In all categories — appearance, cultivation, medicinal properties, culinary — but taste, fennel (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: east to India, west across Europe and Britain and eventually America in the 18th century, introduced by Spanish priests. It was valued by the Romans who thought it smelled like fresh-cut hay and 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 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 eighty 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 — that ferny-topped family containing dill, parsley, coriander, cumin and carrots. Fennel inhibits growth of most plants, especially tomatoes and beans and cross-pollinates heavily with useless results. It shouldn’t be wedged between your tomatoes and carrots (which I unfortunately have done) and instead 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.
Jane McLeod is a master gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.