Fennel and Frogspit

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illustration by Michael Eagleton

“Frog spit! I’m telling you, it’s frog spit!” the older boy insisted to his incredulous younger brother.

Along with their mother, the two boys, aged ten and twelve, had arrived at the garden just at closing time. Their mother had gone directly into the shop, and I had followed her. Suddenly, in midstride, holding up a bar of soap, she had turned to me and said, “Uh-oh, those boys are quiet.”

So that she might shop in peace, I offered to step outside and check on the boys. The two were standing beside the long bed of bronze fennel.

Before fennel plants shoot up flower spikes, they look like a bronze and green hazy mist, so soft that from a distance, the raised bed looks like a low, dark cloud or a puff of smoke. Sometimes, the fennel bed reminds me of a big, comical, furry animal with its legs and head hidden.

Before I had walked the length of the garden, the boys were busy petting the fennel, running their hands back and forth over the foliage and giggling at the sensation. When they saw me approaching, they dropped their hands to their sides, looking guilty.

“We weren’t hurting the plants. It just tickles our hands,” the older one volunteered, his eyes lowered as if he were about to be punished. Before I could answer, the younger child blurted out, “Tommy says that’s frog spit.”

I laughed at his excitement and said that they were welcome to touch the fennel all they wanted. I told them that we too had called the froth on the plants frog spit when I was a boy, and I explained that the nymphs, or young, of an insect called the spittlebug secrete the blobs of foam for protection while they are sucking the juices from the stems and leaves. Spittlebugs also like to feed on other aromatic plants such as lavender, rosemary, oregano, and southernwood.

“What’s it good for?” the younger one asked, indicating the fennel plant.

I answered that fennel is a seasoning herb. Guessing that they liked to fish, I told them what I like to do with it. “I chop up the leaves, add some bread cubes, onion, celery, and chicken broth and then stuff that into trout.”

I then explained how the black swallowtail butterfly relies on fennel, how she lays her eggs on the plants and how, from each egg, a green-and-black-striped caterpillar hatches, grows, pupates, and is transformed into a butterfly, all the while living and feeding on the fennel plant. I told them about the flies and midges that sip the nectar of the fennel, pollinating the flowers so that they may set seed.

I picked a fennel leaf for each one to taste. Both chomped away on the leaf as though they were doing something they weren’t supposed to, but their eyes lit up as they chewed, and they grinned. The older one said, “This is good!

I asked if they would like to do some more tasting.

“Sure,” they said, so we toured the garden and tasted basil, not just one basil, but a leaf from every one of the eight varieties I grow. “How about bubble gum flavored with this?” Tommy asked, pointing to the purple basil. Neither boy was impressed by lemon basil, one of my own favorites.

They giggled as the jewelweed seedpods burst in their hands, throwing the tiny seeds in all directions. “Wow, how do they do that?” one asked. Neither boy liked rosemary or lemon balm, but both devoured a mouthful of pink rose petals as if they were forbidden candy. They tasted begonia flowers and then the Aztec sweet herb (Phyla scaberrima), making faces and spitting out the leaf when the sweetness took over. Neither cared for any of the mints, which surprised me a little.

I left them to wander through the garden on their own and returned to the shop. Through the window, I watched as they stopped to pinch sage leaves to release the fragrance, as I had shown them.”I had no idea they were so interested in gardening,” their mother remarked. “Can we come back again and maybe I can have a tour, too?”

I like to think that she will nurture the boys’ obvious enthusiasm for plants. I hope that they in turn will pester their mother to take them to gardens and that she will give them the opportunities to grow things, to see butterflies and fennel, to experience spittlebugs and frog spit.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.

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