Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is an aromatic plant in the carrot family (Apiaceae). While it’s native to Southern Europe, it has naturalized elsewhere around the globe and can be found growing wild in places like Northern Europe, North America and Australia. In some places it’s even considered a noxious weed.
FENNEL IN HISTORY
Fennel’s long history dates back millennia. Ancient cultures from Egypt to China to Greece used it for both culinary, medicinal, and even magical purposes. In China, it was used to treat snake bites. Pliny the Elder (a Roman naturalist) believed that serpents ate fennel to improve their eyesight after shedding their skin and later ascribed fennel as a treatment to several ailments. In the Greek myth Theogony, Prometheus stole back fire from Zeus with a fennel stalk and restored its use for humanity (which angered Zeus further and resulted in his immortal torture). And in the Middle Ages, fennel was hung over doorways with St. Johns Wort to repel witchcraft and evil spirits.
FENNEL IN THE GARDEN
Fennel is intertwined in human history, but it’s also intertwined in ecological webs as well. It’s flowering umbels attract honeybees, bumblebees, wasps and hoverflies. It’s also a beloved host for Lepidoptera larvae (moths and butterflies), including the Eastern Black Swallowtail.
Unfortunately, in the garden it can be a troublesome companion. Fennel is allelopathic, meaning it exudes phytochemicals that inhibit the growth of nearby plants. On Smoot’s Flavor Farm, our fennel patch is in the far southwest corner of our herb beds, so it only has to neighbor 1-2 other plant species, which has worked for us. It’s also situated adjacent to our pollinator buffer in the hopes of hosting some hungry larvae! We haven’t seen any butterfly or moth eggs on them yet, but we’re patiently waiting! In the meantime, there are always pollinators buzzing around.
FENNEL IN THE KITCHEN
Fennel is most often grown for its bulb–a white, licorice-y flavored vegetable that’s delicious roasted, braised, cooked with chicken or mixed into quiches. But fennel’s fine, feathery leaves, its seeds and even its pollen are edible as well. In fact, fennel pollen is one of the most valuable spices in gourmet kitchens these days.
On Smoot’s Flavor Farm, we grow a variety called Sweet Fennel (F. vulgare var. dulce) , which doesn’t produce a large bulb and instead has been bred for seed production. This tall variety–reaching 6+ feet in height–produces long, plump seeds that have a sweet anise flavor, which we harvest for teas and spice blends. They’re a common ingredient in cuisines around the globe, from India to Iran to Italy. You’ll find it in garam masala, panch phoron, five-spice powder and many Italian sausage spice blends to name a few. They’re also a great addition to rye breads, pickles and sauerkraut.
A perk of growing Sweet Fennel is its prolific leaf production too. Less pungent than the bulb, fennel frond serves our customers as a delightful herb, fit to flavor any number of dishes. They’re delicious in pesto and salsa, vegetable stock and salad dressings, pastas and even yogurt dips. Make a bed of fennel fronds and lemon slices in a piece of aluminum foil to bake your fish filets. Check out our blog for some fennel recipes like this herbed Ratatouille.
Did you know fennel is considered a digestive aid, freshening breath and acting as a carminative (helping to relieve gas and bloating). Perhaps you’ve noticed bowls of candied fennel seeds at the entrances of Indian restaurants? Chewing on a few fennel seeds after a meal can ease digestion.
HOW TO COOK WITH FENNEL FRONDS
To prepare fennel fronds, rinse under cool water and pat dry. Remove any large, tough stems and chop the leaves as coarse or fine as desired.
BEST FLAVOR PAIRINGS:
- Lemon and Orange