Favourite Herbs: Fennel

Fennel

Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce (common fennel)

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Foeniculum vulgare var.azoricum (Florence fennel)

Tender perennial

Height 1.5 to 2 m; spread 30 to 45 cm.

An attractive plant with erect, hollow stems topped by umbels of tiny yellow flowers and bearing feathery, light-green, anise-scented leaves.

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Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce (common fennel): Produces oval-shaped, greenish brown seeds

Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce 'purpureum' (bronze fennel): Produces showy purple foliage

Foeniculum vulgare var.azoricum (Florence fennel)

Note: There is often confusion between the two fennels. Common fennel is a perennial herb grown for its feathery foliage and yellow flowers. Florence Fennel is an unusual vegetable grown for its swollen stem base, although the feathery foliage can be used as a substitute for Common Fennel. Common fennel is easy to grow, but Florence fennel provides more of a challenge because it requires a long warm summer to develop its bulb and any stress or check in growth can cause it to go to seed without producing a fleshy bulb

Planting

Seed common fennel directly into the garden or, to get a jump on the season, set out young plants purchased from a garden centre. Florence fennel must be grown from young plants

How much: At least two plants.

When: After all danger of frost has passed.

Where: Full sun; common fennel will tolerate a bit of shade. Sheltered. Both prefer rich, well-drained sandy soil. Space plants 15 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Common fennel is easy to grow! It needs little care other than watering when dry. It may fall prey to white fly and aphids.

Florence fennel should be watered when dry; when the basal bulb is about the size of a golf ball, mound the soil around the base. Continue to do this on a regular basis until the bulb is the size of a tennis ball (generally through to the end of August).

Harvesting

All parts of the fennel plant can be harvested for culinary use.

For best flavour: Use leaves before flowers are fully open.

Leaves: Harvest as needed throughout the growing season. Clip sprigs where they attach to the main growing stem or cut the whole plant a few centimetres above the ground. Discard thick, tough stems.

Flowers: Pick complete flower heads when they turn yellow, but before they get old. Cut the stalks of the flower heads where they attach to the growing stem.

Seeds: Harvest seeds when flower heads turn brown; ripe seeds will fall off easily when touched. Fennel seeds can be collected like dill seeds (see tip, page XXX).

Bulb: (Florence fennel only) Harvest in late summer or early fall by cutting base at soil level with a sharp knife.

Preserving the Harvest

Fennel is best used fresh, although it can be frozen in the same manner as dill. The flowers are best used fresh. To collect fennel seeds, cut the stems and tie a paper bag over the flower heads; hang upside down in bunches. The seeds will drop directly into the bag.

To Note:

  • Fennel is rich in Vitamin A.
  • Fennel oil is used as a flavouring in toothpaste, soap, perfumery, and air fresheners.
  • Fennel root was one of the flavourings in sack, a drink based on mead, popular at the time of Shakespeare.
  • I have seen fennel very attractively used in green cut-flower arrangements.
  • Fennel soup is reputed in some Mediterranean regions to stimulate desire! At the other end of the spectrum, fennel is used to make gripe-water for babies.
  • According to Greek myth, Prometheus brought down the fire from heaven by hiding it in a stalk of fennel. Fennel burns quite slowly, and was often used by ancient peoples to transport fire.
  • The Greek word "Marathon" means "fennel." The famous battle of Marathon (490 BCE) was fought on a field of fennel.
  • Fennel is thought to be good for the eyes—it's one of the oldest medical superstitions. Pliny, the Roman author and scientist, claimed that eagles became blind after molting their plumage and ate fennel seeds in order to see again!