by Laura McKissack
Illustration by Hillary Weber-Gale
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a beautiful and versatile herb, favored for centuries for its medicinal properties as well as its many culinary uses. It’s part of the Umbelliferae, or Apiaceae, family that includes carrots, parsley, coriander and other aromatic, hollow-stemmed plants.
Fennel is hardy and grows easily, and though it’s indigenous to the Mediterranean region, this perennial plant can now be found growing wild and in gardens all across the US.
Culinary and Medicinal Uses
Florence fennel, a cultivar, is a deeply hued, feathery herb. The bulb is crunchy when raw, with a peppery anise- or licorice-like taste. It’s delicious sliced into a spinach or grain salad tossed with a vinaigrette, or sautéed as an aromatic. It can also be cooked in soups, baked, roasted or grilled. There are many inviting Italian and French recipes that utilize fennel bulbs and foliage—most often paired with fish, eggs and pork. The seeds are used to spice dishes in many countries and are popular in Indian and Pakistani cuisine where they’re often eaten after a meal as a digestive aid and breath freshener.
Fennel seeds, roots and fronds can all be used in tea blends, but the seeds are especially helpful in medicinal teas as they assuage the bitterness of other ingredients, in addition to settling the stomach. When using the seeds in tea, slightly crush them with the back of a spoon to release the volatile oils, and cover the tea while steeping to keep the oils from evaporating. The bulb and fronds can simply be chopped and added to the water along with the bruised seeds. Fresh, green fennel seeds are delicious in a salad, and fennel flowers and fronds are very attractive and add a tasty, anise-flavored addition to salads, soups and sauces. The pollen can be harvested (and is quite expensive if purchased commercially) for use in many dishes, including homemade pastas, sauces, soups and pastries. To harvest the pollen, shake a fully bloomed umbrel (the umbrella-shaped seed head) into the palm of your hand. Each umbrel will produce roughly one-quarter teaspoon of pollen. As an alternative, several stalks can be tied together, placed upside down into a bag and left to dry for a few weeks. The pollen will fall into the bag as the flowers dry.
Fennel contains anethole, which has carminative (antiflatulence) properties. Fennel water (usually made by soaking fennel seeds in water), along with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and simple syrup, makes an old-time colic remedy, commonly referred to as “gripe water,” for babies, but it’s also good for adult stomach complaints. Additionally, consuming the herb is generally considered to improve eyesight, and tea from the seeds can even be made into eyewash. And the volatile oil from fennel seeds has antimicrobial, antioxidant and antifungal properties. Taken internally, all parts of the fennel plant are useful in treating acne and other skin inflammations.
How to Grow
Fennel grows very much like dill—it’s a cool-weather herb that needs full sun, but it’s drought-tolerant and can grow in most soils, as long as there’s good drainage. Plant seeds one-eighth- to one-quarter-inch deep and about 16 inches apart. Give the plant more room if you want to grow it as a perennial—it can fill a significant space in the garden or landscape, growing up to six-feet tall and three- to four-feet wide. It grows easily from seeds, which can be sown directly into the soil around mid-October. Starts can go in around the same time, and are best if you want to harvest the bulb. Start the seeds as early as September, but wait until the weather is consistently below the 60s for planting starts. If planted too early in the season, the plant may “bolt,” or prematurely send up a flowering stem, which can negatively affect the taste and ruin the chances of harvesting the bulb. Both bulb and seeds can be harvested, but not from the same plant—as the bulbs need to be harvested before the entire plant goes to seed. Be sure to keep the soil evenly moist throughout the germination process and while the plant is still small, and protect the new plant from high wind and hot sun with a shade cloth. A fully mature bulb can take up to 70 days to produce, and will be more uniform and tasty if the growing conditions remain consistent. Once temperatures are colder, protect the plants from freezes with frost cloth. Harvest the bulb once it’s roughly the size of a small tennis ball.
Fennel is insect-pollinated. If saving seeds, separate varietals by a half-mile or cover and hand-pollinate. In other words, if growing dill or other members of the Umbelliferae family at the same time, plants will need to be separated by a half-mile, or, because the plants will cross-pollinate, one of them will need to be covered or not allowed to seed. When umbrels are dry, harvest the seeds by rubbing the umbrels between your hands over a bag, then collect and save the seeds in a cool, dry place.
Besides fennel’s medicinal and culinary value, it’s also a magnificent butterfly plant—attracting both black and anise swallowtails. Consider planting a few plants in the garden and a few on the outskirts of the landscape as lures. That way, there will be a little fennel for personal harvest and some reserved for the gorgeous cluster of nearby swallowtails.