(Foeniculum vulgare – Umbelliferae / Apiaceae)
Fennel resembles its close relative dill in appearance. The 1/8″ long, oval, greenish-gray fruit (“seed”) of Common Fennel taste similar to anise and are used to flavor breads, pastries, soups, sausages, fish, sweet pickles, and other foods. The soft thread-like feathery leaves and the stems, which also have an anise-like flavor, are used as a garnish, added to flavor salads and are chopped fine to be added in sauces.
Other varieties and cultivars of fennel include ‘Purpureum’ and ‘Rubrum’ which have foliage that is coppery or purplish-bronze in color, and Foeniculum vulgare dulce ‘Azoricum’ which is known as Finocchio and by many common names such as Sweet Fennel, Roman Fennel, and French Fennel. Finocchio can be found with various spellings, such as Finnochio, Finochio, and Finoccio. Finocchio is eaten more as a vegetable in that the bulbous stalks are consumed much like celery.
In past times, the seeds were believed to act as a weight-loss aid by speeding up the body’s metabolism. It has also historically been used as an anti-flatulent and appetite depressant.
In India, fennel seeds are often used in combination with anise seeds, coconut, and sesame seeds, sugar, and essential oils and served after meals to be chewed in order to soothe digestion and freshen the breath. These mouth fresheners and digestive aids are referred to as mukhwas.
“…the seeds alone can be chewed and will freshen the breath and act as an antiflatulent.” –The Helix Herbal Album
Fennel is claimed to be a galactagogue which acts to stimulate breast milk production, however mothers using it in this way should seek the guidance of a physician.
Common Fennel is considered to be an easy to grow perennial, growing 3 to 4 feet in height with a spread of 18 to 24 inches. The seed stalk can reach much greater heights.
Plant in the early to late spring, choosing a sunny spot that gets at least six full hours of sun a day. Fennel is best planted by itself, away from other herbs and vegetables.
To direct seed, place seed 1/4″ deep in rows 12″ apart. When seedlings reach 2″, thin to about 18″ apart. For a continual supply, stagger sowings about every 10 days.
Propagation can also be done by root division, in early spring or fall, and should be done every three years.
Fennel self-seeds freely, so be sure to gather all seeds if you wish to prevent. (Common Fennel is listed as a noxious weed in some areas.)
Soil should be rich and well-drained. One part sand to two parts compost or composted cow manure is good.
Fennel is tough and will grow in dryer spots. Water about once a week as a general rule, more if needed during hot and dry spells.
“Fertilizer is seldom needed. To keep plants producing tender leaves, cut them back to the ground when they begin going to seed and water them well once or twice a week.” –Growing Herbs
Fennel can also be grown in large containers, and can be successfully grown indoors if given enough light.
Fennel should be cut back for winter and will overwinter in the milder climates. Mulch in zones 5 and 6. Climates with harsher winters should consider fennel an annual.
Pests include aphids, which can usually be removed with insecticidal or horticultural soaps.
If permitted to flower, the flowers will attract beneficial insects such as tachinid flies (Tachinidae family), flower flies aka hover flies (Allograpta obliqua – Syrphidae), and parasitic wasps which can help to control pests. (Editor note: Fascinating aside – article in ScienceDaily “Parasitic Wasps Protect Offspring By Avoiding The Smelly Feet Of Ladybirds”.)
When growing Sweet Fennel, which is primarily grown for its bulbous stalks, keep the base covered with soil when it reaches about 1 1/2″ to 2″ in diameter.
Sweet Fennel is especially attractive to the caterpillar that eventually grows into the Anise Swallowtail, Papilio zelicaon, a common swallowtail butterfly of western North America.
The leaves and stems should be used fresh, harvesting when young as needed.
The seeds/fruits should be harvested when light brown in color before they drop. To dry the seeds, place seed heads in a paper bag for about two weeks, gather the seeds, and store them in an airtight container.
Sweet Fennel is harvested when the base reaches about 4″ in diameter.
Fennel seed is used as a spice to flavor fish, duck, lamb, potatoes, breads, pastries, cookies, soups, stews, sausages, and sweet pickles. The leaves and stems are used with pork, veal, and fish, as well as in salads and soups. They can also be minced and added to sauces, fish stock, stuffings, and dressings. The stems and leaves are also used as a garnish.
“Leaf bases, especially of the variety azoricum, have a delicate anise flavor and are eaten raw in salads (as cartucci in Italy) or cooked as a vegetable. Fennel also gives the characteristic flavor to finocciona, an Italian salami, and the French liqueur, fenouillette. Bruised or crushed seeds are infused as a pleasant tea.” –Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses
Fennel seeds are sometimes used in French herbs de Provence, in combination with other herbs.
Fennel seed is one of five seeds used in Panch Phoron, which is an East Indian spice blend sometimes called Bengali Five Spice that is used for flavoring seafood, vegetables (especially potatoes), and lentil dishes. Fennel seeds are also sometimes present in Chinese Five Spice Powder, which is used in most recipes for Cantonese roasted duck, as well as beef stew. as a spice rub on your favorite meats like chicken, pork, beef or seafood. Ginger is sometimes used in place of the fennel seeds.
Fennel seeds are sometimes included in chai recipes, the spicy milk tea beverage.
“Fennel seed is unparalled at relieving intestinal gas. Try making a tea using two teaspoons of lightly crushed fennel seed steeped, covered, in one cup of hot water for ten minutes, then strained.” –the good Herb
Sweet Fennel is prepared as celery and can be added minced or raw to fish sautés and to salads. It can also be served as a side dish by slicing and sautéing it with garlic and olive oil.
Other uses: Fennel is used by some in facial creams and skin care. Dried seedheads are sometimes used in wreaths and bouquets.
See also: fennel essential oil
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