Fennel is a versatile vegetable that plays an important role in the food culture of many European nations, especially in France and Italy. Its esteemed reputation dates back to the earliest times and is reflected in its mythological traditions. Greek myths state that fennel was not only closely associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of food and wine, but that a fennel stalk carried the coal that passed down knowledge from the gods to men.
Fennel is composed of a white or pale green bulb from which closely superimposed stalks are arranged. The stalks are topped with feathery green leaves near which flowers grow and produce fennel seeds. The bulb, stalk, leaves and seeds are all edible. Fennel belongs to the Umbellifereae family and is therefore closely related to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander.
Selecting and Buying
The perennial fennel plant ranks high as a condiment. The herb grows yellow flowers with thin, fern-like segmented leaves. The flowers attract butterflies and bees. Fennel reaches maturity in about 80 days. The seeds follow several weeks later. It's hardy and easy to grow.
Purchase fennel seeds from any nursery or home and garden center. Some suppliers offer pre-planted fennel. Follow directions on the label for your zone.
Locate a garden area with full sun exposure and good draining soil after your zone's last frost. Rich deep soil produces tender foliage.
Add a general-purpose fertilizer or mulch if needed to enrich the soil. Read directions for application.
Sow seeds 12 inches apart and cover with quarter inch of soil. For row planting space the rows 3 feet apart.
Water soil with a light spray nozzle setting until shoots appear, usually between 1 and 2 weeks, afterwards water once or twice weekly as needed.
Stake the fennel plants in windy locations when 18 inches tall, some plants reach 3 to 4 feet high.
Mulch 4 inches over the plant for winter protection with evergreen boughs, tree leaves or straw.
Watch for aphids; spray with a water nozzle.
Leave seeds on the seed head for self-propagation. Thin the seedlings in early spring.
Cut away the leaves with scissors or knife anytime after they appear for seasoning salads and meals.
Pick the flower stems before blossoming to eat like celery or remove seeds when the heads begin turning brown for condiments. Leaves taste like anise. Cook the bulb like any vegetable.
Remove mulch in the spring after the plant begins to grow.
Avoid growing fennel near tomatoes, beans and cabbage plants because the fennel interferes with their growth.
Preparation and Use
The three different parts of fennel-the base, stalks and leaves-can all be used in cooking. Cut the stalks away from the bulb at the place where they meet. If you are not going to be using the intact bulb in a recipe, then first cut it in half, remove the base, and then rinse it with water before proceeding to cut it further. Fennel can be cut in a variety of sizes and shapes, depending upon the recipe and your personal preference. The best way to slice it is to do so vertically through the bulb. If your recipe requires chunked, diced or julienned fennel, it is best to first remove the harder core that resides in the center before cutting it. The stalks of the fennel can be used for soups, stocks and stews, while the leaves can be used as an herb seasoning.
Conserving and Storing
Store fresh fennel in the refrigerator crisper, where it should keep fresh for about four days. Yet, it is best to consume fennel soon after purchase since as it ages, it tends to gradually lose its flavor. While fresh fennel can be frozen after first being blanched, it seems to lose much of its flavor during this process. Dried fennel seeds should be stored in an airtight container in a cool and dry location where they will keep for about six months. Storing fennel seeds in the refrigerator will help to keep them fresher longer.