The herb fennel, sometimes referred to as leaf fennel, (Foeniculum vulgare) is a biennial that behaves as a perennial where growing conditions are favorable. In my zone 7 garden, fennel winters over and faithfully reappears, showing green fronds in early spring. In southern climes and also the Mediterranean region it grows with reckless abandon and some might even consider it to be an invasive. In the fall, in cold, northern climates, the tap roots need to be dug leaving a few inches of stem, wintered over in a coldframe or root cellar, and then put out again in spring. On the average, fennel plants grow to be four to six feet tall, although I have seen them as tall as seven to eight-feet, with large yellow umbels of flowers. These flowers produce fennel seed, which is a popular seed/spice used in many cuisines. Attractive bronze-leaved fennel (F. var. vulgare ‘Rubrum’) also bears yellow flowers which can be eaten. Even though these plants are grown for their foliage, their roots are edible.
Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum) is the variety grown chiefly for vegetable consumption. It is a bulb-like vegetable with hollow stalks, crunchy like celery, only with a sweet anise/licorice flavor. I find it is often mislabeled in groceries and called anise. I have grown my own here in Maryland, as well as in Italy, and my bulbs never got quite as large as the big round ones in the grocery and farmers’ markets. I use the bulb and the greens, both fresh and cooked. It is delicious cut into slices or julienne and eaten as a raw vegetable, used as a crudite, and added to salads. When cooked, I find the flavor to become milder, though still distinctly fennel-tasting. It is good simply sautéed, oven roasted, grilled and in soup and ragouts.
Besides being high in fiber, fennel is fairly high in vitamin C, and contains vitamin B3, calcium, folate, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. Fennel seed has a reputation for its soothing characteristic for the digestive tract; it is also believed to help relieve indigestion and gas.
Thel seed should be soaked for a few days to speed germination. It can be direct seeded into loamy garden soil in spring through early summer, and again in early fall, depending upon where you live. Make rows about 18-inches apart and thin seedlings to 6-inches apart in the rows. Once the bulb swells, it can be harvested for culinary use; generally about 80 days until harvest. ‘Zefa Fino’ is a popular bolt-resistant variety. All fennel plants attract the swallowtail butterfly–particularly the anise swallowtail–so be sure to grow some extra plants for them.
In my recent gather-greens-before-the-freeze foray to Sharp Farm, I had the great fortune to harvest some lovely small fennel bulbs, which I prepared and enjoyed: Braised Fennel. Try this simple and delicious recipe while the fennel bulbs are still available.