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Rocket Mixes Up Greens

Would you like to try spicing up your salads with a new flavor? If so, rocket may be for you. A member of the Cruciferae or mustard family, Lepidium sativum is known by many common names: cress, garden cress, pepper grass or pepper cress. In Spanish, it’s called arúgula.

This ancient plant comes from Asia Minor, and was mentioned as early as 400 B.C. by the Greek historian Xenophon in reference to how the Persians used it as a staple in their diet. European settlers brought it to the Western Hemisphere, where it adapted well and continues to be grown as a garden green.

In Costa Rica, rocket is most often grown in home gardens and can be difficult to find in markets. However, I was surprised to find arúgula seeds offered in many of San José’s leading seed stores.

Rocket is a hardy, annual plant that grows well in the country’s mid-range and highland regions during the rainy season. In warmer regions, it tends to “bolt” or go to seed rapidly, much like spinach. It grows well in soils with average fertility and often flowers and produces seeds you can use for replanting.

I like to start my seeds in flats in the greenhouse with prepared potting soil to protect them from insect attacks during early stages of growth. When the plants are 5 to 6 centimeters tall, I transplant them to recycled plastic cups with three holes punched in the bottoms and filled with compost soil.

About two weeks later, the young rocket plants are ready to transplant to the garden. Plant them about 30 to 40 cm apart, intermixed with other plants. When the plants are well established, it’s easy to pinch a few of the lower leaves from each plant for salads, which extends the harvest for several months. You’ll find this method of picking garden greens is very practical compared to harvesting the entire plant at one time.

Rocket leaves have a flavor much like mild horseradish. Most folks prefer to add only a few leaves to a salad so the flavor isn’t overpowering. Another way to use the leaves is blended in salad dressings with olive oil, lemon and other spices. In some countries, the leaves are steamed or cooked as a side dish, which neutralizes their pungent taste. As is the case with many greens, you’ll find some people won’t enjoy the taste, while others will relish it. ¡Así es la vida!


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