Foeniculum Vulgare: Try Your Hand at Fennel

Reader Contribution by Heidi Cardenas
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Heidi Cardenas is a freelance writer and gardener in Lake County, Illinois, with a background in human resources and business administration. She has written about home and garden topics for various online venues, helps you get your green on at HC Greenery and enjoys The Herb Companion’s valuable resources.

If you like dill and root vegetables, you will love fennel. Foeniculum vulgare, also called sweet fennel, is a hardy perennial herb similar to dill, a member of the Umbelliferae family, but with a thick, edible bulb. It is native to the Mediterranean coast, and does well in dry, loose soils in coastal areas and riverbanks. Fennel is a tall plant, reaching almost four feet high when mature and in flower. It has fine, feathery foliage similar to dill, with yellow, inverted umbrella-shaped flowers. Fennel is grown for culinary and medicinal uses, and every part of the plant is edible, including leaves, stalks, bulbs, and seeds. It has a light anise flavor and scent, and is attractive to butterflies and moths, especially mouse moth and anise swallowtail.

Fennel doesn’t transplant well and should be sown directly in the garden in the spring when the soil warms up. It prefers light soil in a well-drained location in full sun. For best growing results, prepare the soil for fennel seeds by mixing in coarse sand and organic matter and raking it well to remove all clumps. Plant seeds 15 inches apart, one centimeter deep, in rows in the vegetable garden, or plant them in a mixed bed with flowers, marking the places you plant the seeds with popsicle sticks or twigs so you can keep an eye on seedlings until they are established. Fennel seedlings grow into lacy green plants with a bulbous base that protrudes from the soil. The bulbs should be covered with soil as they get bigger, blanching, or mounding soil over the bulbs to keep them from getting green and tough. If you want to harvest both bulbs and seeds, grow two stands of fennel, taking bulbs from one and letting the other one go to seed. For a permanent perennial stand of fennel, only harvest every other plant.

Fennel adds a light, exotic anise taste to your lunch and dinner dishes. Snip young leaves of fennel plants to use in salads, soups and stews, to garnish special dinner plates, or to steep in boiling water for tea. Cut young fennel stalks to use in salads and soups like celery. Harvest the mature white bulbs for use as a root vegetable, raw or cooked. Slice fennel bulbs to eat raw in salads or to sauté or roast as a side dish. Use fennel seeds to add spice to pork, beef, fish and vegetable dishes.

Fennel seeds have medicinal properties, including increasing breast milk in nursing mothers when eaten raw or roasted, relieving cough when made into syrup, and easing bladder infections when crushed and steeped in boiling water for tea. Fennel seeds eaten raw or crushed or steeped in boiling water for tea aid digestion and reduce gas and bloating, as well as reduce bad breath. Fennel seed tea reduces appetite when taken 15 minutes before eating.

Fennel pollen is called the “spice of the angels” in Tuscany. It’s a rich and savory culinary spice, and like saffron, is very expensive to buy. But you can harvest it in your own garden if you have a good number of plants. The thick yellow pollen is best collected from flowers on dry, windless afternoons by placing a plastic baggie over the flower head and shaking it gently. If you don’t grow pollen but are lucky enough to know of a wild stand away from roadsides, you can harvest pollen from wild ripe flowers. The powdery pollen has a rich, anise aroma and flavor and is used in fish and seafood dishes, gravies, polentas and puddings.

Put in a stand of fennel this year and add a versatile perennial herb and vegetable to your garden.

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