The International Herb Association

Horseradish Herb of the Year™ 2011

Horseradish-Freshly Dug Root
Freshly-dug root photo by Susan Belsinger

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Horseradish,
But Were Afraid to Ask


Charles E. Voigt
Department of Crop Sciences
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

J.W. "Bill" Courter
Department of Horticulture, Retired

Horseradish is a hot crop, in more ways than one. Both gourmet chefs and fast food franchises have discovered this simple, ancient root crop. In fact, horseradish, Armoracia rusticana, is a large-leaved, hardy perennial herbaceous plant of the cabbage family, cultivated for its fleshy, pungent roots. Today, the roots are used primarily as a spicy condiment for meat or seafood dishes, while, historically, horseradish has also been used medicinally as a preventive or curative for various disorders.

The plant is believed to be native to an area of eastern Europe and western Asia, stretching from the Caspian Sea through Russia and Poland to Finland. The Egyptians knew about horseradish as long ago as 1500 B.C., at the time of the Exodus. It is one of the five bitter herbs that people of the Jewish faith are instructed to eat at Passover. Early Greeks used ground horseradish as a rub for lower back pain, and it was also thought to cure rheumatism. Horseradish remains a very effective, non potassium-depleting diuretic, and references to its use as an aphrodisiac abound.

Its use as a condiment seems to have originated in Central Europe. The name for the plant in German is "meerrettich" (sea radish) because it occurs naturally by the sea. It is believed that the English mispronounced "meer" as "mare", calling the plant "mare"radish. This, in turn, was also corrupted to "horse"radish, a name which has stuck. Through most of the sixteenth century, it was used only medicinally in England, though the English noted that ground horseradish mixed with vinegar was commonly used as a condiment with meats and fish by the Germans.

Not until the 1600s did horseradish become an acceptable condiment in England, and then only among the country people and strong laboring men, as it was "too strong for tender and gentle stomachs". By the late 1600s, however, all strata of English society had succumbed to the allure of this herb as the standard accompaniment to beef and oysters. It was grown at inns and coach stations to make cordials to revive weary travelers.

Settlers brought horseradish to North America early in the colonial period. It was common in the northeast by 1806, and reported growing wild near Boston. Commercial cultivation in America began in the mid 1850s, when immigrants started horseradish farms in the Midwest. By the late 1890s, a thriving production area existed on the fertile alluvial soil on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, east of St. Louis, Missouri. Today, there are around 6 million gallons of horseradish prepared and sold in this country annually--enough to season a line of sandwiches that would circle the globe 12 times.

The plant forms a rosette of erect, long-petioled leaves which superficially resemble dock plants (Rumex sp.). Roots are fleshy, tan to corky-tan externally, white inside, and branched to form an extensive system. Excavation studies on deep open soils have found root penetration on 10-year-old plants reaching to at least 15 feet. Once established in a location, horseradish may be hard to eradicate. In a study at the University of Illinois, roots buried to a depth of 6 feet managed to sprout to the soil surface and grow. Establish horseradish plantings in locations where cultivation of crops in subsequent years can contain weedy regrowth, or where the plants can remain.

Horseradish prefers a soil that is deep, moist but well drained, friable, and fertile, however roots may be grown on a variety of soils, from alluvial sands to deep loose soils to high-organic (muck) soils. Root quality is poor, however, in shallow, hard, or clay-pan soils. Digging the roots is also difficult on finer-textured, heavy soils.

The plant requires a long growing season to develop an acceptable root system. A continuous supply of nutrients and moisture is necessary for best leaf growth during the summer months. Most of the root enlargement occurs during the cooler temperatures of early fall. Locations in the northern half of the country, or higher elevations farther south are better for high quality and yield.

While horseradish is a long-lived perennial plant, for production of large, fleshy roots, it is most often treated as an annual crop. Large, marketable roots are produced in one season from root cuttings planted in late fall or early spring. As it grows, this large root produces smaller, secondary roots which are, in turn, used for planting stock the following year. Plants allowed to grow in one spot for many years will produce smaller, harder-to-peel roots. The ideal root cutting or "set" comes from disease-free plant material, is 10-to 12-inches in length, and varies in diameter from 1/4-to 1/2-inch (about pencil diameter or slightly thicker, and 1 1/2-to 2-times pencil length). These cuttings increase in diameter and weight during the season, but not in length.

When planting root cuttings, the end which was nearer the crown of the mother plant is generally planted higher, with the whole cutting ideally at a 30° angle from the horizontal. To maintain knowledge of the polarity of the root (which end comes from nearer the crown of the plant), the cuttings are cut off square on this end (perpendicular to the length of the root), and at an acute angle at the root end. This makes planting easier, as new shoots arise mainly from the shoot end of the planted root.

Because horseradish roots need loose, easily penetrable soil for best performance, soil preparation is extremely important. The land chosen for planting is usually plowed deeply as soon as conditions allow in the spring. Organic matter, whether from cover crops, manure, or crop residues is also helpful, if incorporated far enough in advance of planting to have broken down well. Some growers apply manure very heavily to the crop that precedes horseradish in the rotation to allow for decomposition. Horseradish plants require fairly heavy fertility, and tests have shown that fertilizer that is applied before plowing seems to be more effective than surface applications after plowing.

