Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Arugula, My New Favorite Variety (plus a little botany lesson)

Let me tell you, sorting out the different types of arugula is extremely confusing. There are seven different packets of arugula seed arranged on my desktop, each one a different variety. This gets confusing really quickly, especially if you've forgotten (or never learned) all the ins and outs of botanical classification. There are two genera represented here, namely Diplotaxis and Eruca. The genus Diplotaxis contains the wild types of arugula and the genus Eruca contains the cultivated types - ah, but of course there is an exception. Then there are four species, one belonging to Eruca and three to Diplotaxis.

For those of you who have never had to take a course in botany, the botanical names of plants are usually stated in terms of --Genus species "Variety"-- genus and species names are always italicized, and the first letter of the genus name is always a capital letter and the first name of the species is always lower case. The variety is a selection of a plant that has been named because it has special qualities, it is not italicized. For instance, the Chioggia beets that I have in my garden now have the botanical name Beta vulgaris "Chioggia".

So, let me get back to arugula again. Following is a list of the arugula seeds that I've got, most are from Italian seed companies, the rest are American. Their botanical names (sans variety name) are in parentheses:

---Ruchetta Selvatica (Diplotaxis muralis)
---Rucola Selvatica (Diplotaxis erucoides)
---Rucola Selvatica A Foglia Di Olivo (Diplotaxis integrifolia
---Rucola Coltivata (Eruca sativa)
---Rocket Selvatica Sel Liscia (Eruca sativa)
---Arugula (Eruca sativa)
---Runway Arugula (Eruca sativa)

So, look at these names... Ruchetta, Rucola, Rocket, Arugula. Thank goodness I don't have any french seeds, I would have to add Roquette to the list. The names are often used synonymously, but there are also many who make distinctions. Some would make a distinction between Ruchetta and Rucola as refering to wild and cultivated types respectively. I've seen the same distinction made between Rocket and Arugula. That's the problem with common names, they are imprecise. Yikes, what's a gardener to do?! Well, in my case, I'm just going to call them all Arugula.

Ok, why so many different Arugulas, you might ask. It all started a number of years ago (can't remember how many) with a trip to Italy. I had oh so many salads with the best tasting arugula which I figured out was a wild type (ok, I will make one distinction). I came home with a packet of seeds, grew some out and ... oh yuck, this stuff is so strong! And so the search for that increasingly elusive taste memory started. All those wild arugulas have been too strong. Look at that, there are three different species of Diplotaxis, none of them is the one I remember. Oh, and about that one exception... The Rocket Selvatica Sel Liscia, which is an Eruca sativa, which are generally the milder cultivated arugulas, is actually a wild arugula. I'm guessing it must be an undomesticated forbear of the now common cultivated types. It was too strong. And guess what, there's one more wild arugula, Diplotaxis tenuifolia, that I've not tried yet! I don't know how I missed that one, it appears to be the most common species sold as wild arugula.

I still haven't found the wild arugula that I had in Italy, (perhaps it's D. tenuifolia) but this year I've finally found a wild arugula that I like. Actually, that I LOVE it! It has a wonderful nutty flavor with just a little bit of heat that doesn't linger.

So, who's the winner in the arugula taste test...

drumroll . . . . . .

Rucola Selvatica A Foglia Di Oliva
aka Olive Leaf Arugula

Now, I'll tell you how I used it today. It went into a Salami, Arugula, and Meyer Lemon Sandwich, the recipe for which we can thank Scott and Kendra at A Sonoma Garden. Really yummy sandwich, go check it out.

And one more thing, my now second favorite arugula is Runway Arugula, a cultivated (Eruca sativa) the seed for which I got from Renee's Seeds.


  1. Wow, I cannot keep up with you, but I find your energy and enthusiasm inspiring:) Sounds like you found the next best thing to your favorite arugula, or, maybe this is going to be your 'new' favorite.

  2. You're tenacious! That must have been some amazing arugula you had! Or is common for foodie gardeners? I love it. I need to make more effort with salad greens. You and I can both grow them all year long, I'm sure. Do you have any experience growing purslane as a garden plant?

  3. I love arugula in restaurants, but, like you, when we try to grow it, it's always way too strong. I love the fact that you've compared and contrasted so many types! Where did you get the seed of your favorite, the olive-leaf arugula? Great post!

  4. I didn't realise there were so many different varieties of what we call rocket! And I haven't seen the olive leaved variety before, it looks lovely and your sandwich sounds declicious.

    Wild rocket grows ... well, wild here and it self-seeds all over our garden, so we don't need to sow it. I think it tastes really good and we eat it all through the year. There is also something called 'false rocket' - I don't know the botanical name - which is sown between rows of vines and then ploughed in as fertiliser. This self-seeds too, and is edible.

  5. Hi Michelle you are so good! Thank you for this great and very informative post.


  6. Once again, a really helpful post. I just planted some that I ordered from Baker Creek, and it just labeled "Arugula." I wonder which variety it is...?

  7. I think I'll stick with the Eruca genus. Thanks for clarifying this. I never pay attention when I buy arugula but would love to grow some I actually like, so I will pay attention in the future.

  8. Good grief, I didn't even know that arugula was rocket! We get one of the wild sorts growing all over the place round here during the winter, but I haven't had the nerve to try eating it yet.

