The sweet anise fragrance of fennel takes me back to hiking along the California shore with my young family. Often, wands of wild fennel would lie across our path and we’d brush them as we passed; soon our hands and clothes would give off its soothing perfume. Nowadays, whenever I cook with fennel, a small part of me is off hiking at the seashore.
When I started gathering my thoughts on fennel, I had not expected to find that it had subtly woven its way into my life. Cilantro, yes, basil, certainly, but not fennel: fennel is not an “in your face” kind of herb. But I’ve found that it has sweetly insinuated itself into my garden, kitchen, landscape designs, and occasional flower arrangements. Fennel even provides food for a constant parade of emerging anise swallowtail butterflies.
Three forms of fennel, all semihardy, are of interest to gardeners. Foeniculum vulgare is called herb fennel or wild fennel; bronze or smoky fennel (F. v. ‘Rubrum’) is a cultivar. The variety F. v. var. azoricum is known variously as Florence fennel, finocchio, sweet anise, or vegetable fennel. The fennels are members of the noble Umbelliferae, a family that includes other treasured herbs such as dill, anise, chervil, angelica, coriander, and parsley along with such familiar vegetables as carrots, celery, and parsnips.
The herb fennels grow from 4 to 6 feet tall and have hollow stems and feathery foliage like that of dill. F. vulgare has blue-green leaves whereas those of bronze fennel are coppery brown. Their small yellow flowers are borne in 6-inch umbels in midsummer. In fall, the seed heads contain dozens of light tan ovoid, ribbed seeds. The leaves and seeds are the primary parts used for seasoning; occasionally, the stalks and roots are also used.
Florence fennel grows to 2 feet tall and has blue-green fernlike foliage and clasping, succulent leaf bases that swell to form a bulb. It can be used like celery, and the leaves may be harvested for seasoning as well. If allowed to bolt (go to seed), Florence fennel will grow to about 3 feet tall and produce flowers similar to those of herb fennel.
Fennel has been used as a digestive aid and antiflatulent for centuries, and that is still its most common medicinal use. Socrates prescribed it, Charlemagne declared that the herb should be grown in his imperial gardens, and King Edward I of England and his household were said to consume eight pounds of fennel seed a month.
References to fennel are found in the early records of Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome. It is native to the Mediterranean, where it has been used for food and medicine for thousands of years.
According to some authorities, the ancient Greeks called fennel marathron, from marainein, “to grow thin”, reflecting its use in suppressing appetite. Others suggest fennel was named marathon, after a village about 25 miles from Athens where fennel grew wild. In 490 b.c., Athenians defeated the Persians at this site. Before the battle, Pheidippides, carrying a stalk of fennel, ran 120 miles in two days to recruit soldiers from Sparta; another long-distance runner took news of the victory to Athens and fell dead on arrival. Modern marathon races derive from this bit of history.
Fennel has been used as a digestive aid and antiflatulent for centuries, and that is still its most common medicinal use. Socrates prescribed it, Charlemagne declared that the herb should be grown in his imperial gardens, and King Edward I of England and his household were said to consume eight pounds of fennel seed a month. In Europe and India today, fennel seeds are offered at the beginning or end of meals. My favorite Indian restaurant in the area always has a bowl of fennel seeds available to diners as they leave. The seeds may also be lightly crushed and steeped for a pleasant after-dinner tea.
Fennel has had numerous other practical and medicinal uses. Anglo-Saxons hung fennel plants over their doors to ward off witches. Pliny recommended that Romans use it to improve their eyesight, and Culpeper reported that fennel helped break up kidney stones. Fennel seeds have been used as expectorants, breath fresheners, to control asthma, and to increase milk flow in nursing mothers. Compresses of crushed seeds have been used to remedy conjunctivitis and the dried roots, as a diuretic. A recent study suggests fennel’s potential to reduce the toxic effects of alcohol.
Fennel is considered safe to consume in moderate amounts, but pregnant women should avoid large doses.
