradish on a sandwich other than flavor; the stuff is high in fiber and packed with punch from a chemical called allyl isothiocyanate. While the latter might not sound very appetizing, it kills E. coli, Listeria and other food-borne pathogens you wouldn’t care to share your lunch with.

Then there’s horseradish peroxidase (HRP) to think about. This enzyme, according to researchers at M.I.T., is powerful enough to remove several types of pollutants from waste water.  Classified as a heme protein, HRP is easily taken up by nerve cells, where it hangs around axons and dendrites and makes cells highly visible. As such, HRP is used in molecular biology to identify antibodies, and in immunohistochemistry to label tissue samples suspected of being cancerous.

If all of the above weren’t enough, horseradish is reputed to saddle a stubborn headache. In fact, mothers, grandmothers and other wise women throughout the southern U.S. swear by smearing smashed horseradish across the forehead to quickly chase a headache away. One caveat: This treatment likely repels family and friends, too.

Although there are no known adverse effects associated with the medicinal application of this herb, it would be prudent to refrain from its use if there is a history of stomach ulcers due to the presence of mustard oils, which can irritate sensitive membranes. Similarly, giving horseradish to young children is not recommended. In addition, compounds in horseradish exert diuretic properties, meaning they increase urination. This indicates that people with kidney disease should not consume large quantities of this herb.

Horseradish Recipes