Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a lovely perennial herb popular in both culinary and medicinal use. The feathery leaves and small yellow flowers make a beautiful ornamental and a flavorful, aromatic garnish to meals.
But what the fennel plant is? If you want to find out more about the fennel plant, you’re on the right page. Keep reading, and you’ll find out all about these hardy herbs.
Fennel is a flowering plant from the Apiaceae family. Native to southern Europe and Asia Minor, today it’s cultivated in most of the world’s temperate regions. And perhaps one of the reasons is because its shoots, leaves, fruit, and seeds are all edible.
This versatile plant is used in many ways in different cultures across the world. Dried fennel fruit is a popular spice, brown or green when fresh and greyish when dried. The feathery leaves and flowers make an aromatic garnish. The shoots and inflated bulbs at the foliage base can be cooked and served as a vegetable. Fennel oil and seeds are a common ingredient in herbal medicines and are also used as a flavoring agent.
|Botanical Name||Foeniculum Vulgare|
|Plant Type||A Perennial But Grown As An Annual In Colder Climates|
|Size (Fully Grown)||5 Feet (About 1,5 Meters) Tall|
|Sun Exposure||Full Sun|
|Soil Type||A Soil That Drains Well And Is Rich In Nutrients|
|Soil pH||From 5.5 To 6.8|
|U.S. Hardiness Zones||2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, And 10|
|Native Area||Southern Europe And Asia Minor|
How Many Types Of Fennel Are There?
There are two broad classifications of the species: the common fennel and Florence fennel.
Common Fennel (Foeniculum Vulgare)
Common fennel or herb fennel can reach a height of up to 3 to 5 feet (about 0,91 to 1,5 meters) with several branches and thin leaves that look very much like dill. Yellow flower clusters appear in summers, which are harvested simultaneously as the leaves and seeds. Varieties include:
- Sweet Fennel
Florence Fennel (Foeniculum Vulgare Var. Dulce)
Florence fennel is a variety of Foeniculum vulgare that’s shorter than the common fennel, and it reaches a height of only 2 to 3 feet (about 61 to 91 cm).
It’s used as a bulb vegetable rather than a herb. This variety is cultivated for its thick, fleshy stalk, likemilar to celery in its texture. The feathery leaves are also edible and are harvested with the stalk. You can use the vegetable in salads or sandwiches or even cook them. Varieties include:
- Zefa Fino
Where Did Fennel Come From?
Like most other herbs, fennel has a long history of medicinal, culinary, and even magical uses. Because the plant is native to the Mediterranean region, we can trace the fennel’s use back to ancient Greek and Roman times.
Pliny the Elder, the Roman author of the encyclopedia Naturalis Historia, believed fennel was powerful enough to treat 22 different medical conditions. The ancient Chinese also used the plant as a remedy for snake bites, while it was also popular among ancient Egyptians in food and medicine.
During the middle ages, fennel stalks were hung over doors to ward off evil spirits, and the seeds were inserted in keyholes to protect the home from ghosts, especially on Midsummer’s Eve.
The botanical name “Foeniculum” is a Latin word, meaning “little hay,” which describes its feathery foliage. It also highlights the ancient tradition of feeding fennel to goats to improve milk quality and yield.
The Spanish missionaries who came to settle in North America introduced this versatile herb/veggie to the western world. Then came the English settlers who brought fennel with them to the New England colonies. Believe me or not, but the plant still grows in these locations where the early English settlers first planted it.
Today, fennel is extensively cultivated in most temperate regions throughout the world, especially near sea coasts and riverbanks, for its ornamental, culinary, and medicinal uses.
How To Recognize Fennel?
Fennel is an upright perennial plant that can grow 2 to 5 feet (about 0,61 to 1,52 meters) high, depending on the variety. It’s a beautiful plant with a thick, bulb-like stem base, 4 to 5 blanched shoots, and feathery foliage.
Additionally, dense clusters of yellow blooms appearing in late summers will brighten up your garden. From the fleshy stem base to the fruits and seeds, all the fennel plant parts are edible.
