Q. What are the strong, peppery- and nutty-flavored greens found in fancy salad mixes?
A. These are known as arugula (Eruca vesicaria subsp. sativa) and/or the wild, rustic variety named Diplotaxis tenuifolia ‘Sylvetta’. In its native home of Southern Europe, arugula is also called rocket or roquette. Both arugulas are members of the mustard family. Traditionally, arugula makes up a significant portion of salad and garden seed blends known as mesclun. Mesclun comes to us from the French, and traces back to the Latin word miscere, meaning “to mix.”
Q. I love to make salads with arugula leaves, but I am wondering if the flowers are also edible?
A. Yes! The flowers are definitely fit for the table. Eruca has cream-colored, purple-veined flowers that are extremely fragrant and taste just like the leaves. The wild rustic variety is known in Italy as Rucola selvatica or wild rocket. Rustic has yellow flowers that taste a bit milder than the other species.
Q. Can I grow my own arugula? Do you have any special tips or advice to help me get started?
A. Yes, if you have large growing containers or a small patch of ground for a salad garden, you can grow arugula. It can survive in rather poor soil but the best flavor will come from plants grown in moist, well-drained, loamy, nitrogen-rich garden soil. Arugula also requires full sun.
Plant the seeds according to the directions on the label, usually 1/2 inch deep, and 1 to 2 inches apart in rows 10 inches apart or in 2- to 4-inch-wide bands. Baby leaves will be ready for harvest in about 20 days and will reach full size in about 40 days.
Q. Can the wild rustic arugula of Italy be grown in the United States?
A. Rustic arugula can be naturalized and will become a kitchen garden perennial at least as far north as Zone 6b. The first sowing should be done in the cool seasons of either spring or fall. The plants will develop large, hardy, tough root systems.
After the plants bloom, ripened seed pods suspended from blond-colored stems will split open and shatter, sowing new arugula plants that will emerge throughout the growing season.
Just weed it when it grows out into the paths or invades too much of the garden. Cut the foliage back if the harlequin beetle invades the garden. It is possible to have arugula greens virtually year-round.
And one of its best qualities? Arugula is not usually browsed by deer.
Where to Buy Arugula Seeds
THE DIGGERS Club is based in Australia and offers information on arugula ‘Pronto’, which has large, soft leaves, with a milder flavor than regular arugula; and delicately textured wild arugula (D. tenufolia ‘Sylvetta’). www.diggers.com.au
In RENEE’S GARDEN’S seed catalog, arugula is listed under herbs. Renee Shepherd offers the perennial rustic variety, plus the annuals ‘Italian’ arugula, with rounded, tangy leaves, and ‘Runway’ arugula, which offers deeply cut lobed leaves and a milder flavor than the wild rustic. www.reneesgarden.com
JOHNNY’S offers organically grown and non-organically grown selections. ‘Surrey’ arugula looks like rustic but is slower to go to seed and reportedly is less peppery than its wild counterpart. ‘Astro’ is a selection from the wild rustic, is heat-tolerant and is not as deeply lobed. www.johnnyseedsonlinecatalog.com
Tina Marie Wilcox has been gardening at the Ozark Folk Center State Park in Arkansas for more than 25 years. She co-authored The Creative Herbal Home. Buy it at www.herbcompanion.com/shopping.