Friday, September 25, 2009

Herb of the week -- Fennel

The herb of the week is Fennel (foeniculum vulgare),

Fennel is unique, in that it has so many different uses.
The bulb is a vegetable, the leaves an herb, and two different spices are derived from Fennel, one from the seeds, and one from the pollen. What a versatile and interesting plant!

I learned that tidbit from Alton Brown, on Iron Chef America, just this week, and I was fascinated.

Fennel is native to the Mediterranean region, but is now cultivated worldwide. It is an aromatic perennial that grows to about five feet in height, ( mine has never got that tall, but that’s what the experts say) It has dark green, feathery leaves, yellow flowers, and small, ridged, oval-shaped seeds. The tall stalk looks like celery and is often consumed as vegetables, while the leaves look like dill. The seeds, which resemble caraway seeds are used to flavor foods. Although the taste and aroma of fennel are sometimes mistaken for anise or licorice, the plant is actually related to caraway.

Fennel was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxtons. We learn, from the Book of Shadows, that the Anglo-Saxtons believed that disease was spread by toxins blowing in the wind. Songs, salt, water, and herbs were trusted means of protection from the flying venom.

There were nine types of evil venom, and nine herbs that would counteract them.

According to a 10th century chant, Fennel conveys longevity, gives strength and curage while its pleasant aroma discourages evil spirits. Fennel in the diet promotes good eyesight and fights obesity.

The word fennel developed from the Latin diminutive of fenum or faenum, meaning "hay".

So, it’s off to the garden we go, to plant some fennel. I say this figuratively of course, since the best time to plant fennel is in April, unless of course you are joining us from New Zealand, in which case, now is the perfect time to start thinking about getting it in the ground! Speaking of New Zealand, be very careful before you plant Fennel. Many places, including parts of Australia and New Zealand have laws against cultivating Fennel, as it is classified as an invasive weed

Fennel will grow in almost any soil as long as it's well-drained, although it will produce more leaves in richer soil. Seedlings do not transplant well, so it is best to plant seeds directly in the soil in late April. Seedlings are delicate and will often bolt from the shock of transplanting. "Bolting" means that instead of forming it's edible part, in the case of Fennel, the ‘bulb’, slowly and nicely, a vegetable plant will send up its flower spike. This is usually brought on by shock to the roots, or a sudden temperature change.

We transplanted ours this year, from some clearanced plants that I bought, and it immediately bolted, but I’m hoping for better results next year.

You should only have to plant it once. Fennel readily reseeds itself and the following year, unwanted seedlings should be removed before developing long tap roots that will be difficult to pull up. Sow in succession 2-3 weeks apart to maintain a continuous harvest of leaves and seeds. I planted it a few years ago, but somehow it got lost in the shuffle, and the next year, I pulled all the seedlings, thinking that they were stray dill that had got too far off course. Now I know better.

If you don’t plan on harvesting seeds, remove flower heads to promote bushier growth. Fennel can be treated like an annual if desired, can be grown as an annual, although the established roots will survive most winters with protection. That’s what the experts say anyway, this will be the first year I attempt to over winter Fennel, so we’ll see what happens next spring. Michigan winters tend to be a bit harder on plants than the wimpy winters one reads about in herb guides.

Fennel seems to be one of those plants that doesn’t play well with others, in fact, one herb guide I checked stated that:
“ Fennel is allelopathic to most garden plants, inhibiting growth, causing to bolt, or actually killing many plants.”

Ok, I had to look it up too.

Allelopathy: al-le-lop-a-thy n. The inhibition of growth in one species of plants by chemicals produced by another species.

I learned a new word today!

I saw two complete opposite positions in my research. Some sources state that Fennel is especially harmful to dill and cilantro, while other sources say that dill is one of the few companion plants that fennel will not harm.

Personally, I keep my dill and my fennel far apart, because the leaves look too much alike and I don’t want to go out and pick the wrong one by mistake.

There seem to be three main types of fennel:
Florence Fennel, a type with a greatly enlarged “bulb” meant for use as a vegetable; Sweet Fennel--a plant grown mainly for its seeds used as a spice, but like Florence Fennel entirely edible; and Common Fennel, a wild plant of little culinary use sometimes called Bitter Fennel.

