Explaining horseradish to a 12-year-old

Certain plants have a way of getting away from the gardener who invited them. On Saturday, Christopher — the son of a friend — helped me do battle with woodruff, horseradish and snow on the mountain that have commandeered sections of our backyard garden, overwhelming less assertive plants aside with military determination.

As we tore off the yard-high leaves and hacked at the deep, hard roots of the horseradish plant, I tried to explain the plant to Christopher. It’s hot but not like chili peppers. The smell alone can make you cry. A pinch can flavor a whole bowl of  potatoes. Like wasabi? he asked. He’s not tasted wasabi but learned about it in a video game where the hero had to wear wasabi rather than eat it and found that it burned his skin. Christopher was both intrigued and repelled by the notion of a plant that causes pain.

Why do we grow the stuff? Every year, we grate a root or two and it sits in the refrigerator unused until spring. This year, I grated a root with vinegar and gave it to a friend who’s a great cook and brave enough to use it.  I learned that it’s been used in traditional medicine for colds, urinary infections and joint pain and might try a poultice or tea. And Thanksgiving’s mashed potatoes and gravy will have an extra kick this year.

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