Rocket or Rucola - Forgotten, Rare, and Hardly Known Lettuce Greens - A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl

A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)

Forgotten, Rare, and Hardly Known Lettuce Greens

Rocket or Rucola (Eruca sativa)

Family: Brassicaceae or Cruciferae: mustard family

Other Names: arugula, colewort, rucola, rucoli, rugula, roquette, salad rocket

Healing Properties: increases desire (aphrodisiac), prevents scurvy (antiscorbutic), promotes urination (diuretic), induces vomiting in large doses (emetic)

Symbolic Meaning: betrayal (language of flowers)

Planetary Affiliation: Mars

Rocket is a cruciferous vegetable like cabbage, horseradish, and mustard. As the glucosinolates in crucifers have a pungent flavor—which can be very strong, as in horseradish—they give a peppy note to salads, sauces, soups, spreads, and sandwiches. Rocket can basically be used like parsley. Forgotten for many years, it was fortunately rediscovered in the last few decades as another very tasty, vitamin-rich green.

The annual plant grows wild from central Asia to the Mediterranean and south to Morocco. Originally the pioneer plant appeared as a weed in flax fields, but in Asia it was soon appreciated as a valuable culinary herb. In central Asia it is still cultivated as a companion plant in flax fields, and in India in cotton fields. In these two countries it is not only valued as a green but also for its seeds, which have a high oil content (about 32 percent). The golden-yellow oil, known in India as “jamba” or “taramira” oil, is used for cooking and to conserve vegetables, as a lamp oil and hair oil, and for medical purposes as a diuretic, aphrodisiac, and stimulant. In higher doses it is an emetic.

Though the Romans and Greeks of antiquity cultivated rocket, in northern Europe the plant was unknown until the sixteenth century. The physician and botanist Leonhart Fuchs was one of the first to mention it, writing in 1543 how this “white mustard” that was “new in our area” arouses unchaste desires if eaten in quantity. It also “forces urine” and strengthens digestion, and should be eaten with lettuce leaves—else one can get a headache. Furthermore, Fuchs noted that the seeds can counter snake bite and scorpion poisoning and drive off parasites such as lice, mites, fleas, etc. The ground seeds, mixed with honey, can remove all kinds of facial blemishes; mixed with ox gall, it can remove black spots on the face; with vinegar, it can remove freckles. Most of these statements derive from the famous Roman doctor Galen rather than Fuchs’s own experiments.

Illustration 106. Nicholas Culpeper, astrological herbal doctor (1650)

A century later, Nicholas Culpeper described rocket in almost the same terms. He wrote in 1649 how one should not eat the leaves “alone, in regard their sharpness fumes which go into the head, causing aches and pains therein.” At most, hot heads and choleric types might be able to take it, “for angry Mars rules them, and he will sometimes be restrictive when he meets with fools.” In addition, rocket seeds increase sperm and “venerous [libidinous] qualities,” aid digestion, “provoke urine exceedingly,” drive out intestinal worms, and counter snake, scorpion, and shrew poison. He advised boiling the plant with some sugar and giving it by the spoonful to cure children from coughing; he noted that ingesting ground seeds added to a beverage lessens underarm smell. Mixed with honey it cleanses the skin from blemishes and pox. Culpeper’s predecessor, the herbal doctor John Gerard, also advised eating rocket seeds to better stand torture, as one would not feel the whipping as much.

In the flower language of the time the whitish-yellow blossom was a symbol for betrayal: in the evening it smells sweet, but in the day it has no smell at all.

For gardeners: sowing rocket in intervals of two to three weeks ensures tender fresh leaves are always available. And the blooms, which make a floral haven for bees, can also be used to garnish salads.


Onion-Grape Salad on Arugula (Rocket) with Goat Cheese ✵ 4 SERVINGS

1¼ cups (285 grams) onions, finely chopped ✵ ½ cup (115 grams) grapes, halved ✵ 2 tablespoon wine vinegar ✵ 3 tablespoons olive oil ✵ 1 tablespoon honey ✵ 1 teaspoon ground caraway seed ✵ 1 teaspoon turmeric ✵ sea salt ✵ pepper ✵ 4 small goat cheeses, each about 8 ounces (225 grams) ✵ ¾ cups (175 grams) arugula (rocket)

In a large bowl, mix the onions with the grapes, vinegar, and olive oil. Season with honey, caraway powder, turmeric, salt, and pepper to taste. Place the cheeses into the sauce. Marinate, covered, at room temperature for 6 hours. Arrange the arugula (rocket) in a serving bowl. Arrange the cheeses on the arugula. Pour the marinade over top and serve.

Illustration 107. The seven planets as rulers of the weekdays, from Guy Marchant’s The Kalendar of Shepherds, 1503.