Fennel, known in Italian as finocchio, is a plant of Mediterranean origin that gives us a piquancy for the kitchen and a graceful plant for our garden.
I love the Greek myth about how Prometheus stole fire from the gods and carried the fiery coals to mankind in fennel stalks. This makes sense as fennel stalks can grow very tall, and they have funnel shaped forms at the tops that can easily carry hold things.
By now, fennel has naturalized itself in many parts of the world. We see it growing by roads and in meadows in much of California. This wild fennel is Foeniculum vulgaris dulce, and its feathery leaves and seeds are very tasty. I never pass up an opportunity to pick blossoms, leaves, or seeds for the table.
Some think the wild fennel tastes too harsh, but it is exactly this feral quality that gives it such character. What a delight to nibble its tiny yellow flowers. Others call the yellow flower heads anise because it tastes like anisette (Artemisa absinthemum) once used to make absinthe.
The fennel sold in the grocery and used in salads. This is Florence fennel or Foeniculum azoricum. Florence fennel is easily grown in our gardens, the wild does not take kindly to over civilized gardening. But, you might get a few plants of the wild to grow if you negligently scatter lots of the seeds.
First and foremost, Florence fennel grows lussureggiante in our gardens if a few conditions are given for its liking. It must be grown in loamy, compost laden earth (old well cared for earth) and in a sunny location. Fennel seedlings transplant badly; seeds have to be sown where you want them to mature. In our California climes of mild winters, sow the seeds in early spring or autumn. The latter grows quickly if the gift of rain comes.
Provide a thick mulch and the plants will thrive. I use grass clippings gotten from the neighborhood gardeners. They are only too happy to save a trip to the landfill. Fennel needs lots of nitrogen because most of it is leafage, so fertilize regularly, every two weeks with fish emulsion at 2-3 tablespoons per gallon of water.
In general, fennel does not have very many pests, but occasionally black and yellow stripped caterpillars appear—the larvae of those lovely Monarch butterflies. I welcome them as they do little harm.
There is a vigorous fennel called “Bronze”. It shows its lovely head among the perennial plantings. It leaves and seeds are cooking specialties.Fennel likes to hob-nob with dill.
Both plants looks so similar, and the bees jubilate in “going back and forth” among blossoms creating hybrids. I cannot say which is which, but again, I let them stay. Both the “vulgar” and Florence fennel have their niches.
Florence is delicious sliced and served cold with oil and vinegar. The wild fennel is more piquant as in pasta con sardi. Justice Antonine Scalia told Piers Morgan on TV that con sardi was his favorite pasta, “You know, the condiment that comes in those pretty yellow cans, if you don’t make it from scratch yourself.”