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The Horse Radish of our gardens is a cultivated cruciferous plant of which the fresh root is eaten, when scraped, as a condiment to correct the richness of our national roast beef.
This plant grows wild in many parts of the country, particularly about rubbish, and the sides of ditches; yet it is probably an introduction, and not a native. Its botanical name, Cochlearia armoracia, implies a resemblance between its leaves and an old-fashioned spoon, cochleare; also that the most common place of its growth is ar, near, mor, the sea.
Our English vernacular styles the plant "a coarse root," or a "Horse radish," as distinguished from the eatable radish (root), the Raphanus sativus. Formerly it was named Mountain Radish, and Great Raifort. This is said to be one of the five bitter herbs ordered to be eaten by the Jews during the Feast of the Passover, the other four being Coriander, Horehound, Lettuce, and Nettle.
Not a few fatal cases have occurred of persons being poisoned by taking Aconite root in mistake for a stick of Horse radish, and eating it when scraped. But the two roots differ materially in shape, colour, and taste, so as to be easily discriminated: furthermore the leaves of the Aconite—supposing them to be attached to the root—are not to be mistaken for those of any other plant, being completely divided to their base into five wedge-shaped lobes, which are again sub-divided into three. Squire says it seems incredible that the Aconite Root should be mistaken for Horse Radish unless we remember that country folk are in the habit of putting back again into the ground Horse Radish which has been scraped, until there remain only the crown and a remnant of the root vanishing to a point, these bearing resemblance to the tap root of Aconite.
The fresh root of the Horse radish is a powerful stimulant by reason of its ardent and pungent volatile principle, whether it be taken as a medicament, or be applied externally to any part of the body. When scraped it exhales a nose-provoking odour, and possesses a hot biting taste, combined with a certain sweetness: but on exposure to the air it quickly turns colour, and loses its volatile strength; likewise, it becomes vapid, and inert by being boiled. The root is expectorant, antiscorbutic, and, if taken at all freely, emetic. It contains a somewhat large proportion of sulphur, as shown by the black colour assumed by metals with which it comes into touch. Hence it promises to be of signal use for relieving chronic rheumatism, and for remedying scurvy.
Taken in sauce with oily fish or rich fatty viands, scraped Horse radish acts as a corrective spur to complete digestion, and at the same time it will benefit a relaxed sore throat, by contact during the swallowing. In facial neuralgia scraped Horse radish applied as a poultice, proves usefully beneficial: and for the same purpose some of the fresh scrapings may be profitably held in the hand of the affected side, which hand will become in a short time bloodlessly benumbed, and white.
When sliced across with a knife the root of the Horse radish will exude some drops of a sweet juice which may be rubbed with advantage on rheumatic, or palsied limbs. Also an infusion of the sliced root in milk, almost boiling, and allowed to cool, makes an excellent and safe cosmetic; or the root may be infused for a longer time in cold milk, if preferred, for use with a like purpose in view. Towards the end of the last century Horse radish was known in England as Red cole, and in the previous century it was eaten habitually at table, sliced, with vinegar.
Infused in wine the root stimulates the whole nervous system, and promotes perspiration, whilst acting likewise as a diuretic. For rheumatic neuralgia it is almost a specific, and for palsy it has often proved of service. Our druggists prepare a "compound spirit of Horse radish," made with the sliced fresh root, orange peel, nutmeg, and spirit of wine. This proves of effective use in strengthless, languid indigestion, as well as for chronic rheumatism; it stimulates the stomach, and promotes the digestive secretions. From one to two teaspoonfuls may be taken two or three times in the day, with half a wineglassful of water, at the end of a principal meal, or a few minutes after the meal. An infusion of the root made with boiling water and taken hot readily proves a stimulating emetic. Until cut or bruised the root is inodorous; but fermentation then begins, and develops from the essential oil an ammoniacal odour and a pungent hot bitter taste which were not pre-existing.
Chemically the Horse radish contains a volatile oil, identical with that of mustard, being highly diffusible and pungent by reason of its "myrosin." One drop of this volatile oil will suffice to odorise the atmosphere of a whole room, and, if swallowed with any freedom, it excites vomiting. Other constituents of the root are a bitter resin, sugar, starch, gum, albumen, and acetates.
A mixture of the fresh juice, with vinegar, if applied externally, will prove generally of service for removing freckles.
Bergius alleges that by cutting the root into very small pieces without bruising it, and then swallowing a tablespoonful of these fragments every morning without chewing them, for a month, a cure has been effected in chronic rheumatism, which had seemed otherwise intractable.
For loss of the voice and relaxed sore throat the infusion of Horse radish makes an excellent gargle; or it may be concentrated in the form of a syrup, and mixed for the same use—a teaspoonful, with a wine-glassful of cold water.
Gerard said of the root: "If bruised and laid to the part grieved with the sciatica, gout, joyntache, or the hard swellings of the spleen and liver, it doth wonderfully help them all." If the scraped root be macerated in vinegar, it will form a mixture (which may be sweetened with glycerine to the taste) very effective against whooping cough. In pimply acne of the skin, to touch each papula with some of the Compound Spirit of Horse Radish now and again will soon effect a general cure of the ailment.