You may have noticed the quotation marks around “bulb” in describing Florence Fennel. The ball at the base of the plant, while somewhat resembling a bulb, is nothing more than a swollen leaf base. A true bulb grows underground and can be used to propagate new plants. Fennel reproduces from seeds, or from pieces of the root crown. This is the part directly beneath the bulbous leaf base, that grows in the ground.

Florence Fennel is harvested at about 14 weeks. Simply cut off the plant about ¾” above the ground. This will allow for feathery fronds to grow from the root base, and you will get a harvest of leaves later in the season. You will not get another ’bulb’ this year from that root base, but you will get leaves and may get seeds.

Leaves can be harvested at any time. The younger they are the more tender they will be, but also the more delicate the flavor.

If you are growing for seed, let the plant grow until the flowers, or seed heads turn yellow and ripen, then cut them and put them in a paper sack to dry. When completely dry, you can shake the seeds loose.

I would let the seeds dry even longer before storing them, to make sure that they are completely, 100% dry. If they are not, they will mold, and all the work and time and effort it took to get a bottle of fennel seeds will have all been for nothing.

Fennel bulbs can be frozen or pickled, while the leaves are better enjoyed fresh. It is not recommended that you dry them, as they become crumbly and lose most of their flavor.

(I always have to test things like that when I read them though, so I will probably dry some this year, just to see for myself.)

Once you have harvested your fennel, the next step is to figure out what to do with it.

Fennel may be served on it’s own, in a variety of ways:

You can,

Parboil slices, drain and place in a buttered dish. Cover with grated parmesan cheese and bake for 15 minutes in a hot oven.


Parboil the whole bulb for 10 minutes. Remove and cut into thick slices (about 3-4 per bulb lengthways). Brown in butter and garlic until the whole garlic clove takes a little colour. Add a little water, cover and slowly braise, turning a few times until done - about 40 minutes. Keep adding small amounts of water so as not to let it burn. The fennel should be lightly brown - allow the liquid to cook down to a little sauce toward the end of cooking time.


Cut in half lengthwise, cut out core and parboil with a lemon slice for 10 min. Bake in hot oven for 20-25 minutes with a sauce.


Steam or sauté thin slices cooked al dente and serve with a tomato or cheese sauce.

Or try one of these recipes:

Fennel with Ham Casserole

Cook ½ lb fettucine
Parboil 1 large fennel bulb as described above.

½ lb ham (thinly sliced)
½ lb Gruyere Cheese (grated) (any good Swiss cheese will work)
¾ c cream
1 Egg

Butter a rectangular baking dish, layer half the noodles, then the fennel, the ham then the cheese. Repeat, ending with the cheese. Mix the cream with the egg and season with salt and white pepper. Pour over the casserole and bake for 30 minutes.

Pickled Fennel

3 lb Fennel (about 9 bulbs)
1 md Orange
2 c White Vinegar
5 T Salt
2 T Sugar
6 Whole pieces Star Anise

Wash fennel and cut away any bruises or bad spots; trim ends and slice into very thin rings. Cut three 1-inch-wide strips of peel from the orange. Remove any pith from peel.
Bring 1 1/2 C water, the vinegar, salt, and sugar to a boil in a large pot.
Meanwhile, fill 3 pint jars halfway with fennel. Place 1 piece of orange rind and 2 pieces star anise on top of fennel. Fill jar with remaining fennel, using the back of a clean spoon to pack it down. Leave 1/4 inch of space beneath the rim.
Pour hot liquid over fennel, covering it by 1/4 inch and leaving 1/2 inch of space beneath the rim of each jar. Place lids on jars and let stand until cool. Store in refrigerator; serve within 3 to 5 days.

Fennel and Tomato Gratin

3 large bulbs fennel, sliced
1 clove garlic, sliced
2 large tomatoes, sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup stock made from Marigold Bouillon
1 slice bread
1tbsp finely grated parmesan.

