NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) -- Consider the common horseradish. With its gnarly white root and boarding house reach, the plant isn't exactly the glamour girl of the modern-day garden.
But beauty or beast, the horseradish has endured through the ages largely because of its dual personality. The pungent root was valued as much for its medicinal qualities as its culinary.
The 3,000-year-old plant has been used as an aphrodisiac, as treatment for rheumatism and arthritis and as a flavorful accompaniment for beef, chicken and seafood.
Egyptians were familiar with horseradish as far back as 1500 B.C. The ancient Greeks used the root as a rub for lower back pain. Early respiratory sufferers stocked horseradish syrup as an expectorant cough medicine. Others used it to treat food poisoning, scurvy, tuberculosis and colic.
No prescriptions were required.
During the Renaissance, horseradish consumption of the condiment kind moved from Central Europe into Scandinavia and Great Britain. Horseradish was the standard side dish for beef and oysters on most English tables by the late 1600s, according to the Horseradish Information Council in Atlanta.
Commercial cultivation began in North America in the mid-1850s. The first sales of bottled horseradish were recorded in 1860, making it one of the nation's earliest convenience foods, the council says.
The bulk of its production is centered now in central Wisconsin, near Eau Claire; in west-central Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis; along the Oregon-California border, and south of Toronto, says Wendell Christoff, vice chairman of Litehouse Inc., a processor with plants in Michigan and Idaho.
''Anyone can grow it, but it's a temperamental crop when grown in large quantities,'' he says.
An estimated 6 million gallons of prepared horseradish are produced each year around the U.S. -- enough to season sandwiches stretching 12 times around the world, the Horseradish Council says.
Yet horseradish has all but disappeared from backyard gardens.
While some people look at it as little more than an aggressive, fast-growing perennial, most don't consider it at all. They're not planting their grandmother's garden.
''It's kind of the forgotten crop and that's a pity,'' Christoff says. ''It's high in Vitamin C, low in sodium and a good source of dietary fiber.''
I went shopping for some plants this spring because the coarse prepared variety hadn't been that easy to find during my nearly two decades in Alaska. Most grocery stores there carried a mayonnaise-like spread that was more paste than peel when plopped onto your plate.
I finally found several roots with a little help from some of my new Shenandoah Valley neighbors. Showalter's Orchard and Greenhouse, near Timberville, Va., provided the standard assortment of starter garden vegetables -- tomato, potato, broccoli, leaf lettuce and zucchini plants -- but they didn't have any horseradish on hand.
However, it took only one call from Sarah Showalter to find some transplantable roots for me.
Louise Andes raises horseradish at her farm home, which is just a few hills and hollows away from Showalter's.
The nursery sells her prepared, cottage industry product during the holiday season, so she was good enough to bring over a half-dozen of the meaty white roots, wrapped in wetted newspaper.
''Just about everybody's garden used to have a few stalks of horseradish some years ago,'' the 72-year-old Andes says. ''It's very seldom you see any now.''
Horseradish isn't that difficult to grow, assuming you have well-drained, fertile soil and plenty of sunlight. Throw an inch of compost over it each spring.
Place the root 3- to 5 inches deep and around 12- to 18 inches apart in rows about 3 feet from one another.
Horseradish grows best from Labor Day into the autumn. The roots like warm soil and cool nights so they can bulk up for winter dormancy. ''We harvest it around butchering time,'' Andes says.
You should get something approaching three harvests from each plant before the yield begins to drop. Then you simply dig a chunk from the core of the root and allow the side shoots to remain, taking over as the primary plants the next season.
You may have to discipline your plants, though. Horseradish can grow to dominate large sections of garden.
Raising horseradish is one part of the equation. Processing it properly is the other.
Harvested roots can be stored in a cool place or they can be prepared immediately. The roots are benign. They don't produce any telltale ''heat'' until the potent root cells are crushed. That releases their volatile oils.
''I wash it (root) real good,'' Andes says. ''Then I scrape it like you would carrots to get the bark off. I cut it again and grind the pieces in a sausage grinder.
''I put that in my kitchen blender, and add some vinegar and salt. It will keep good when refrigerated but eventually turns dark. That's when it loses some of its potency.''
Recipes vary, but those familiar with the root say timing is everything when adding the white vinegar, which stops the enzyme reaction. If you prefer a mild horseradish, then add the vinegar immediately. But if you like your horseradish firehouse hot, age the grated root about three minutes before adding any vinegar.
A caution, though: Open all your doors and windows when preparing the product.
''It has a terrible smell when you make it,'' Andes says. ''It burns your eyes.''
Unless you're feeding a particular appetite, as I am, you probably won't be making its acquaintance. And more is the pity.
Medicine or condiment, horseradish is a great, cleansing herb. Having some great, grated root around the house is enough to make a grown person cry.
On the Net:
Horseradish Information Council: http://www.horseradish.org
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Dean Fosdick retired in May after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He has covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdick(at)netscape.net
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