Many people are familiar with horseradish as a spicy ingredient that can be added to fish and meat dishes and a variety of sauces. Naturally occurring mustard seed oils within the horseradish root give it that classic spicy flavour and also make horseradish a useful medicinal plant. Read on to find out more about horseradish, its cultural significance throughout history and its applications in the fight against pathogens.
Horseradish’s origins and habitats
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) belongs to a group of plants known as the mustards, the crucifers or the cabbage family (Brassicaceae). Other members of this family include white cabbage, broccoli, cabbage turnips and rapeseed. The horseradish plant originally came from southern and eastern Europe. In those parts of Europe horseradish is known as kren and it is found in numerous traditional recipes. In those regions you can also often find wild varieties of horseradish.
Large-scale cultivation takes place in regions such as Franconia (the area around Nuremberg) and in Styria. Nowadays, commercial crops of horseradish are also grown extensively in the USA, particularly in the region around Collinsville (Illinois). The US crops were originally grown from plants imported from Germany – or more specifically, from Spreewald.
What do horseradish plants look like?
Horseradish is a herbaceous plant characterised by large leaves that can grow up to 50 centimetres in length. Its leaves are connected to thick basal stems. The plant’s roots are used for medicinal purposes and for cooking. Each root can reach a length of up to 60 centimetres. The roots have a brown exterior and are white and fibrous on the inside.
Horseradish plants have flowers from May until July. Each inflorescence can grow up to 120 centimetres high. Its yellow-green buds develop into white flowers with a diameter of between 1 and 1.5 centimetres. The flowers are clustered in grape-like formations. After flowering, the plant forms pods that often do not fully mature.
History and traditional uses of horseradish
Horseradish has a particularly long history in the Bavarian region of Germany and in parts of Austria, where it is also known as kren. Horseradish sellers, called Krenweiberl used to sell horseradish door to door, carrying baskets of the freshly harvested roots on their shoulders. People bought the horseradish roots to cook traditional recipes or to improve their health. Nowadays, in the age of the modern supermarket, this vocation is long gone.
The wasabi root used in Japanese cooking shares certain similarities with horseradish. However, mass-cultivation of wasabi is more difficult. As a result, these days wasabi paste largely contains horseradish root (Armoracia rusticana) instead of wasabi root (Eutrema japonicum).
Horseradish has always been considered particularly healthy. For centuries people in Bavaria, Austria, Slovakia, South Tyrol and the Czech Republic have used it in a variety of traditional ways to improve their health. Time-honoured remedies were used externally to redden the skin or ingested to treat scurvy, oedema and malaria.
Active ingredients and their effects
If you’ve ever grated horseradish or accidentally put too much in your mouth, you’ll be familiar with the peppery, stinging sensation that rises up into your nose and can make your eyes water. This is caused by mustard oil glycosides (glucosinolates). They are not only responsible for horseradish’s pungent flavour – they are also good for your health. They can fight bacteria and be used to hinder the growth of viruses and fungi. That is why the plant can be used to treat numerous kinds of infections.
In additional to mustard oils, horseradish also contains vitamin C, vitamin B1, B2 and B6, a range of health-promoting minerals, as well as allicin (the substance that also gives garlic its characteristic scent).
Medical uses of horseradish
Horseradish’s antibacterial and antiviral effects make it ideal for treating various kinds of infections. Traditionally, fresh horseradish was grated and stored in alcohol to create a tincture, and was a common household remedy for coughs involves mixing grated horseradish and honey. But these days you do have to grate fresh horseradish root, because horseradish extracts can be found in several herbal medicines.
Studies show that extracts from horseradish root are effective in the treatment of influenza, respiratory infections, bladder infections and sinus inflammation. The combination of horseradish and nasturtium has proven particularly effective and can be found in products such as angocin®. When combined, these medicinal plants can be used to tackle a wide variety of different bacteria. That is why preparations containing horseradish root and nasturtium are used as a natural antibiotic to treat bladder infections, sinus inflammation and bronchitis. They have a variety of advantages over conventional antibiotics: they don’t contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, have hardly any side effects, and are effective against bacteria as well as viruses and fungi. However, horseradish preparations should not be used if you have stomach or intestinal ulcers, or if you have a thyroid disorder.
Please note: Herbal remedies may also have interactions and side effects. Please read the package insert and talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you require further information.