URBANA – Emily Cox drafted adventurous friends and classmates to help her finish her pungent second-semester project.
"It makes your scalp tingle," said Caitlin Ramsey, a graduating University of Illinois physics major who stopped by Cox's recent horseradish taste test on the UI Quad. Participants sampled horseradish Cox made from five different cultivars grown by doctoral candidate Mark Uchanski, who has discovered a way to cure a devastating horseradish disease.
"E is hot!" said faculty member Bob Skirvin, Cox's teacher and Uchanski's adviser.
"I like E best because it has good heat and flavor," said Abram Bicksler of the early favorite. Bicksler, a graduate student in horticulture, has had plenty of experience tasting edgy foods like horseradish: He grows hot peppers in his lab.
Uchanski, a native of St. Charles, said southern Illinois horseradish country, St. Clair and Madison counties, are the most concentrated horseradish-growing area in the world.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics from 2000, about 20 Illinois farmers grew about 65 percent of the country's horseradish crop.
Uchanski said he knew little about the ungainly crop until worried farmers in 2001 came to Skirvin's lab looking for answers to virus problems that were ruining their crop.
"The industry was dying, and they asked if we could make virus-free plants," Skirvin said.
Uchanski cultured horseradish tissue, isolating the pathogen using a process called meristemming.
"A breeding program was too slow to get rid of the diseases," he said. "Farmers needed an immediate solution. We cultured the plant tissue and cured the problem, removed the pathogen by cutting out the growing point under a microscope when it's so young it's not connected to the tissue of the plant yet."
Skirvin said the disease has spread because farmers propagate the plants by digging the big roots and cutting off side root fingers to plant the next year. He said Uchanski has proved tissue culture can produce "clean" plants, but it's going to take a while to produce enough plants for farmers to grow.
"They plant 7,000 roots per acre and if you go with tissue culture, it takes a month to make 10,000 plants," he said. "We need to grow clean plants for a year to make more new plants."
Uchanski's clean plants also solve an environmental problem: For years, growers dosed fields with methyl bromide to kill the pathogens, but use of that soil fumigant was phased out, on government orders, because it depletes the ozone layer.
Uchanski got so interested in the crop, he wanted to test the five different cultivars he had produced to determine taste differences. Enter Cox, a sophomore majoring in architecture and a James Scholar who took Skirvin's horticulture class spring semester.
Cox said she needed a special project to complete requirements for the scholarship program and decided to conduct taste tests on Uchanski's horseradish.
"I'd rather do this than a paper because it's something useful," Cox said. "I didn't know much about horseradish when we started this, but we eat a lot of sushi, and I like spicy things."
Cox hand-ground five different horseradish roots, added vinegar, then displayed them on a wall beside the Quad for passing students and staff members to sample on crackers or with thinly sliced beef.
To enhance their experiment, Cox and Uchanski added commercial horseradish, beet horseradish, real wasabi and fake wasabi – the kind served with sushi that's really just horseradish colored green – to the samples.
Cox said she'll tabulate the taste test results for her scholarship report, and Uchanski said he'll take them as well as results of his own work to the Illinois Horseradish Growers School this winter. "People come from all over the world," he said.
Meanwhile, Uchanski's looking for a teaching job: He completes his doctorate this summer.
"If anyone had told me 10 years ago I'd be getting a Ph.D. in horseradish, I'd have said, 'No way,'" he said. "You never know. But I've learned a lot of things I can use for other crops."