Rocket – Roquette
Rocket has been cultivated continuously from Roman times till 17th century. Virgil wrote that ‘Rocket excites the sexual desire of drowsy people’. John Gerard (1545-1611), botanist and herbalist, considered it to be a good salad herb. His book, ‘Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes’ published in 1597 was the most widely circulated botany book in English in the 17th century. Rocket was considered to be an aphrodisiac, hence it was forbidden to be grown in the monastery gardens. After 1800 it was seldom used in north-western Europe till its recent revival as a popular salad herb. In southern Europe it was continuously used.
It grows from Morocco and Portugal in the west to eastern Europe. There is some controversy about the name. Some botanists consider Eruca sativa to be a subspecies of Eruca vesicaria, others differentiate between the two. The only botanical difference is that Erica sativa looses its sepals, whilst with Erica vesicaria they stay on the plant. For the rest they have the same properties and can be used for the same purpose.
It is a half-hardy annual, 20-100 cm tall, leaves mostly stalked, pinnately lobed with a terminal leaflet, which can be toothed or untoothed. The flowers are creamy-white or white, the petals have violet veins. The sepals are erect and often purple in colour. It is cultivated as a salad crop, found on waste and disturbed ground, in warm positions. The siliqua (seed head) is ascending or erect, beaked, flattened and sword-shaped. It can tolerate severe drought and is therefore grown in the most arid regions of western and northern India.
It is rich in Vitamin C and potassium and essential oils. The leaves and stalk and the seeds (fresh and dried) can be used. It is a tonic herb, mildly stimulant. It contains a substance that relieves stomach spasms. The oil from the seeds are used in India as a massage oil and to soothe the skin.
In southern Italy large amounts of rocket are added to a pasta dish called ‘Cavatieddi’, homemade tomato sauce and pecorino are added as a final touch.
Another way of eating Rocket is to mix it with mozzarella and sun dried tomatoes.
In western Asia and northern India, the seeds are pressed to make taranura (jamba) oil, which is used in pickling. The oil needs to age before using it to reduce the acridity. It is used also in salads and as a cooking oil. The leftovers, after the pressing, are given to cattle to eat.
There are two plants that resemble Wild Rocket in appearance:
Raphanus raphanistrum – Wild Radish – La Ravanelle
A plant that grows in the Mediterranean region. It has a bad reputation, because it spreads rapidly. It has been introduced into Australia where it is considered to be a damaging invasive plant. Very difficult to differentiate between Wild Rocket and Wild Radish, unless you look at the siliqua (seedhead). The siliqua of the Wild Radish is jointed and beaded with a prominent beak. The siliqua of Wild Rocket is beaked but not jointed.
Very variable short to tall, bristly annual. The flowers vary in colour from white – purple, sometimes light orange or yellow. The petals often have violet or purple veins.
Steam or stir fry the leaves for just a few seconds to maintain the flavour. The flowers can be used in salads. The dried seeds can substitute for mustard seeds. To make a Wild Radish mustard, grind the seeds, add some vinegar or if preferred, water.
Bunias erucago – Bunias – Bunias Fausse Roquette
This plant often grows together with Wild Rocket. On closer look it is easy to see the difference. It is a rough, hairy annual with red markings all along the stem. The leaves are pinnately lobed, the flowers are yellow. It has a rather slender look.
Leaves are eaten in salads.
Bibliography: Mediterranean Wild Flowers – Marjorie Blamey/Christopher Grey-Wilson; Herbs and Herbalism – Malcolm Stuart; Wikipedia – Eruca vesicaria; Web – photos