by Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
(Excerpted in part from the book, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs)
Among the myriad of wonderful herbs that one could grow, no honest-to-goodness herb garden is complete without at least one tall, stately fennel plant. In fact, fennel is not only edible, medicinal and downright gorgeous, but it also attracts hordes of beneficial insects to the garden. Despite its obvious charms fennel is one of those herbs that even long-time gardeners seem to overlook. Indeed, I am always surprised by gardeners who mistake my fennel for dill. Perhaps it is the fern-like leaves or the umbels of bright yellow flowers – after all, the two are closely related and have a very similar shape and form. But once you have grown fennel in your own garden and tasted its luscious fruits and stems, you will never mistake fennel for anything else.
There are basically two forms of fennel: those that are grown for seed and those that are grown for their ‘bulbs’, however, all are hardy perennials belonging to the Apiaceae (formerly Umbeliferae), or Parsley Family of plants.
Florence Fennel – sometimes referred to as Finnochio – (F. vulgare var. azoricum) is grown almost exclusively for its swollen celery-like lower stems, which are sweet and crispy with a mild licorice flavor. These fennels are also perennials, but because they are harvested for their lower stems, most are grown as annuals. Florence fennel will also produce flavorful seed if the plant is allowed to flower.
Common Sweet Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is probably the most widely grown seed-producing fennel, but if you can find it, Berfena Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare dulce ‘Berfina’) is thought by many to have a stronger flavor and aroma. Both produce relatively large seeds.
But my favorite fennel is by far and away the lovely Bronze Fennel (F. vulgare var. dulce ‘Rubrum’). While its seeds are quite small and relatively mild in comparison to the other varieties, I actually prefer them for cooking because they are unobtrusive when added to foods. But mostly, I love bronze fennel for its gorgeous purple and green mottled stems and leaves and the sheer profusion of its flowers, which make this herb pretty enough for the flower garden.
Fennel begins the growing season as a basal rosette of soft, plume-like leaves that quickly grow into thick, hollow, upright stems that can reach 5 ft. (1.5 m) or more. The ends of the alternate-growing leaf stalks clasp the main stem in a papery sheath.
Fennel bears umbel-shaped clusters of tiny, yellow flowers in late summer. In most varieties seeds are large, greenish-brown, and lightly ribbed. The seed heads often become heavy enough to bend the plant to the ground. The entire plant has a distinctive licorice smell and taste. Florence fennel (F. vulgare var. azoricum) is similar in appearance but its basal stems are thick, fleshy, and bulbous.
Fennel is a hardy perennial in most areas, but can sometimes be killed back by severe cold. Fennel does not transplant well. Sow seed directly in the garden in late fall or mid-winter. In the spring, thin young seedlings to stand 6 in. (15 cm) apart with a final spacing of 14 to 16 in. (36–41) between plants.
Fennel will readily self-sow. To keep this herb in check, remove the ripe seed heads before they shatter. To overwinter fennel, cut back all the dead stems to the ground and cover the plants with a thick layer of mulch once the ground has frozen.
Many herbs and vegetables such as bush beans, pole beans, peppers, and tomatoes will grow poorly if planted too close to fennel. For several years, I have used a line of sweet fennel as a barrier to keep my mint from overrunning the rest of my herb garden—the mint grows happily but stays respectfully on its side of the fennel.
The sweet anise-like flavor of fennel is especially good with fish, pork, seafood, and poultry, and it makes an excellent addition to soup and roasted vegetables. Tender young stalks are used like celery; slice into salads or add to simmering dishes. For a deeper, more savory flavor, dry roast seeds prior to adding them to sauces or other rich dishes. Tomato-based dishes—especially pizza—benefit from a touch of fennel seed.
Add fennel seeds to sweet fruit salads, especially those containing peaches and apples. Try fennel in desserts such as cobbler, pie, muffins, cake, and sweet or yeast breads. Fennel seed is used commercially as a licorice flavoring in many products and makes a wonderfully refreshing addition to black iced tea. Use fennel seed to sweeten bitter herbal teas or to flavor liqueurs. The thick, sweet bulb of Florence fennel can be chopped or sliced and added raw to fresh green and fruit salads, added to soups and broths, sautéed with other vegetables, or roasted whole with meats. Try sectioning the bulb and filling the hollows with herbed cream cheese; serve as a refreshing side dish or appetizer. For an especially tasty variety of sweet fennel, try growing ‘Berfena Sweet’.
The ancient Romans believed that fennel seed reduced the appetite and controlled obesity. Today, it well-known for being a mild and reliable medicinal and has long been approved by the German Commission E. It is a strong anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic, widely used for cramps, spasms, and menstrual pain. The mild estrogen-like action is used to regulate menstruation and aid in menopausal symptoms.
Fennel tea is probably most often used to treat symptoms of cold and flu such as cough, congestion, sore throat, fever, and muscle pain. It is known to strengthen and tone the digestive system, making it a beneficial herb in treating dyspepsia, indigestion, flatulence, heartburn, colic, and lower abdominal pain.
To learn more about how to use fennel medicinally, including the various medicinal actions and contraindications, please refer to my book, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs.
Fennel is a tall, graceful herb that should be planted and used much more often than it is. In the garden, it adds height, texture, and drama making it the perfect focal point. If you love butterflies, plant a few extra fennel plants (along with other members of the Apiaceae Family) specifically for the black swallowtail larvae to feed on undisturbed – they’ll come back as gorgeous Flying Flowers in your garden!
Caution: Avoid medicinal use of fennel if you have liver disease, hepatitis, estrogen-dependent cancer, or are pregnant, lactating, or taking ciprofloxacin. No one should use the pure essential oil without supervision of a professional. Those who have allergies to carrots, celery or other umbel plants should avoid contact with fennel. Less than 1 tsp. (5 ml) of this oil can cause contact dermatitis, vomiting, seizure, hallucinations, and pulmonary edema.
© 2013 Jill Henderson
Be prepared for the changing times with The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs. Packed full of useful information on growing, harvesting and utilizing 35 of the world’s safest and most medicinal and culinary herbs! Each herb has its own detailed dossier describing everything you will ever need to know, including using herbs wisely, starting and propagating herbs, growing herbs both indoors and out, how to deal with pests and diseases, harvesting and storing herbs and how to use them for both culinary and medicinal purposes. This is one book no herb-lover – or survivalist – should miss!
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.