Florence fennel has a bulb-like, white base, similar to celery stalk. The bulb base divides into 4 to 5 hollow, cylindrical, erect stems, and they are smooth, bright green, and heavily branched. We use the heavy and firm bulbs and hollow stems the same way as celery.
The plant produces a thick, feathery bright green foliage. The linear leaves grow to 0,8 to 6 inches (2 to 15 cm), and those leaves resemble dill a lot. The leaves are also edible, which means that you can regularly trim them and get new flavors to your dishes.
Flat umbels appear on the branches in the flowering season, bearing clusters of tiny yellow flowers. Each umbel has a diameter of approximately 8 inches (about 20 cm) that carry up to 20 to 50 blooms.
The plant usually blooms between July and August in most climates, making it a beautiful ornamental for your garden. The flowers aren’t just beautiful to look at, but they also make a bright and flavorful garnish to your meals.
The plant produces small, dry, aromatic fruits with longitudinal ridges that are greenish-brown to yellowish-brown in color. The entire fruit is often mistakenly called the seed, though the seed is attached to the pericarp. The seeds contain 3 to 4% essential oil and are dried to use as a spice.
What Kind Of Growing Conditions Are Best For Fennel?
Fennel is an easy-to-grow perennial that makes an excellent addition to your kitchen garden. The tall, fresh green foliage and bright yellow flowers in summertime also make it one of the favorite border plants in landscaping.
Once established, the plant won’t need much care and will readily re-seed to spread vigorously. If you’re planning to grow fennel in your garden, here’s what you need to know:
As long as you’re growing it in zones 4 to 9, fennel can tolerate most climatic conditions and will grow as a short-lived perennial. In zones below 4, you can still grow them but only as a biennial or an annual.
Though the plant can tolerate some heat and frost, the fennel does best when it gets a cool climate until it reaches maturity. You can sow the fennel seeds as long as you can work the soil.
You can also pre-grow them indoors a bit earlier, under grow lights. Once the seedlings have sprouted, harden them off before transplanting them into the garden.
Soil And Sun
Choose a full sun spot since shady conditions will cause leggy growth. A well-drained garden bed rich in organic matter, which is slightly on the acidic side (pH 5.5 to 6.8), is best for fennel. You could also amend the garden soil with well-aged compost before planting the seeds.
Water And Fertilizing
Deep and regular watering is required, at least until the plants are established. When growing fennel to harvest the bulb, as is the case with the Florence fennel variety, make sure you give them plenty of water to get plump, flavorful bulbs. But always avoid overwatering, or the plants could rot.
An occasional dose of mild organic fertilizer will help you keep the plants healthy. For the bulb varieties, you can also lightly fertilize when you see the base swelling up.
Is It Safe To Eat / Consume Fennel?
The fennel plant, together with its seeds and foliage, offers plenty of health benefits. It is used as a herbal medicine for relief from several ailments since ancient times. Let’s see if its use can cause any problems in certain conditions.
Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women
There isn’t much information if fennel is safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women, but we know that moderate food amounts are entirely safe.
It’s still important to remember that even though eating fennel bulbs or seeds in average food amounts is safe, drinking fennel tea contains A LOT of seeds, so try to stay away from that.
Additionally, medicinal amounts like essential oils are also in the no-go zone! But before you jump to any conclusions and use our advice, ask your doctor to make sure what kind of foods you can and can’t eat!
Fennel is a herbal treatment for children experiencing colic pains. It’s safe as long as offered in suitable amounts for up to a week.
People With Allergies
If you’re allergic to celery, carrot, or mugwort, there are chances that you’ll also be allergic to fennel, so be careful.
People With Diabetes
Fennel is rich in Vitamin C and can lower blood sugar levels. Fennel is healthy for people with diabetes if consumed in safe amounts, and best of all, it also prevents the risks of type 2 diabetes.
The fennel plant is not toxic to your pets. But, beware of similar-looking poisonous plants from the Apiaceae family, such as poison hemlock.
Featured image credit – © Fossiant – stock.adobe.com