In large fields, horseradish is planted with the set roots placed 2 feet apart in furrows 30 inches apart, with the crown (flat cut) end slightly elevated. Planted at this rate, the population would be about 8,700 plants per acre. Root cuttings are covered with 4-to 5- inches of soil. Planting is usually done as early in spring as possible to maximize the growing season. In extremely cold climates with late springs, late fall planting, immediately after harvest, may be preferable.

Horseradish Crop in the Field
Horseradish crop in Collinsville, Illinois.
photo by Susan Belsinger

During the growing season, the side roots and extra crowns produced by the set roots must be removed, for production of the largest, most desirable harvest. Even in commercial fields, this is still a hand operation. Once or twice a season, roots are carefully loosened from the soil at the crown end and any side roots removed. At the first lifting, done when the leaves are about 8-to 10-inches in length, all but the one strongest, best-looking crown are also removed to give a solid, symmetrical finished root. After lifting, the root is returned to its normal position and covered with soil.

At the second lifting, usually about six weeks after the first, any side roots which have formed are again removed. Gloves are usually worn to protect the hands from chafing and blistering during lifting and trimming the roots and crowns. Due to the enormous hand labor involved in the lifting process, many growers have gone to an untrimmed system. Such roots are less desirable, since there is more waste and handling involved in peeling and grinding the roots. Growers who use this system believe that avoiding the back-breaking labor of lifting and trimming roots is well worth any additional work involved in peeling smaller roots.

Weed control is accomplished mainly by mechanical cultivation. Through the season, soil is mounded over the rows during these cultivations to cover and protect the swelling roots. Late in the season, the foliage of the plants begins to form a solid canopy and cultivation should stop.

Brittle root, caused by a spiroplasma, is probably the most destructive disease of horseradish. Infected plants develop a general chlorotic (yellowed) condition of the leaves which eventually causes collapse of the above-ground portion of the plant. The phloem of affected roots is usually dark brown and forms a dark ring around the vascular cylinder, when viewed in cross section. Starch accumulates in affected roots, which snap when bent, hence the name brittle root, which describes this symptom. The disease is transmitted by the beet leafhopper. In years when the leafhopper is not a problem, brittle root is usually rare. When the leafhopper is a problem, quick and effective control of the insect usually minimizes damage from the disease.

Verticillium dahliae can cause severe damage on sites where horseradish has been grown over an extended period, or where infected rootstocks are used for planting. This soil-borne disease causes an internal discoloration that lowers or destroys the value of the root. Using disease-free planting stock and planting on clean land are the best methods of avoiding this problem, although research is ongoing to find a treatment or to develop resistant varieties.

While horseradish needs a long growing season to complete its growth, the bulk of the increase in root size occurs in the cooler weather of early autumn. Therefore, harvest is usually delayed until most other fall harvest chores have been completed, to allow maximum sizing of the roots. If cold storage is available, it is a common practice to dig as much root in the fall as will be used through the winter, and then dig the remainder of the crop early in the spring. Storage in the ground over the winter provides the highest quality roots in the spring. Spring harvest must be completed before heavy growth commences, though there is a small niche market at Passover for large roots with a small amount of green top showing.

Since the root system penetrates so deeply into the soil, digging must also be deep to recover both the fully sized, usable root and set roots which are as long as possible. Removing as much of the root system as possible also minimizes the problem of weed horseradish plants in the following year's crop in the field. Today, most roots are
harvested commercially with converted potato diggers which undercut, lift, and shake dirt from the roots, which are then moved by conveyor into a wagon. Home plantings will most likely have to be hand dug. Horseradish roots can now be stored for year-round processing in refrigerated storage with minimal loss of quality. Temperatures of 32° to 35° F and relative humidity of 90% are near ideal for this storage. Plastic bags help reduce water loss in storage. Roots are available year-round in supermarkets now, but it is also an easy crop to grow in the home garden.



Horseradish Root Ready to Process
Horseradish roots at processing plant.
photo by Susan Belsinger

The Tri-County area in southwestern Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St, Louis, MO, produces over half of the US supply of horseradish roots on 1,500 - 2,000 acres annually. The University of Illinois, at Urbana Champaign has the most active program of horseradish research in the country. Both the Department of Crop Sciences and the Illinois Natural History Survey conduct studies of disease, weed, and insect control, plant nutrition, plant breeding, in vitro propagation, and other topics to service this localized but productive crop production industry.

Collinsville, Illinois, is the horseradish capitol of the world, and each year sponsors the International Horseradish Festival on the first weekend in June in a local park. A variety of activities each year include horseradish golf, a 5-K run, a fun walk, a horseradish eating contest, and many exhibits, including grinding and preparing the product (best done outdoors, anyway), examples of equipment used to plant, cultivate, and harvest the crop, and processors' displays of all the bottled sauces available containing this powerful herb. The growers and processors of Illinois horseradish welcome one and all to the annual celebration of this root crop. For more information on the festival, phone: (618) 346-5210, or contact the Collinsville Chamber of Commerce, phone: (618) 344-2884.

Those looking for processors of this tasty root in their home regions should contact the:
Association of Sauces and Dressings
Suite 500G
5775 Peachtree-Dunwoody Rd.
Atlanta, GA 30342
Tel. (404) 252-3663
Fax: (404) 252-0774
for a processor near you.

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