Warm the oil in a shallow pan and arrange the sliced fennel in one layer. Cover and leave 10 minutes before adding the garlic. Stir gently, then rearrange the fennel and cover with a layer of tomatoes. Season and pour over the stock, then cover the pan and simmer on the lowest heat for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, chop the bread into pieces smaller than sugar cubes, grate the parmesan, and combine.
Now tip the fennel and tomato mixture into a baking dish, cover with bread mixture, and bake in a medium oven (160 degrees C) for 20 minutes.

Fennel is a source of Calcium, Potassium, Magnesium, Niacin, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Copper, Vitamin C.

Fennel is used medicinally for treatment of flatulence, colic, urinary disorders, and constipation, as well as an eye bath or a compress to reduce inflammation.

Recent research indicates that fennel also reduces the effects of alcohol, and chewing it sweetens the breath. Fusions using the seeds and roots help strengthen the digestion, treat ulcers, and suppress the appetite. However, excessive doses of the oil should not be taken, nor should it be given to pregnant women.

Although the root is sometimes used medicinally, it is not as effective as the seeds. Fennel seed extracts have proven to calm muscle spasms by reducing smooth muscle contractions.

Studies indicate that substances in fennel can reduce airway congestion by thinning and loosening phlegm, which tends to support the addition of fennel in numerous European cough remedies.

An infusion from the seeds makes a good gargle for sore throats or used as a mild expectorant.

A syrup made from an infusion is given for colic and teething pain in babies.

A decoction from the seeds is used in Chinese medicine to relieve abdominal pains, colic, and stomach chills.

Mouthwash and gargles are made from infusions for gum disorders, loose teeth, laryngitis, and sore throats.

Chest rubs are made from the essential oil and combined with eucalyptus and a neutral oil for upper respiratory congestion.

Decoctions from the roots are prescribed for such urinary problems as kidney stones or such disorders associated with high uric acid content as gout.

Fennel also is rich in folklore and in magic, both ancient and modern.

The Greek God Prometheus (from whom Prometheus the Dragon took his name) went to Mt. Olympus and stole fire from Zeus and hid the fire in a giant fennel stalk and brought it down and gave fire to humankind. Later Zeus got very angry at Prometheus for sharing knowledge with humanity and punished him.

Used in cooking, Fennel is said to bring protection to your dinner guests.

Traditionally Fennel is gathered on midsummer's eve and hung in the home for protection. Fennel is hung above doors and windows to protect your home from evil spirits, sorcerers, and from evil spirits from entering into the house. Fennel seeds are placed in keyholes to keep ghosts from coming into the building.

Wearing a piece of Fennel in the left shoe is said to prevent wood ticks from biting your legs. Fennel is also hung up at windows and doors to ward off evil spirits, and the seeds are carried for the same reason. Fennel is used in purification sachets, as well as healing mixtures.

Fennel is still a relatively new addition to our garden. We grew it once before, with limited success, and added it this year, but not understanding how to do it, and it immediately bolted.

I am hoping that armed with this newfound information, Fennel can become a regular part of our garden in the future.

This post is linked to The Food Renegade ~ Fight Back Fridays, where they invite posts from people who are interested in 'SOLE' food. (Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethnic). You can find a collection of recipes, tips, anecdotes and testimonies


  1. I'm not a big fan of fennel, it's ok. It is usually to expensive to buy, but growing it would be a good idea. I'm having fun looking at some of the medicinal herbs and fennel is one of them. Linda

  2. To be honest Linda, I haven't used it a lot myself. I've used the seeds much more than I have the plants, but I'm always looking to try new things.

  3. Troy,
    Wow you knpw I've never even tasted fennel -Somehow you've made me want to go buy some! Not sure if I want to grow it in my small herb garden-that doesn't sound like a good idea.
    But you've listed so many good uses for it I've got to try it

  4. I grew fennel years ago, but didn't really know what to do with it. Wish your blog was around then, but people didn't even have computers then!


  5. We LOVE fennel. I use the seeds heavily in cooking - I like them in mulled wine in particular and we cherish the bulb too. It's fantastic braised and mixed with basil.

  6. I love fennel! Something else about fennel is that it is a galactagogue, meaning it helps to promote the milk ejection reflex. So its great for mother and baby.

  7. Troy,
    I guess you are always wondering stuff --look at how much research you do for these herbs!

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