(Eruca vesicaria subsp. sativa – Family Cruciferae [Brassicaceae])
Arugula, rocket, rugola, Mediterranean rocket, salad rocket, Roman rocket, Italian cress, rucola, rulula, tira, rucchetta, rughetta, wild rocket, roquette (French)
Arugula is an annual herb of the Cabbage family, grown for its tender hot-tasting leaves and/or edible white flowers.
It has been cultivated since Roman times, and is native to the Mediterranean and Eastern Asia regions, where it was not only used as a food, but also as a diuretic and digestive aid.
Arugula was introduced into North America by Italian settlers, but its spicy leaves were particularly popular in Elizabethan England. Today, arugula is cultivated in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, northern and central India, and Brazil.
Only since the 1980s has this plant resurfaced as a “trendy” culinary item. especially in the US, Britain, France, and Italy. It is good with mild varieties of salad greens or cooked quickly in olive oil.
The botanical name of Eruca means “downy-stemmed”, and vesicaria means”bladder-like”. Both names aptly describe the slender seed pods. The plant grows to a height of about three feet and has hairy stems, broad-toothed leaves, and the typical crucifera characteristic of cross-shaped flowers. Cultivated plants are a separate subspecies and are larger with paler flowers than those in the wild.
Young leaves are said to be a good tonic and are used in cough medicine. Dioscorides also described them being used as a good digestive aid. Arugula is a good source of calcium, folate and vitamins A, C, and E.
Small leaves tend to have a sweet, but nutty, mild taste; while the older ones can be very spicy, slightly bitter and peppery. The younger leaves are very popular in salads as they have the mildest flavour. They can also be lightly boiled or steamed and added to numerous other dishes. The flowers are also edible and added to salads.
The two main varieties are wild and cultivated, but one must be aware that the “wild” can also be cultivated; although “true” wild ones still grow in France and Italy. Wild rocket, or wild arugula, is a term previously used to distinguish the foraged type from the garden variety, but now refers to another garden species, Diplotaxis erucoides,
which has slimmer, sharper growth and a much stronger flavour. It is common in Europe, where it is called Sylvetta, or sometimes rucola selvatica – which can also refer to another species. The plant is easy to grow, even in containers.
Arugula is generally sold with its roots attached and displayed along with fresh herbs or specialty salad greens. However, this green should not be misted, as is the custom in many supermarkets, as moisture causes deterioration.
The leaves are flat, dark green, and serrated, looking like long, slender oak leaves. Young leaves tend to be about three inches long, but mature ones can be up to eight inches in length.
The leaves, and the edible flowers, can be very sandy and should be carefully washed. Treat it as any salad green by combining it with other greens, nuts and other vegetables.