Jane McLeod: Fennel has case of mistaken identity


— In all categories - appearance, cultivation, medicinal properties, culinary - but taste, fennel, or Foeniculum vulgare, closely resembles dill and is often mistaken for it. It, too, is stately and graceful with finely divided feathery green leaves, grows on tall hollow stalks, produces clusters of tiny yellow umbel flowers and finishes the cycle with aromatic brown seeds. But it is fennel's taste, that sweet anise or licorice flavor, that is altogether different.

Fennel is a native of the Mediterranean shores and quickly became naturalized wherever it was taken - eastwards to India, west all across Europe and Britain, and eventually to America in the 18th century by Spanish priests. It was valued by the Romans, who thought it smelled like fresh-cut hay.Thus, the Latin name of Foeniculum, "foenum" meaning hay. In the Middle Ages, this became fanculum, then fenkel and finally fennel. It is one of our oldest cultivated plants and is mentioned in the writings of ancient civilizations. Hippocrates used it medicinally, and the Emperor Charlemagne ordered its cultivation in all the imperial herb gardens of Europe. Edward I of England even used 8 1/2 pounds of fennel seed for his household in one month. Today fennel has wide commercial value and is cultivated across Europe and Asia for its seed.

We can grow fennel for the culinary use of its leaves and seeds as well, but more popular is the variety Florence fennel (F.vulgare var. azoricum) often called finocchio, which is grown in Europe extensively as a vegetable. It has an edible anise-flavored bulb (also available in the produce section) at the base of the stalk, which is eaten raw or cooked. It is not really a bulb or root that is harvested but rather the bulb-like swelling at the base of the stalk formed by inflated leaf bases.

Fennel is a perennial, hardy to zone 7, but here we need to grow it as an annual and cosset it at that. Although 80-plus days are needed for maturity, you do not have to pull it up in advance of the first mild frosts and can let it continue to grow until the bulb reaches, hopefully, tennis ball size. Fennel will thrive in almost any soil and does best in a sunny spot protected from strong wind. Unfortunately, fennel is not a good companion plant in the garden and, according to some experts, should not even be grown close to any other plant - especially members of its own umbrellifrae family (a large one) - that ferny-topped family containing for example dill, parsley, coriander, cumin and carrots. Fennel inhibits growth of most plants, especially tomatoes and beans, cross-pollinates heavily with useless results and shouldn't be wedged between your tomatoes and carrots (which I unfortunately have done). Instead, it should be tucked in a far corner of the garden.

So, with a reputation as an inhospitable neighbor but one with a heavenly taste, a gardener needs a sense of adventure to grow this herb. Despite some fuss and bother, once you have introduced fresh fennel into the kitchen, you will find it worth your while.


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