Clockwise from above: Rocket plant; rocket flowers; close-up of rocket leaf. Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt
BOTANICAL NAME: Eruca sativa. Eruca is the old Latin name for rocket and sativa means cultivated.
Despite renewed culinary interest in rocket, it is not a modern plant. It has been eaten for its tender though acrid leaves for at least 2000 years throughout western and eastern Europe.
A low annual herb, rocket is also called roquette and arugula. There are approximately 20 different varieties. A few different species of the genus Eruca are grown for salad in places like Crimea and Azerbaijan.
For best results, rocket should be planted during early spring or late summer. Can also plant in autumn for a winter crop. Successive sowings ensure a continuous supply of fresh leaves. Keep mulched and watered. It will prematurely go to seed if stressed from lack of water.
Be warned, fertilising with fresh manure gives this plant an unpleasant flavour.
SAVING THE SEEDS:
Rocket will not cross with any other brassicas. Insects have to work on the flowers to fertilise them. At the end of the season, or when the temperature is at its highest, rocket throws little fragile stems at the end of which are small, dainty, pale yellow flowers with purple veins.
Being a brassica, it forms little siliques. These contain tiny red seeds and shatter when shaken. Hardly any winnowing or sieving is needed to clean the seeds.
The seeds are very small and reddish-brown. They will remain fertile for another two seasons at room temperature. There are 500 seeds to the gram.
Rocket is now a popular salad green, with its slightly bitter flavour adding a spicy punch to salads and other dishes. Pick regularly to encourage growth. Only early and tender leaves of rocket are suitable for the table. After the abuse of salad’s reputation by the dominance of iceberg-type lettuces, there is a revival in the consumption of mixed salad greens. The famous French ‘mesclun mix’ is a blend of a few leaves of several types of lettuces, chicories, other greens and rocket. As well as being delicious in salads, rocket can easily be added to sandwiches and soups. It can be used instead of basil in pesto and it also makes for a good base to serve meat or fish on.
Rocket has a reputation for stimulating digestion. It is also thought to have a cooling effect on the body.
ON THE LOOKOUT:
‘Rocket Improved’ is a spicy variety that is less inclined to bolt.
Adapted from The Seed Savers’ Handbook by Jude and Michel Fanton (Seed Savers’ Network 1993)