by Peggy Riccio
I grow fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, in my Virginia garden for many reasons. As an accent in the garden, fennel grows easily from seed to a few feet tall. Sometimes, they are erect and sometimes they bend from the weight to weave among the perennials and shrubs. Their tubular stems mingle with the pumpkin vines on the ground or rest on top of the chrysanthemum shrubs, while their green, fern-like foliage peaks through the zinnias.
Throughout the summer, I can harvest the foliage for use in the kitchen. The leaves have an anise flavor and are good for flavoring fish and chicken dishes and root vegetables. Snips of the foliage can be sprinkled on salads, soup, eggs, and tuna salad sandwiches.
In the summer, the fennel blooms with large, starburst-like structures, comprising many small yellow flowers. These attract beneficial insects and pollinators, which are good for the rest of my garden. Sometimes, I clip the flower heads for floral arrangements, but I always let some flowers go to seed.
In the fall, I clip the seed heads and put them in a paper bag. I save some seeds for sowing next year and some for the kitchen. The seeds have medicinal qualities (the foliage does not) and are often served at the end of the meal in restaurants to help with digestion and to freshen the breath. Eating the seeds or making a tea from the seeds can relieve flatulence, bloating, gas, indigestion, cramps, and muscle spasms. Fennel seeds are also called “meeting seeds,” because when the Puritans had long church sermons, they chewed on the seeds to suppress hunger and fatigue.
In the kitchen, seed can be used whole or ground or toasted in a dry frying pan. They can be used as a spice for baking sweets, bread, and crackers, or in sausage or herbal vinegars and in pickling. The seeds have the same anise flavor but are so sweet, they taste like they are sugar-coated. For me, it is like eating small candies, especially tasty after drinking coffee.
I grow fennel for the caterpillar form of the black swallowtail butterflies. The caterpillars love to eat the foliage, and it makes me happy to grow food for them and to support the butterfly population.
Sometimes the fennel comes back the next year, but it really depends on the winter. I have heard that, in warmer climates, it gets out of control, but in my zone 7 garden, it has not been an issue. After a hard freeze, when I am cleaning up the garden, I cut back the old fennel stalks revealing new foliage at the base. In December, the new foliage is just as lush and green, providing me with more fennel for my recipes, as well as a nice garnish for holiday meals.
Fennel is easy to grow from seed and should be sowed directly in the garden. The plants have a tap root and do not like to be transplanted. The plants prefer full sun but can tolerate some shade, and they need well-drained soil. Treat them like summer annuals and sow seeds every year.
I should point out that there are two types of fennel: Foeniculum vulgare, which is the leafy one I grow, and Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce, which is the bulbing type. I have grown the bulbing type before but not for the accents it provides in the garden bed. The bulbing type is a shorter plant with a bulbous base, so it is harvested for the bulb before it flowers and sets seed. The bulb is often sliced fresh for salads or cooked with fish and vegetables. One could consider the bronze fennel a third type; it grows like the leafy fennel, only it is a dark bronze color, not bright green. Bronze fennel also can be used in the kitchen.
In the kitchen, use the foliage for:
- green salads
- fruit salad (nectarine/apricot)
- egg dishes
- soups and chowders
- chicken salad or tuna salad
- dips and cream sauces
- yeast breads
- fish (put a fish filet on bed of leaves and broil, or mix leaves with butter and drizzle over the fish)
- vegetables such as root vegetables, peas, and potatoes
- combine with parsley, chervil, and thyme, or make a fennel, parsley, thyme, and lemon juice rub for white fish
Seeds can be used for:
- fish soup/stock
- cucumber salads
- soft cheeses
- sausage mixtures and pork dishes
- pickling vegetables
- marinades for meat
- bean, couscous, lentil, or bulgur wheat dishes
- potato salad
- dry rubs or spice blends/powders
Photo Credits: 1) Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) flowers; 2) Fennel as filler in the garden; 3) Dried fennel seeds on plant; 4) New fennel fronds in the December garden. (All photos courtesy of the author.)
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Peggy Riccio is the owner of pegplant.com, an online resource for gardening in the Washington, DC, metro area; president of the Potomac Unit, Herb Society of America; regional director of GardenComm, a professional association of garden communicators; and is the blog administrator for the National Garden Clubs, Inc.