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Fennel an entirely edible, interesting garden plant

Fennel an entirely edible, interesting garden plant

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One of my daughters e-mailed and asked if I knew anything about fennel. As a matter of fact... I do, even though I don’t grow it anymore. Fennel just does not seem to do well in any of my gardens. Perhaps it’s because fennel enjoys limestone soil and that’s not what I have in my yard. Or perhaps it’s because (this is the real reason) my husband doesn’t like the stuff.

The plant fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is described as umbelliferous. The members of the family Umbelliferae are numerous indeed. Over 400 genera and more than 3,000 species have related, peculiar characteristics. Fennel falls into the genus Foeniculum (meaning “cute hay”).

The name “umbel” refers to the shape of the flower. It looks like an upturned, flat-topped umbrella. Each of the florets has it’s own little stem called a pedicel, coming to a central point like a petit bouquet. I heard another great analogy once, that umbels look like the strings of a parachute. Usually the petals of such flowers are tiny. Fennels happen to be a bright yellow.

The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) is “the law” when it comes to naming plants, along with the International Association for Plant Taxonomy. There has been some controversy regarding the members of the family Umbelliferae. It seems that many botanists insist that the plants actually belong to the family Apiacea. Both family names are acceptable when it comes to fennel. You can find the plant listed in both families, both in books and on the Internet. Politics has even taken over the naming of plants!

The plant is a native to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. It was brought to this country by Spanish monks, to plant in their herbal medicine gardens. It has been grown in this country ever since the 1500s.

Fennel is considered a biennial to some gardeners, an annual to many, and a perennial to others. More controversy, it seems, except fennel is grown differently in diverse zones.

It is hardy to zone 4. It forms a central underground bulb and sends up several (up to five) smooth, hollow stalks with feathery leaves. Fennel is considered a tall plant, sometimes growing five feet in height. The seeds are small and oval-shaped. The umbels do not mature all at the same time.

Multiple harvests (as the fruits/seeds ripen) during a season are necessary. It has been my experience that the first year fennel is planted, it does not seed well, due to it’s biennial nature. The second and subsequent years are better for fruit/seed production (if that’s why you are growing the plant). Note that a mature plant can produce over 100,000 seeds per year.

When grown in (or near) the garden, fennel attracts lady bugs, swallowtail butterflies, and provides food for the larvae and caterpillars. It makes an attractive background plant for herb borders, away from the other herbs.

The seeds can be started indoors and take about two weeks to germinate. Most gardeners and growers plant the fennel seed directly into the ground. The “normal” spacing is drills six inches apart. However, I’ve seen fennel used in intensive gardens much closer than that.

It takes about 90 days to mature. Usually, the bulb is harvested just before flowering. The biggest “pest” problem in fennel seems to be aphids. Perhaps that’s why ladybugs like it so well. The only “competitors” for fennel are weeds. The plants need to be kept weeded and free of grass.

An important thing to take into consideration in planting is to NOT grow fennel near dill or coriander. They’ll cross pollinate and really mix everything up. I can guarantee (from experience) you won’t like the result.

Come to think of it, fennel isn’t a very good companion plant to anything and should be planted kind of off by itself. Since it’s a great repellent for fleas, it might be wise to follow the old adage— “plant fennel by the kennel.”

Unlike it’s cousins coriander, chervil, carrots, yarrow, Queen Anne’s Lace, dill, parsley, and hemlock... The entire plant of fennel, including the flowers, is edible and can be used. Hundreds of recipes are available for the preparation of each part of the plant.

Seeds, stems, stalks, leaves, bulb, roots, flowers... all have valuable food quality. Nutritionally, 1 cup of sliced fennel only has 27 calories. It’s very high in vitamin C, niacin, low in cholesterol, and a good source of potassium and fiber.

The uncrushed seed has a shelf storage life of 1-2 years depending on humidity. Fresh fennel bulbs once picked, require refrigeration. They last from 4-10 days, but it’s best to eat soon after harvest. Do not wash fresh bulbs after picking until you are ready to use them. When you do wash the bulb, cut it in half lengthwise first. You’ll be amazed at how much sand and dirt can be stored in the base.

Fennel stems/leaves, and bulbs can be preserved for later use. Wash, slice or quarter bulbs and briefly blanche. Cool and then freeze in single layers on baking sheets before placing in freezer bags. Raw fennel bulbs and leaves may be pickled and canned for later use.

Fennel stems and leaves can be chopped and dehydrated to add to recipes later. Many cooks preserve most of the parts of fennel in a good olive oil. They layer the fennel in jars and then fill the jar with oil, sealing tightly.

Commercially, fennel is used in the food, flavoring, alcohol, dried and fresh flower, medicinal, and science industries. The top fennel grower in the world is Syria, followed by India, Mexico, and China. In the U.S. fennel is certainly not considered a major crop. California and Arizona produce about half the U.S. fennel grown.

Usually the first questions I get as a Master Gardener regarding fennel are “Can I grow it here?” and “Does it really get rid of gas?” My answers are “Maybe, depending if you’re in Zone 3 or Zone 4.” and “Yes.”

One of the most long-standing uses of fennel is as a carminative. That means, it reduces digestive gases. It has been historically proven to be very effective in aiding indigestion, ridding the body of stomach and intestinal gas, bloating (from food or hormones), intestinal and menstrual cramping, and colic in babies.

The science is fairly simple and straight forward. Another of the properties attributed to fennel include it being used in weight loss, since pre-Roman times. The eating of the leaves, stems, and seeds stimulates digestive fluids which fight hunger.

For over a thousand years, fennel has been used as a deterrent to evil. It was hung over the door lentil on Midsummer’s Eve to prevent witches from overtaking a house. It has been eaten (with fish) during lent for more than two dozen generations, and the seeds used to stave off hunger during fasts.

Fennel is also considered an important women’s herb. For over 2,000 years it’s been used to stimulate milk flow during breast feeding, curb menstrual cramping, and as an emmenagogue. It should not be used medicinally during pregnancy, but is fine if being eaten as a vegetable.

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