Herb Profiles: Fennel

Fresh Fennel Growing in Herb Garden

Fresh Fennel

Fresh Fennel

INTRODUCTION: Fennel refers to the seeds, the celery-like stalks and the leaves of the herb plant.  The plants were found growing wild in the central Mediterranean region.  As with most of the modern-day herbs they were introduced to most of the temperate growing zones over time.

HISTORICAL FACTS: Ancient roman texts mention the value of this herb for its aromatic seeds and succulent edible stalks. The ruler Charlemagne (745-815 AD) promoted fennel’s use during the medieval time. He cultivated the herb on his imperial farms.  Romans introduced the herb to Britain during the Roman occupation. The Americas were introduced to the herb in the 1700’s.  Fennel is grown in France, Germany, Italy, India, Japan and America.  The root of the plant was one of the flavorings used in Sack, an alcoholic drink featuring mead that was popular during Shakespearian times.

HORTICULTURAL FACTS: Fennel can grow to a height of 5 feet.  It puts off shoots or branching stems from a central root. The herb is an annual, perennial or biennial depending on your growing zone. Usually one plant will supply the average family. There are several species:  Common fennel which has a similar appearance as dill, but much coarser in texture. Florence fennel grows much lower and is cultivated for the bulb-like base, which is harvested prior to the flowers forming. The bulb is eaten as a vegetable.  Sweet fennel is primarily grown in Italy, France and Germany.  White butter fennel is grown in central Europe and Russia.

GROWING GUIDELINES:  The herb prefers a light well drained soil.  Plant in full sun. Propagation is by seeds sown in early spring once the danger of frost is past.  It does not transplant well.  You can find fennel used for its seeds or leaves in almost all tropical climates with high humidity.

FLOWERING FACTS: It produces tiny yellow flowers emanating from flat umbrella-shaped tops.

Fennel Culinary Uses

CULINARY FACTS: Fennel seeds are a staple flavoring agent for baked goods such as cookies, bread and cakes.  Use the leaves in salads.  Sauté and roast the stems and leaves as a delicate vegetable dish. Fresh or dried leaves, if finely chopped, become a very good addition to meat and fish dishes. Also use the herb in spicy meat mixtures and sausages. The feathery fennel leaves have a milder taste than the seeds.  Use them in fresh salads, soups and vegetables.  It is particularly good with pork recipes, fish and stronger game dishes like wild boar.  Salads, soups and vinaigrette sauces are improved with the finely chopped leaves.  Use the seeds to flavor fish, cheese, vegetables and pastries.  Italian cookery utilizes the fennel flavor in many classic recipes.

HARVESTING TIPS: Leaves can be frozen just prior to the plants flowering. The seeds can be dried and stored in airtight jars.  Florence fennel stems should be harvested and eaten raw or cooked as a side dish.

FLAVOR: Pleasant sweet anise or licorice flavor.  It resembles anise seed.  Bitter fennel has a distinctly different flavor.  The herb is used in many recipes when an anise flavor is desired but without the anise sweetness.


Fennel Medicinal Uses

MEDICINAL FACTS: Used as a gripe water given to colicky infants. It is used to relieve bronchial spasms because of its antispasmodic properties.  It targets the smooth muscles of the respiratory system, stomach muscles and intestines. Herbalists have used it for centuries to induce milk production in nursing mothers.