In The Garden
The herb fennels are easy perennials that may be grown as annuals in colder climates. They can withstand winter temperatures to about 0°F, or USDA Zone 7, and grow best in full sun in well-drained soils of pH 6-8. In average soils, they need little fertilizer and are quite drought tolerant.
Start fennel by sowing seeds in the garden in spring as soon as the soil has warmed up. Because they are very large, one or two fennel plants will provide more than enough seasonings for most families. Fennel germinates easily and is thus a good choice for children’s gardens. Plant the seeds 1/2 inch deep, and when they germinate, in about two weeks, thin them to a few feet apart. Fennel grows best when seeded in place, but you can also purchase seedlings of green and occasionally bronze fennel from local or mail-order nurseries; young plants transplant fairly well. I don’t recommend starting them indoors yourself because direct-seeded fennel will eventually outpace the transplants.
Here in California, fennel generally blooms the first summer but sometimes not until the second. Seeds will have developed by early fall. When the seed heads begin to turn straw-colored, cover them with a paper bag tied around the stem until they ripen to a dark brown in two to three weeks. This keeps birds from eating the seeds and the seeds from falling to the ground. Fennel self-seeds readily, and so bagging will also prevent unwanted volunteers.
The herb fennels are handsome plants, tall and stately with delicate fronds and dramatic yellow flower heads. As a landscape designer, I use the height of the herb fennels for a vertical element at the back of herb gardens. Here they combine well with other tall drought-tolerant plants such as clary sage and the rosemaries Tuscan Blue and Miss Jessop. For the middle of the bed, I might choose English lavender, tall yellow yarrow, garlic chives, rue, and sweet marjoram, and add a little more color with yellow-flowered coreopsis and gloriosa daisies. In front, golden sage, creeping golden oregano, and winter savory would give a lovely finish to this golden bed.
Herb fennels planted in a flower border must have impeccable drainage so that they won’t rot when grown next to plants that need more watering. I have used green fennel for both color and textural contrast behind large yellow, orange, and red flowers such as cut-and-come-again zinnias and tall dahlias. Finer of foliage and flower, the small sulfur cosmos and calliopsis make a lovely combination interwoven among the fennel foliage. Bronze fennel is striking planted behind white shasta daisies, white chrysanthemums, cosmos, or zinnias; the dark, delicate foliage framing the large white flowers is extraordinary.
Florence fennel is grown much like cauliflower. It grows best and forms bulbs of maximum size only in cool weather. In cold climates, start it as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring or plant it in midsummer for a fall harvest. Along the lower Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, where winter temperatures seldom dip below 30°F, grow it as either a fall, winter, or spring crop. Wendy Krupnick, who manages the trial gardens for Shepherd’s Garden Seeds and advises growers around the country, reports that fall plantings of Florence fennel are the most successful in most climates. For those who have had trouble growing fennel bulbs to full size, Wendy recommends growing it to baby size instead. By harvesting bulbs when they are only 1 or 2 inches across instead of 4 or 5 inches, you’ll be using them before hot or cold weather has stressed the plants. The bulbs are more tender when they are tiny, but some cooks prefer the fuller flavor of the mature bulb.
Florence fennel thrives in rich, organic, fast-draining soil in full sun. A wine barrel or other large container works well. Choose seeds of slow-bolting Zefa Fino (also called Fino), the most reliable under a wide range of conditions, or Romy, an early Italian heirloom that many chefs favor. Prepare the soil by turning in 3 to 4 inches of compost and aged manure and a little blood meal or fish meal (about 3 cups for a 6-foot row, which will supply fennel for an average family of four), and rake the bed smooth. Plant the seeds 1/2 inch deep a few inches apart and keep them well watered. When they germinate, in ten days or so, thin to 6 to 8 inches apart for full-size bulbs or 3 to 4 inches for baby fennel. Keep the bed evenly moist because the plants will bolt if they dry out, especially in warm weather. When the plants are about six weeks old, fertilize with fish emulsion according to package directions.
