On Bitter Herbs and Crucifers

The Bitter Herb -Horseradish, Armoracia rusticana, early emergent leaves

This past week, I journeyed out of the quiet piedmont to the hustle bustle of New York City to participate in the Passover Seder and the retelling of the Exodus story out of Egypt. The story is illuminated by lively banter and argumentative discussions contemplating slavery, liberation, and freedom. Besides the four glasses of wine, unleavened bread (matzos), celery or parsley in salt water (tears), egg (rebirth), shank bone (offerings), and charoset (mortar), we are instructed to eat of the bitter herb or Maror. The bitter herb represents the bitterness from the centuries of slavery under the Egyptian Pharaohs’ rule. It is unknown exactly what plant the bitter herb was at the time of the original Seder over 2500 years ago – as some speculate that it could have been wild lettuce, chicory or dandelion -but we always use horseradish root. Horseradish, Armoracia rusticana, is in the cabbage or Brassicaceae family, which was once called Cruciferae (cross bearing) because the family’s flowers are in parts of four and situated like a crucifix. Since today is Easter Sunday and the fifth day of Passover, since the last supper is possibly the Passover Seder (at least that is what I was taught and understand this information is debated), since the fields and garden beds are resplendent in many cabbage family plants, I should mention that horseradish, with its place at the Seder table and flowers looking like a cross, is Herb of the Year 2011.

Making homemade horseradish sauce for the Seder is certainly no pleasant task. When I make the sauce, my eyes burn and tear, my nose runs, and boy, oh boy, do my sinuses clear. I’ve had to vacate the premises just to get relief from the volatile oil potency. For this reason, horseradish resides in the Asthma, Allergy and Sinusitis plots at the Green Farmacy Garden.  The root contains glucosinolates, such as sinigrin, and isothiocyanates with their antioxidant and anticancer properties.  Many species in the cabbage or mustard family share the similar qualities of horseradish and Jim Duke suggests making a “Cruci-Fix” for cancer prevention with any of the following: “arugula (rocket), broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, cress, daikon, garlic-mustard, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, pak choy, radishes, rutabaga, turnip greens, wasabi, and watercress.” Jim’s soups often give me my cruci-fix for the day…but he is yet to serve me soup along with a Bloody Mary with fresh horseradish. Now that’s food for thought.

Arisaema triphyllum (L.) Jack in the Pulpit spathe and spadix

Besides the horseradish leaves  poking out of the ground, the garden highlights are:
Ginseng, black cohosh, smilax, wild yam, goldenseal, christmas fern, cinnamon fern, royal fern, lady fern, and jack in the pulpit have emerged. Schisandra, hardy orange, dogwood, wild ginger, redbud,Virginia bluebell and sweet woodruff are in flower. The American toad, an explosive breeder, is rarely trilling now, just as Molly and I heard the first gray treefrog this past week. Today, I believe I heard my first Baltimore oriole for the season and the distant call of an ovenbird, “teacher, teacher, teacher.” The throes of a sleepy winter into a frenetic and perky pastel spring is happening now.

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