The Heritage Farm Collection: 'Enrico Rao' arugula

The ‘Heritage Farm Collection’ debuted in the 2012 Seed Savers Exchange catalog and illustrates our efforts to move varieties from Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) seed vault to America’s dinner table.

The histories shared in the print catalog are a condensed summary of the full story. We have often collected a more complete history. We hope you enjoy this blog series in which we publish full portraits of the varieties we are introducing (or re-introducing) in 2016.  

Arugula - 'Enrico Rao'

  • Dark green, oval-shaped leaves

  • Peppery but slightly sweet flavor with succulent texture

  • Quick to bolt in summer - best grown in the fall

SSE listed member Hans Hansen, of Peaceable Kingdom School in Texas, sent SSE this arugula in the mid-1990s. Peaceable Kingdom School received seeds for this variety from Ric (Enrico) Rao in 1992. Ric had been growing and saving seed from his family’s heirloom arugula since finding some seeds in his grandfather’s garden shed in 1983.  The grandfather, Enrico Rao, grew the variety in his gardens, first in Brooklyn, NY, then in Valley Stream (Long Island), NY. Enrico grew this variety from some point soon after World War I until his death in 1983.

Ric shared the story of his grandfather and the arugula with SSE in 2013. Ric writes:

“My Grandfather, Enrico Rao, was born in a small town in Sicily named Ali Superiore [located] about 15 miles south of the city of Messina along the straits of Messina. He came to the US as a young boy, and in 1914, when WWI broke out, he was drafted into the army. He was fighting in Alsace Lorraine where he was wounded and sent to a hospital in Paris to recover. He was granted a leave and since it was a long journey back to the US, he went to visit his family still living in Sicily.

His father asked Enrico to bring back some arugula seeds from their hometown, since they probably couldn't get them in the U.S. at the time. He brought them back and then, after he was married, his father gave him some of the seeds to plant. Enrico planted them every year starting in [Brooklyn], then when they moved to Valley Stream on Long Island, he still grew them until his death in 1983. That's when I retrieved the seeds from his garden shed.”

Put it on the table!

This variety is ideal for fresh eating. The nutty and peppery taste of arugula is strong for a leafy green and provides a nice contrast to lettuce in a salad. Larger and older leaves should be warmed and even lightly wilted for the best flavor. You can sprinkle them on pizzas fresh from the oven or toss them with pasta and roasted tomatoes.

Growing Instructions

You can sow these seeds directly into the soil 1-2 weeks before your last frost date. If you sow a section or row every two or three weeks, you can get a continuous crop. These seeds can be broadcast evenly in sections of the garden to create a bed of tender leaves. Plant your seeds 1/8-1/4 in. deep. This is a "cut-and-come-again" plant so you can harvest leaves as they mature. Keep the leaves well watered and cool. This crop prefers to grow in cool seasons, so gardeners in Zones 8 and warmer should plant this vegetable in the fall. The shade from taller plants can help keep this vegetable cool in sunny gardens and warm climates.

The CORE Project

This project represents the efforts of our Preservation program to document our Collection through the Evaluation and the Collection Origins Research Effort (CORE).

The CORE project began in 2011. It is an effort to record the Collection’s cultural history by gathering, documenting, and sharing stewardship history. Our comprehensive Evaluation program began in 2010. Evaluation staff document Collection grow outs, including morphological traits, photographs, taste evaluation, and purity assessment. These programs converge to give us a rich portrait of individual varieties in our Collection.

When we identify varieties with both a compelling story and outstanding performance traits, they are ‘short listed’ for consideration in the ‘Heritage Farm Collection.’ Most ‘Heritage Farm Collection’ introductions are either family heirlooms or historic commercial varieties that faded from commerce.

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization located in Decorah, Iowa, with a mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.