Fennel has few pests or diseases. The so-called parsley worm or celery worm, the caterpillar of anise or black swallowtail butterflies, is often mentioned as a pest, but I don’t consider it such. The larvae never seem to eat enough to harm the plants, and I appreciate having the butterflies around.
Harvest the bulbs 65 to 95 days after planting, depending on the variety, weather, and the size of bulb you want. Cut large bulbs off at ground level with a knife. If the weather is favorable, they may resprout and produce small usable side shoots. Harvest baby fennels by pulling them as you would carrots.
Fennel is the International Herb Association’s choice as the 1995 plant of the year. It will be featured during National Herb Week, May 8-14.
In The Kitchen
I cooked for many years before I discovered fennel. How had I missed such an exciting herb? How did I ever cook without it? I had a lot of company; many professional chefs as well have begun using fennel only in the past decade.
The culinary delights of fennel have long been known. In ancient Rome, the seeds were used often as a seasoning, and grilled Florence fennel was a popular dish. In a nineteenth-century cookbook, celebrated Italian chef Vincenzo Corrado included eleven fennel recipes ranging from seafood to desserts. Today, fennel is still highly esteemed in Italy, where in many households Florence fennel is served frequently in the fall as part of antipasto, eaten raw like a stalk of celery, or thinly sliced and sprinkled with lemon juice, olive oil, and grated cheese.
Herb fennel is used as a seasoning in many cultures. Tender young shoots are chopped, then incorporated into the dish or sprinkled over it just at the end of cooking, or they are added to marinades and dressings; sprigs are used as garnishes. To add a delicate flavor, put dried fennel stalks on the coals when you’re grilling; fresh stalks can share a grill rack with fish or poultry. Fennel seeds contain anethole, which accounts for the anise-licorice flavor and which is present in many other herbs, including anise, basil, and anise hyssop. I find that fennel has a more complex, earthy, nutty flavor that adds richness to a dish; I choose anise when I want a simpler, sweeter taste. Because the fennel seeds are quite large, I usually break them into pieces or grind them before using. In India, they are toasted lightly over low heat in a dry pan until golden brown and very aromatic and then ground.
Florence fennel is more versatile in the kitchen. When served raw, the bulb has a delightful crunch and a mellow licorice flavor. Cooked, it adds richness and a mild sweetness to a dish. It’s also valuable for its nutrients, being almost as rich in vitamin A and potassium as carrots. Florence fennel is often grilled or braised whole, or diced to be used raw in salads.
In large supermarkets, mature fennel bulbs are usually available from late fall to early spring. Occasionally, specialty markets carry the baby bulbs. In selecting Florence fennel, look for fresh foliage, bulbs without bruises, and stems that have not spread widely, which would indicate woodiness.
To prepare Florence fennel, wash it, cut off the bottom, and remove the stems and leaves. Discard the outside pieces if they are bruised or tough. Fennel darkens fairly quickly on contact with air, so cook it immediately, dress it with a vinaigrette, or sprinkle it with a little lemon juice to preserve the delicate green color.
Fennel has always had a romance with seafood; its flavor enhances shellfish, fish stocks, sauces, chowders, and grilled fillets. Other savory companions are poultry, pork, cheese, mushrooms, citrus, olives, and sausage. The most common vegetable accompaniments are tomatoes, onions, cabbage, potatoes, and salad greens.
Few of us have had the privilege of growing up with fennel, but today it is part of a growing repertoire of fresh herbs and vegetables on the dinner table. Here are five of my favorite ways to serve it.
The Cook’s Garden, PO Box 535, Londonderry, VT 05148. Catalog $1.
Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Hwy., Albany, OR 97321. Catalog free.
Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, CT 06790. Catalog $1.
Rosalind Creasy is a landscape designer in Los Altos, California, and the author of Edible Landscaping, published by Sierra Club Books. She is coauthor, with another Herb Companion contributor, Carole Saville, of Herbs: A Country Garden Cookbook, to be published this spring by HarperCollins.