I grow fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, in my Virginia garden for many reasons. First of all, it is easy to grow from seed. In the garden, the plants can be showstoppers at five feet tall but 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 peak 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, star-burst like structures, comprising many small yellow flowers. These attract beneficial insects and pollinators. Sometimes, I clip the flower heads for floral arrangements but I always let some flowers go to seed. The flowers are edible and make a pretty garnish.
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. Seeds can be used as a spice for baking sweets, breads, and crackers, or in sausage, or herbal vinegars and pickling. The seeds have the same anise flavor but very sweet as if they were sugar-coated. For me it is like eating small candies, especially tasty after drinking coffee.
I also 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, 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 need well-drained soil. Treat them like summer annuals and sow seeds every year.
I should point out that there are two types, 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
- soup 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