Fantastic Fennel

Florence fennel


Foeniculum vulgare

One of my favorite soups in the world is fennel potato soup. So of course I have to grow fennel. Fennel seeds are used to add sweet anise-like flavor to the foods of many regional cuisines and liquors (it yields its flavor to alcohol well). You wouldn’t have good Italian sausage without fennel seed. Try grilling fish over fennel stalks with a few on top with butter. Delicious. Explore fennel; you won’t be disappointed. Fennel leaf is commonly added to sauces and mayonnaise. Fennel is also an ingredient in many kinds of breads and cakes.

Fennel potato soup.

Wild fennel growing on California roadside.

My first personal experience with the fennel plant was in California where it is naturalized all over the place, in empty lots and on the sides of freeways. It is indigenous to the coasts of the Mediterranean where it is a staple. It also plays in one of my favorite stories of all time: in Greek mythology, Prometheus steals fire from Hephaestus using a dried stalk of fennel. Without fire humans would still be wandering around in the dark at the mercy of the elements with no light or warmth, so we owe a lot to this wonderful herb.

You will need to think about exactly how much fennel you want before you grow it. It’s not friendly to many plants save mint, sage and other mint family plants. Once you decide on the importance of fennel, you reserve a spot JUST FOR FENNEL. That is the hardest part. Fennel is easy to germinate and easy to grow. It is a cool season annual in Tucson (planted in fall), but you will need to protect it from the hard frosts we occasionally get. Average garden soil is great with maybe occasional fish emulsion or compost tea (yeah, I know, I often suggest fish emulsion, kelp and compost tea). Give them room and full sun. Some shade is ok, but they tend to get aphids if there is too much shade. They also get lanky and ugly looking. Florence fennel particularly gets big. And pretty. They get an average of 3 feet tall in Tucson. Once you harvest each crop, plant a new succession. You can hook your friends on fennel and trade for some other cool stuff. If you want more of the tender bulb, pile up mulch around the base to blanch more of the stalk.

Florence Fennel is the most important variety (in my book). It produces the delicious bulbs. Many of the other fennels on the market lack this bulb and I am not sure why anyone would grow them since their leaves are no better than Florence fennel leaves. There are some European varieties that are grown for the seed.

Bronze fennel

Bronze Fennel is mostly grown because it is pretty and it is an important host plant for the black swallowtail butterfly.

Franchi Seeds have the best Florence fennel selections. There are many places that sell bronze fennel, but since I have yet to give them a plug, try out the famous White Flower Farms. They have lots of cool stuff.
There is a giant fennel species that was used for birth control back in the day. Like back when the Greeks had crazy sex parties/religious orgies. I guess they had a lot of those parties because the plant is now extinct.
Recipe for braised fennel with Parmesan cheese. The fennel part of the video appears at around 12:05 and continues on a slight Parmesan cheese tangent for a wonderful minute or two (into the next video below).


2 thoughts on “Fantastic Fennel

  1. Another great article! Many thanks. Wondering if you could elaborate how fennel is “not friendly” towards other plants…. I’ve planted fennel in veggie beds in which I rotate crops and am wondering what types of problems this might create in the soil or otherwise.

    • I used to think it was because of how big it gets and how it shades other plants. Nothing ever does well around it. But there is another aspect to companion planting that is under the ground. Many plants release compounds into the soil that encourage conditions favorable to that species. I think most other plants just find those conditions unfavorable. Not a bad way to hold your ground. Don’t worry, it doesn’t last long in the soil, but don’t grow any carrots in that bed the next season. Carrots particularly hate fennel.

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