  9. Jan, I'm happy with the Olive Leaf Arugula, but now that I know there's one more wild Arugula that I haven't tried... well I can't resist!

    Chuck, I'm probably just trying to relive some moments from a great vacation, but I think you're right about us foodie gardeners too! I have tried purslane and didn't like it, it's got a mucilaginous quality that I don't like (think okra or nopales).

    J, the trick seems to be to find the right variety. I got the seeds for the Olive Leaf Arugula at www.gourmetseed.com. And I do still love the Runway Arugula from Renee's (and I'm sure you can find it elsewhere).

    Chaiselongue, that's what's so crazy confusing about common names. There are all sorts of plants called rocket, including plenty of weeds. And I'm pretty certain that the term is used somewhat differently on one side of the pond than on the other. And I'm guessing that the false rocket is a type of mustard, it's commonly used in vineyards and orchards in California as a green manure. People around here pick that and cook it as a vegetable.

    Hi Tyra, thanks!

    Susan, it's most likely the cultivated type, unless you bought their Wild Rocket Arugula. I just sneaked a peek at their website, the basic Arugula is Eruca sativa. (can't do italics here)

    Tina, if you like Arugula on the mild side, try the Runway variety, it is less peppery than the unnamed Eruca varieties that I've tried.

    Jan and Steve, try a nibble some time - you might like it!

  10. A friend, who's a cookery writer, once told me that when on a visit to Italy all the cooks there stressed to her the need to harvest rocket leaves as young as possible, when they were still tender and nutty. As soon as plants grow a bit bigger they start to develop that unpleasant, peppery taste that not many people like. I've tried to practise that early harvesting method, sowing lots of little crops, but it's hard work constantly sowing new crops. (At least it comes up from seed fast!)

    I much prefer your solution of finding a better tasting arugula! Thanks for that post, it was really useful info.

  11. You're the best, Michelle! Thanks for checking on that. :-)

  12. Jamie, It came to mind after I wrote the post that perhaps I should reserve my judgement until the plants are a little more mature. But, then I seem to remember that the other wild arugulas were quite spicy even when young, but I'm not sure. Anyway, time will tell!

    Susan, you are most welcome!

  13. Okay, so I'm cleaning out my study last night instead of working on an essay (which is what I'm supposed to be doing right now, too), when I stumble across a packet of Arugula I'd ordered in the fall from Seeds of Change. I had thought about planting it in the cold frame, but went with carrots instead. Meanwhile, I'd forgotten all about the packet, but a look at the date suggests it's still good. It's called "Sylvetta Arugula (Italian Rustic)." Now I'm curious as all heck to plant it and see if I can taste a difference between the two varieties..

  14. Susan, LOL I suffer from the same affliction, cleaning/organizing becomes ever so important when there's something pressing that I need to get done. :)

    You should satisfy your curiosity. Sylvetta is another term used for wild arugula and hey, maybe you'll like it too.

  15. Thanks so much for this post. I've only discovered arugula a couple of weeks ago when I bought a container of 'baby arugula' at the market. Delish. Now I want to grow it myself and was confused by the varieties. I may still be confused, but also still game! :-D

  16. Excellent post, wish I would have seen this the other day when I was trying to figure all these arugula varieties out.

  17. Hey, a lot of us LOVE the peppery sort! The older and stronger the better! I grow whatever seeds I can get here in north fl and it goes all year, through freezes(down to 27 for 6 hours). Its generally bugless and can be harvested from two weeks to six months, or even longer. I plant a pack every six weeks, with plenty to give away. My family and friends like it the older it gets, the mild stuff, its okay, but we like it strong! What I'm getting at is that most of the young harvests are mild, the longer that you let it grow, the stronger it gets. With meyers lemon and extra virgin olive oil, there is nothing that can touch it for a salad. Simple, pure and the essence of the earth. YUM!

  18. FYI, Runway actually comes from a Danish seed company called L. Daehnfeldt...now owned by Rogers/Syngenta. They also have two other Eruca Sativa (Cultivated) varieties, Myway and HiWay. If you can find the Myway I am sure you will like it also, it is a darker green than the Runway.

  19. I bought arugula seedlings that had long stems and very small leaves. The stems are tough, almost woody, and they have slender green (what I now know are) pods on them. The leaves have not gotten bigger, but the stems have grown. What is the best way to grow arugula? Is it better to start from seed? This is my first balcony garden, and I am thrilled with the other salad greens and herbs that are growing. We eat from the pots every day. But I am disappointed in the arugula, which I was told would grow with bigger leaves.

    1. It sounds like your arugula seedlings were already starting to bolt when you purchased them. Arugula is really best grown from seed, especially the "wild" varieties. They have long tap roots and when they are grown in a confined space they tend to bolt quickly. And tap rooted plants also tend to resent being transplanted, they may bloom right away or just die right off. So you should try growing some plants directly from seed, don't sow too densely or the plants will be small, then try harvesting the leaves on a cut-and-come-again basis. If they start sending up a flower stalk then it's time to start another potful. The wild arugula is perennial but once it starts to try to bloom it will put most of its energy into trying to produce flowers and even if you cut the flower stalks out it won't produce as many big leaves. "Regular" arugula is an annual and it will die after it blooms, even if you cut the flower stalks off.


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