Place: The Mediterranean

Uses: Salads, stir fries, soups, sandwiches, pesto and sauces

Fun Fact: Arugula is also often called rocket; both names derive from the original Latin name of the plant, “eruca.” As he was developing his botanical taxonomy, Carl Linneaus followed, naming arugula Eruca sativa.

Arugula: Origin and History

In the world of plants, few have such a long and noble history as arugula.

Eruca, as the Romans called it, was first recorded unequivocally by Pliny the Elder in Historia Naturalis, compiled in the First Century A.D. But it's known he worked from many older works that are no longer in existence — and arugula was clearly known long before that. The plant is mentioned in the Old Testament, in the Second Book of Kings, sixth century B.C. where it is referred to as "orot" (“herbs”) or "oroth."

Centuries later, the Talmud, Tractate Yoma 18b, records that this Old Testament herb is arugula, called jarjir (or jarjeer) in Arabic. It was also taught that the plants were called “orot” because “they enlighten (me’irot) the eyes,” and recommended that anyone who finds arugula — especially at the borders of fields — should eat it.

Bowl of arugula pesto

Arugula Pesto

In Italy, where the plant never went out of fashion, regional dialects changed things a bit. In southern Italy it's called "aruculu" or "rucola." This became its most commonly used name in the United States, because most Italian immigrants to the states came from southern Italy. But in the north, it's known as "ruchetta."

This word, along with the crop itself, worked its way over the Alps, becoming "roquette" in French. The English embraced the plant, too, translating the French “roquette” to “rocket.” Rocket also has a wild, perennial relative, appropriately named Wild Rocket. It's a completely different genus and species, (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) but it's still a Brassica relative and has similar flavor to that of arugula, albeit even more piquant. Other common names for this crop include colewort and hedge mustard.

The Talmud recommends the plant for use as one of the "bitter herbs" (maror) of Jewish tradition. However, it is not to be eaten by high priests in the seven days leading up to Yom Kippur, on account of the belief that the plant would "foster impurity."

Arugula's reputation as an aphrodisiac wasn't limited to Western Asia. The Roman poet Virgil wrote " Venerem revocans eruca morantem..." which translated loosely means “The eruca revives drowsy Venus.” Nor is the belief entirely unfounded. According to a study published in 2013 in the journal of Al-Nahrain University, arugula leaf extracts boosted testosterone levels and sperm activity in mice.

Arugula salad with pomegranate

Arugula Salad with a Pomegranate

The results suggest that the phytochemicals and/or nutrients in arugula may well have aphrodisiac properties. Its cultivation was certainly prohibited in many Medieval monasteries. Love potions included arugula and many other herbs such as lavender. Yet arugula was also reputed by the Romans to have anesthetic properties.

Benefits of Arugula

Arugula is certainly loaded with nutritional value. It's high in B vitamins, especially folate, and also contains impressive amounts of vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin K, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and iron. It's high in phytonutrients like isothiocyanates and carotenoids, yet it's lower in oxalic acid than spinach, purslane or mustard greens.

Regardless of the name by which you call it, this peppery plant with a past really packs a punch. Its flavor is variously described as mustard-like, peppery, tart, bright, or bitter. While none of these descriptions really do it justice, most of us have tasted its complex flavor, if nowhere else than in salad mixes, where arugula has been making itself right at home since the first wave of foodie culture hit in the 1980s.

How to Cook Arugula?

Arugula earns its keep in so many dishes besides salads! It pairs well with meats and seafood. Toss fresh arugula, lemon zest, thyme, red pepper flakes and lemon juice with cooked chickpeas for a versatile side dish. Whip it into gazpacho or your favorite harissa recipe; blitz it into a pesto as the ancient Romans once did.

Arugula salad with peaches, walnuts, and figs

Arugula Salad with Figs, Peaches, and Walnuts

Arugula can even be included in soups or stews, or added to stir fry, whether Asian or Mediterranean inspired. Try it wilted into pasta dishes. And of course, incorporate arugula into salads, from a standard green one to one made with apple and raw parsnips.

How to Grow Arugula?

Arugula is a breeze to grow. It starts early and goes late into autumn's cool weather. Like so many of its Brassica relatives, arugula prefers rather cool growing conditions and is pretty frost hardy, so don't be afraid to sow it quite early outdoors. In places with relatively mild winters, it can even be winter sown for sprouts the following spring; in some climates it can be grown right through the winter.

In perfect conditions the plants can reach two feet in height and from a distance resemble many other Brassica relatives. As conditions warm into summer weather, arugula begins to switch over to flowering and seed production, throwing four-petaled blooms like all of its cruciferous relatives; these are white and are perfectly edible. Arugula completes its life cycle very quickly. For a sustained harvest, succession plant a small row or bed every 2 to 3 weeks. If you're lucky, it may even self sow for you!

Would you like to discover other healthy herbs for your garden? Then explore our shop for a wide selection of seeds and start cultivating your botanical dreams today!